With just a handful of appearances to his name during the three seasons he has spent there, Hamish Watson has not exactly set the heather alight in his time with Edinburgh.

On Saturday, though, the 22-year-old flanker was clearly in a mood to make up for lost time, as he delivered a loose-forward masterclass in his performance in the club's pre-season friendly against Leicester Tigers at the Greenyards.

Watson was everywhere, showing a healthy disrespect for Leicester's lofty reputation as he ran and tackled himself to a standstill. It was a remarkable display, and one that immediately propelled him up the Murrayfield pecking order for the competitive season ahead. The back row has long been an area of Edinburgh strength, and Watson had just made it even stronger.

Loading article content

In the scramble to fill in the gaps in Watson's personal history, though, a rather less uplifting detail came to light. Checking up on his appearances for the Scotland age-grade sides, I stumbled across the team lists for the Scotland under-20 team's match with their England equivalents at Newbury in March 2011. The result, a 56-8 win for England, was depressing enough, but more startling still was the composition of the two sides, and the subsequent career trajectories of the players involved.

You see, the England line-up that day featured a host of players who have since gone on to become established names in senior rugby. Seven of them have won full caps. A few have become global stars, their number including Owen Farrell, Christian Wade, Mako Vunipola and Joe Launchbury. This was a team of rich potential.

And Scotland? This is where it becomes ugly. Not even one member of that Scotland under-20 team has become a full Test player. Mark Bennett, who was at outside centre, has been named in a couple of squads, but nobody else has come remotely close.

As far as I can gather, Watson and Bennett are the only two players who are now full-time professionals in Scotland. A few others are playing in the England's second-tier Championship; a few more have disappeared completely.

Even allowing for the fact that England had a particularly rich crop of players coming through that year, the disparity is staggering, the Scottish attrition rate alarming. It leads to all manner of questions of the management of young Scottish talent. Were the wrong players being chosen? Was talent identification really that hopeless?

Was the selection fair enough but subsequent development non-existent? How on earth can all but a couple of players have gone from being the stars of tomorrow to the spent forces of yesterday?

Maybe that's harsh. Maybe one or two will turn out to be late developers and come to the fore in the years ahead. But as most are now in the 22/23 age bracket, don't expect them to arrive in great numbers. The brutal truth of rugby at this level is that the transition from nearly-man to never-will-be is a swift, and generally one-way, process.

The irony is that England, with all their players and all their clubs, could probably afford to get it wrong. Launchbury, Farrell and Vunipola could have missed out  on selection in 2011 and still come through as England's competitive structures would have allowed them to do so. The doors would still have been open for them. In Scotland, with only two professional teams, opportunities are much more limited.

In other words, in Scotland we cannot afford to be as wasteful as we have been in the past in the business of recognising and developing talent. There is a precious window of opportunity in any half-decent player's life, but too many young Scots seem to miss it.

All of which lends a degree of urgency to current plans to improve Scottish rugby's academy system. Outlined a few months ago, the proposals envisage four regional centres of excellence, where promising young players will be nurtured and "hot-housed", with numbers gradually being refined and reduced to the point where the best of them can realistically expect to forge professional careers in the game.

It looks good on paper, but then youth development programmes generally do. I've long since lost count of the number of deckchair rearrangement routines that have been trumpeted from Murrayfield, all of which seem to have been very good at keeping a number of wannabe coaches in jobs and rather less impressive at delivering players who have actually been capable of playing at the highest levels.

If the latest plans are to succeed then they will rely critically on getting young players playing intense, competitive games against each other. Weight sessions, gym sessions and nutrition count for nothing unless players can be tested, and tested often, in the heat of match situations. If they can't get that bit right then they might as well not bother with the rest of it.


Steve Tew, the New Zealand Rugby chief executive, has apologised for the incident before Saturday's Bledisloe Cup match against Australia in Auckland where three spectators were struck by a stray firework at the end of the home side's haka routine.

"Something has clearly gone wrong and we are urgently conducting a review of what happened," said Tew. Why bother? What happened was blindingly obvious to everyone who watched the preposterously overblown preliminaries to the game.

The All Blacks' haka routine has become longer and more ridiculous with every passing season. Having exhausted their repertoire of grunts, thigh-slaps and tongue-waggling, the only option left was to embroider their risible hokey-cokey with some pyrotechnics. Only it blew up in their faces. Or, rather more literally, the faces of those three fans who were hospitalised after the incident.

It ought to be a wake-up call for the New Zealand Union. Of course, they will squeal like stuck pigs if anyone questions their right to perform the haka, but their vainglorious pre-match routines have become a global rugby joke and it's time for them to start exercising some self-restraint.