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Graham doesn't miss when it comes to SRU's decision making

Harry Leonard was probably not feeling too much love from the faithful at Boroughmuir last Saturday afternoon.

Kenny Murray, left, Ayr's head coach, celebrates with Damien Kelly after tasting cup victory at Murrayfield  in 2010. Picture: Craig Watson/SNS
Kenny Murray, left, Ayr's head coach, celebrates with Damien Kelly after tasting cup victory at Murrayfield in 2010. Picture: Craig Watson/SNS

Inserted into the starting team at the expense of Ali Warnock, a long-established Meggetland favourite, the Edinburgh full-timer missed two decidedly kickable chances in the game's latter stages to deny the relegation-threatened club a deserved win over title contenders Gala.

As the grandstand grumbling began, it brought to mind an observation of David Johnson, the 1984 grand slam winner who went on to become backs coach with the national team just after rugby union went open.

"An amateur has an inalienable right to fail; a professional does not," he said back in the mid-90s, noting how expectations change once sportspeople began to be paid for their efforts.

I do not remember Johnson being quite as philosophical when he subsequently became a victim of those changed expectations albeit he and Richie Dixon, his then head coach who is now a hero of east European rugby, were perhaps rather harshly treated when sacked in 1997.

That, in turn, though, is a reminder that these remain relatively early days in professional rugby and no country has had more trouble making the adjustment than Scotland.

Coaches will tell you that the biggest problem is not making a mistake but compounding it by making the wrong decision and so making another. Yet that is what characterises the history of professional rugby in this country, leading to the undermining of ambition, passion and commitment to the cause.

That could not have been more evident than when, after Saturday's match, I spoke to George Graham, head coach of the winning Gala side and one of the most combative individuals I have ever met. I was shocked by what he had to say.

What I expected was that the former Scotland forwards coach, who has never previously missed any opportunity to express his desire to coach his country again, would be disappointed that homegrown Premiership coaches had once again been overlooked in the national management reshuffle announced the previous day.

"It was made plainly clear when we were at a meeting last summer, unless you had professional experience, don't bother applying for professional jobs by Mark Dodson [the SRU's chief executive] and Graham Lowe [the SRU's former director of performance] who was there at the time," he explained.

"I jumped on it straightaway along the lines that there were only myself and Ian Rankin [head coach at Dundee HSFP] who have any pro experience so they were saying the rest of these boys shouldn't be bothering."

He said they confirmed that his assumption was correct, a response which drew from Graham the further query: "Well how do you think these young coaches like Kenny Murray and Ally Donaldson who are here feel? They said 'It's a big responsibility.'" Still more disturbing, though, was his admission about his own current position as one of that tiny band of Scots deemed eligible to apply under such rules.

"To be fair, my agent called and asked if I wanted him to throw my hat into the ring and I said I didn't," he admitted.

He said that was partly down to family considerations and partly because of his job which are his current priorities, noting that: "I've got four laddies . . . bedlam's normality for me."

He also stressed that he was not ruling himself out of pursuing such posts in future but, in his own colourful way, registered serious concerns about the current Scottish professional scene.

"I believe we are always going to be at the coo's tail in professional and international rugby because we only have two pro teams. I don't care what anyone says about not being able to afford more, we need to find the money," Graham contended. "Slowly but surely we are falling off the ladder."

Personally, I do not share his view that the policy of having only two professional teams is flawed in itself, but that its implementation has been the problem. However, where we were fully agreed was that if two teams are to provide the spearhead, the next tier must support them better and Graham, whose coaching career also involved a short stint in Italy, noted that while the Italians also have only two PRO12/Heineken Cup teams, they have 10 teams in all containing full-time professionals.

Prior to that conversation Graham, who has had more than his share of run-ins with various authorities down the years, had made some comments about the quality of refereeing of his club's match with Boroughmuir which were certain to land him in trouble.

He may or may not have had a point, but this is someone who has operated at a higher level and is bound to be frustrated if and when exposed to lesser performances, either by players – and he was most critical of all about his team – or officials.

Fair to say, too, that like one or two others in the club game he has not always endeared himself to the establishment, but for the most part those who have kept their noses clean and done all the right things have struggled so far to produce the quality of teams Scottish rugby supporters want to see.

As suggested in this column last week, some different thinking is required, but that in turn requires the SRU to show flexibility in assessing people on a range of qualities rather than ruling out huge swathes of them on the basis of lack of experience, or any other single qualification for that matter.

After all, while professionals may not have an inalienable right to fail they have been doing so at elite level with far greater regularity than our amateurs ever did.

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