Identity Crisis: Profiling Scotland’s Foreign Recruits

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

24 thoughts on “Identity Crisis: Profiling Scotland’s Foreign Recruits

    1. Haha, someone’s clearly got the fishing rod out!

      The article’s got nothing to do with my own allegiances, more so the effect the recent glut of signings could have on Scottish rugby.

  1. I should probably have expanded on my point. At Glasgow, we have had a mix of foreign talent and young scots.

    If we look at the Semi-final squad, we had Hogg, Dunbar, Horne, McArthur, Wilson, Brown, and Bennett in the 23.

    We then had Lamont, Grant, Welsh, Kellock, Barclay, Low, and Jackson who are all very much Scottish,

    Ryder, Pyrgos (both quite young) are in with their parents. (I guess Jackson is too, being born in England, but both parents are scottish and he’s been in Aberdeen most of his life)

    Swinson and Maitland are in for grandparents.

    Kalman and Harley are there through residency, but that’s from a young age. Both are products of Scottish Amateur Clubs (Whitecraigs and West of Scotland respectively)

    That leaves Van Der Merwe, Matawalu and Strauss. Only Strauss is uncapped, and he’s been a useful addition to the Glasgow Squad. Whether he’ll be any use to the national team, I’m not sure, but he was certainly instrumental in Glasgow’s progress last season.

    Looking at Glasgow’s squad (of 50 players) for the coming season, There are only 7 players who don’t qualify for Scotland (though I believe Cusack isn’t far off), and 5 of them are already full internationals for their country, leaving Strauss as the only project player. I would put about 13 of the squad in the young player category (ignoring the likes of Hogg).

    Glasgow HAVE been doing the mix right, it’s just the line of incompetent coaches at the Library that have cocked up.

    1. Some fair points made there, and partly why the Warriors have been so successful. They also have a much stronger team spirit and ethos by all accounts.

      To an extent, it’s all about striking that balance within the squads that you mention above.

  2. Let’s be honest, this article could be about a lot of rugby playing nations. The Kiwi’s and the Aussies often take the best Islanders, England certainly have a few (Barritt etc.). Ireland obviously have Strauss at hooker. I could go on but you get the point.

    Whilst Scotland have made a real obvious effort to develop this area; everyone is doing it!

    I don’t have a massive issue with it, as long as those playing appear committed to the country they are representing. The only thing I would say is that 3 years is not that long, Something like 5 years would ensure that less of these projects are put in place, meaning less of this taking place and those playing for their country really consider themselves nationals.

    1. I made this point in the article, Jacob. Scotland are far from the only country exploiting residency/links via grandparents etc. Totally understand that, with their small playing pool, the need to track and obtain overseas talent is greater than that of England or NZ. You could certainly argue that, with the huge numbers England enjoy, they shouldn’t have to utilise the likes of Vainikolo, Hape, Fourie etc. While the residency and eligibility laws remain as they are, they will – of course – be exploited by unions.

      You can also argue that, if a young Scot is not good enough to win a place in the national team over the likes of Ollie Atkins, then they are not good enough to play international rugby full-stop. Again, I made that point above.

      I think there is far more of an issue to be dealt with regarding these young pros potentially missing out on game time at domestic level to the detriment of their progression and development. I’m not sure I buy into Dodson’s reasoning that increasing these types of signings will inspire more youngsters in the squad to reach greater heights with the added competition. I think it could well have the opposite effect.

      1. Yeh absolutely, I agree with you on most points. On England using the likes of Hape etc.; why soshouldn’t they? For me, if they want to pull on an England shirt, and they are the best players, then good on them.

        In regards to whether it will benefit young players or not, it will greatly depend on the player. Some young players will see this influx and be inspired, work harder, embrace the competition at club level and become better players for it. Some may not, and fall away. That is professional sport, and the best (most of the time), will rise to the top.

  3. Would be interesting to see the number/names of those that are playing for Glasgow and Edinburgh from “overseas” “for” international caps. While Maitland is in due to grandparents as mentioned above he is effectively bought in and so a project player really. Personally I was excited by his signing and seeing him play.

    Yes other countries do it to a greater or lesser extent it’s just more obvious due to the small player pool/number of pro teams in Scotland and it is about balance.

  4. As has been partly covered in the comments – the only real difference here is that it’s the SRU that has to do this for Scotland. England, for example, get the same benefits purely by virtue of the money in their club game. It’s this money that meant they could then call on Barrit, Tui, etc. It might not be long before we see France capping Kiwi’s pulled in through similar attractions.

    1. Good point on France; could happen.

      Also, slight side note, but Tuilagi and Barritt are very different in that Tuilagi has been here since the age of about 12. Barritt obviously came over in his 20s.

      As mentioned, as long as the player feels Scottish, or English, or whatever nation it is; does it matter?

      1. Agree re the likes of Tuilagi and Vunipola, Jacob. These guys have been in England most of their lives – totally different scenario to being brought in from abroad with the primary purpose being to contest for a test-match jersey.

        I also agree with Brighty’s point that the RFU and other unions are not actively seeking to bring in these players as the SRU are doing. The SRU actually removed, in Lineen, a coach who was doing superbly well at Glasgow to take on the role of “talent scout”. As it turned out, Townsend has done a great job there too.

        Your point above, Jacob, re Hape etc being the best players for the job is also spot on. While the laws remain as they are, of course unions will seek to get the best players playing for their countries – regardless of how tenuous those links may be. I seem to remember Richard Cockerill getting fired-up (what’s new?!) over Thomas Waldrom – whom, when he became eligible for England, was selected, and therefore missed out on games with the Tigers.

      2. “As mentioned, as long as the player feels Scottish, or English, or whatever nation it is; does it matter?” – It does to me, I know that’s a personal thing. There are some players for whom it’s almost like changing clubs – “I want 1st team rugby, I’ll get it at country X because here there are N better centres than me, but in that country there are not. So I am moving there”. Pride in that country, a desire to be that nationality do not seem to come into it. I still think there should be something beyond simple logistics about which country you play for or we may as well go the whole hog and turn the whole thing into an open market and just let countries be super clubs or even “best of the league” rep sides. Being “Welsh” or “English” has to mean something or it will quickly turn into meaning nothing at all

        By the way, this isn’t criticising any country who does it right now. England would be fools to, for example, not consider picking Hartley when the rules clearly say they can. So I’m ok with countries doing whatever the rules allow – I would just like the rules changed.

        1. I do agree with you. It is important to me that an England player is English, and feels it.

          But I would still pick Hartley as well.

          Where do you draw the line? Falatau has lived in Wales since he was about 10 (I think), so fair enough. I think Tuilagi was about 12 or 13, makes sense. Barritt was in his 20s, is that ok? I think it is really hard to distinguish where the line is.

    2. And in the interests of balance Wales also benefit, not usually from money though e.g. Fale is there because his dad came over to play in Wales. The English/Welsh boys (Warbs, North, etc.) are more complicated – I like to think they chose Wales as playing 15 man rugby is more exciting than up the jumper stuff :-) (That was a deliberate joke/banter. Please park your offence and take it as a joke).

      Wales tried a similar thing to the SRU a few years ago – Jason Jones Hughes probably the highest profile and there were plans to draft 3 U21 SA players into then then Neath time. The whole thing died pretty quickly with the failure of JJH and this is where the SRU are playing with fire – if drafting in these players, who will be more expensive than young Scottish players, fails to improve standards then the knives will be out (as they were in Wales) very quickly for those who dreamt up this plan. This is because no matter how sensible it might sound it’s still very emotional so those opposed to the plan, who would rather 15 born and bred Scotsmen no matter what the results, will be looking for any slip up and will pounce on it.

      As a side discussion the IRB really need to stop all of this anyway. We need

      – 10 year residency rule i.e. if you came over as a kid with your parents then fair enough but no drafting people in after 3 years or even 5

      – Parents passports, not grandparents. Passports. Not “my Nan was born in Oldham” (looking at you Sinkinson).

      – *any* representational rugby after schoolboy teams means you are now a registered player for that country. So any U21 player is now a player for that country. Coincidentally this is true for Wales as we do not have a B team so our U21s are considered our B team for the purposes of IRB regulations on representation.

      1. Sorry I commented above and then saw this.

        I agree with most of your points, but 10 years is a long time. Bare in mind Falatau/ Vunipolas etc. only come over around age 10 and therefore have just passed the 10 year barrier. Would they then not have been able to play youth rugby for these countries as it had not been 10 years?

        I think 5 years is enough, or maybe even 7. Definitely 3 is too short.

        5 years for example would allow players to come over in their teens and play for their countries, and potentially prevent players coming over in their 20s.

  5. I’ve always hated the residency rule so increasing it wouldn’t make a difference. If players truly want to represent England (for example) then they should apply for citizenship and get a British passport. I would be less hung up on age grade appearences in such circumstances

  6. Unless more kids take up the game there will be a never ending cycle of needing genealogists to find players.

    Will an improved national team help generate interest? Probably to a degree, but I can’t help think this approach of trying to buy some short term success is treating a symptom and not the cause. Pumping the 1.2 million into school rugby may have better longer term results. Sort out your foundations before you attempt to build your castle.

  7. I’d like to see the rules amended so that you can only play international rugby for a nation if either:

    A: You or a parent was born there
    B: You lived and were registered at a rugby club there for five years before your 18th birthday (to allow “homegrown” players to represent their nation)
    C: You hold that country’s passport (UK passport for Eng/Wal/Sco, UK or Irish passport for Ire) and have lived there continuously for five years beforehand
    D: Either parent played international rugby for that nation (children should IMO always be allowed to play for the same team as their father/mother)

    AND you have the right to live in that country permanently.

    This should bring an end to the majority of “project players” as well as stopping embarrassing cases such as Hendre Fourie’s where an international is threatened with deportation after retiring.

    1. Just to clarify condition C – if a player wanted to play for England (for example) they would need a UK passport and have lived in England for 5 years – not Scotland or Wales.

  8. A minor point, but it’s “gunwales”, not “gunnels”.

    Rugby’s a dying game north of the border. In the short term, the SRU’s top priority should absolutely be trying to rebuild the national side so it can reasonably expect good performances in test matches. Until that goal is achieved, questions about whether it’s detrimental to Scottish rugby to bring in overseas players to boost the national side’s performances are frankly irrelevant. And if bringing in overseas players does successfully boost the national side’s win-count, then the other problem should take care of itself, with more youngsters seeing the success of their nation’s rugby team and deciding they want a bite at the apple.

  9. “Rugby’s a dying game north of the border”

    Just read the article, lots of interesting comments, have to disagree with the above.

    I have been going to Glasgow games since 2004ish when typical attendance was in the hundreds. This season, I can still get tickets but hardly a decent seat left from about 2 weeks before kick off. Stadium holds circa 5200 and sells out regularly.
    Scotland finished 3rd in the 6 nations last year, best result in …. Too long. The amateur game here is also improving with the likes of Ayr, Gala and Melrose having great followings and very decent rugby.

    I know this not much compared to our bigger neighbours, but as a trend, I can only see more life coming to Scottish rugby, not less.

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