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It is only in Europe that we can judge how far Scottish rugby has progressed

IT was very nice to be invited recently to be a member of the panel of journalists that selected this year's RaboDirect Pro12 "Dream Team" and we are, of course, sworn to secrecy on its make-up prior to the official announcement.

The two SRU-owned clubs played out a high-scoring 1876 Cup match and won much-needed bonus points. Picture: SNS
The two SRU-owned clubs played out a high-scoring 1876 Cup match and won much-needed bonus points. Picture: SNS

It does not feel like a breach of confidentiality, though, to reveal that, before we assembled to finalise this mighty XV, I raised a question in a bid to ensure consistency of policy. Were we, I asked, picking the Pro12 team that we would send into action if they were going to face an Aviva Premiership or French Championnat select, or were we aiming to reward those who had done most to enhance the Pro12 competition in the 2013/14 season?

Agreement was reached and it seems only right, at this point, to do no more than invite one and all to draw their own conclusions about what was decided once the team is announced.

Suffice to say, though, that the two are quite different things because of the nature of the Pro12 as one of the smartest developments of the professional rugby era.

When the game went open in 1995, the Celtic nations faced nothing short of a crisis.

Already English rugby had begun to improve its structures to the extent that they had, that year, won their third Five Nations grand slam in five years. Professionalism looked likely to accelerate their conversion of vast superiority in terms of resources into complete domination.

It took a few years to sort out but, once the Celts got their act together and created a league which they could manipulate to their own benefit in terms of preparing for Test and Heineken Cup rugby, the way they took advantage of it was masterful.

As questions were repeatedly raised in the English media about how rarely some of the biggest stars played for their provinces, no-one in Ireland was complaining as six Heineken Cup wins were accompanied by the ending of a 59-year wait for a grand slam, accompanied by three other triple crowns and, this year, a second Six Nations title.

For all their domestic battling, the Welsh meanwhile revelled in a staggering run of three grand slams in eight seasons.

There is a downside to this way of treating the Pro12 principally for development purposes, though. It means that the competition itself does not carry anything like the same weight as its English and French counterparts where owners insist on their coaches fielding teams to win at all times.

That partly explains why no-one in Wales was over-excited by the Ospreys' wins in two of the first three Pro12 Grand Finals, recognising that the real measure was European rugby, in which the Irish were dominating.

Scott Johnson, Scotland's national director of rugby, should be particularly aware of the gulf between the two competitions since he was the man in charge at the time that the Welsh media were lampooning his squad as rugby's "Galacticos" - such was Ospreys' spending - while lambasting them for their annual Heineken Cup failures.

So, after the vast additional investment in Glasgow Warriors since the days when, on one of Europe's smallest budgets, they reached the play-offs in both 2010 and 2012, Scottish rugby supporters must, of course, welcome the prospect of them securing a home semi-final and a crack at the title.

It is also important to remember, though, that, after six years in which they had never finished bottom of a Heineken Cup pool, Glasgow have gone backwards by having done so in each of the past two seasons.

All the evidence is, meanwhile, that the English and French have used their financial clout to force changes that will both reduce the Pro12 advantage in terms of its teams being able to use the competition as a development tool and make Europe's top competition even more cut-throat.

Next season will, then, tells us much more about whether Scottish rugby has made any meaningful progress when it comes to the elite game.

And Another Thing

A message from a very senior Scottish sports administrator raised a smile at the weekend. "Now if I was a conspiracy theory guy, I would wonder about a match that ended with Glasgow getting five points and Edinburgh two!" read the email.

One of the SRU-owned sides beat the other 37-34 to ensure a maximum points haul from the fixture, with Glasgow securing a badly needed bonus point win, only their second in 26 matches this season.

Instead of such cynicism, though, surely we should simply accept that, after all the years of complaints by players about cancelling one another out in derby encounters because they know their Scottish colleagues' respective playing styles too well, they have learned how to achieve such a desirable outcome.

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