A little over a year ago, it was announced by the Scottish Rugby Union’s Chief Executive, Mark Dodson, that the governing body would seek to recruit overseas-based talent, in an attempt to tackle the mammoth task that was reversing the failing fortunes of the national team. As well as searching for Scottish-qualified players, the new initiative aimed to entice uncapped foreign pros into signing for either Edinburgh or Glasgow Warriors. Under IRB residency law (allowing players to represent a nation after residing there for three years), these newcomers – termed “project players” – would become eligible to wear the thistle after spending three years in the country.
After another disastrous Six Nations campaign, Scotland were struggling, succumbing to a bottom-two finish in the tournament with alarming regularity. Dodson announced that an extra £1.2m would be allocated to the pro teams’ recruitment budgets, with a view to increasing the quality in both the domestic and national set-ups, while encouraging more young Scots to reach the top level through increased squad competition.
Sean Lineen took up a “scouting” role at the forefront of the directive, tracking and overseeing the signings of South Africans WP Nel, Izak Van der Westhuizen and Josh Strauss, and Englisman Perry-John Parker. These four and others were accompanied by a number of accomplished but unheralded Scottish-qualified individuals. The likes of full-back Greig Tonks and second-row Tim Swinson, already eligible to play for Scotland through family ties, have since won their international debuts.
Then, there was the case of exciting Kiwi Sean Maitland, whose Glaswegian grandparents enable him to represent the national team, despite having been picked for New Zealand’s Under 19 and Under 20 sides, and New Zealand Maori.
This smattering of overseas acquisitions did add value and boost the ranks of Edinburgh and Glasgow last season. In recent weeks, however, the slow and steady drip of overseas recruits has burst into something of a raging torrent. The likes of Ollie Atkins, Grayson Hart, James Hilterbrand and Tyrone Holmes have joined Scottish rosters from several Southern Hemisphere franchises. All of these players are Scottish-qualified thanks to parents or grandparents, and for all of them, the potential to play test match rugby has played a sizeable role in their decision to sign up.
Certainly, were it not for the allure of an international cap, it would have been hard to envisage even a single one of them taking their careers to either Scottish pro team. Maitland, in particular, would never have been tempted by a move to the Warriors had he ever managed to force himself from the fringes of All Black recognition to feature in Graham Henry’s test match plans.
The expansion of the SRU’s search for Scottish-qualified talent can, in some ways, be viewed as a positive. The nation’s player pool is desperately small, with 2011 stats showing just 38,500 registered rugby players, of which 11,687 were senior males – less than one tenth of the corresponding numbers shown in neighbouring England. It is easy to understand why, with such poor playing statistics, and in the face of worsening international results, the governing body opted to exploit latent overseas ability.
In addition, with Scotland’s age group sides suffering consistently poor results against their international counterparts, the argument that young Scots’ places in the test-match squad are being lost to fresh-off-the-plane external recruits does waver. There is certainly a strong viewpoint that, if the country’s up-and-coming pros are incapable of beating the likes of Hart and Hilterbrand to a spot in the national set-up, then they frankly fall short of the standard required to compete at the top level. The real issue is that, with such an increasingly high number of foreign-born players being drafted into Edinburgh and Glasgow’s squads, these youngsters are at risk of being denied the game time they desperately need to develop.
While the laws regarding residency and eligibility remain as they are, the cut-throat nature of pro rugby means that unions are always likely to exploit them at the expense of a more pragmatic approach. Scotland are most definitely far from alone in fielding players whose links to the country they represent are decidedly tenuous. The debate will continue to rage on regarding whether spending three years in a given country, or indeed being linked to it via a grandparent, should be sufficient to qualify one for international representation. However, with the recent upping of the SRU’s drive to capture Scottish-qualified players, it seems a well-meaning initiative has been taken several steps too far.
The Union has not – as it perhaps should have done – utilised the likes of Atkins, Holmes and co to strike a forward-thinking and successful squad balance, where foreign recruits are combined and tempered with a number of promising young Scots. Rather, it has opted to pack the pro teams full to the gunnels with individuals signed for the sole purpose of contesting for a Scotland jersey. This policy can, at best, be seen to represent a startling lack of faith in the country’s academies and youth systems. At worst, it may be taken as an outright admission that Scotland’s development squads alone are not producing the requisite goods.
The latest additions to Edinburgh and Glasgow’s squads will unquestionably strengthen their quality and depth. The two pro teams are not, nor should they ever be, development sides with which to feed the Scotland set-up, and must be competitive in their domestic league and Heineken Cup pools.
Dangling the carrot of test match rugby in front of their noses provided the chief motivation behind gaining their signatures, and unsurprisingly, remains an issue that rankles with many. If the SRU fail to stem the tide, and invest more resources in cultivating their own players, they risk not only stunting the growth of the youth, but in the eyes of some, devaluing the very jersey for which they are all set to do battle.
By Jamie Lyall (@JLyall93)
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images