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Foreign recruits yet to earn the love

They all love the place.

The Welsh duo of John Yapp, left, and Richie Rees have been two of the more successful imports   Photograph: SNS
The Welsh duo of John Yapp, left, and Richie Rees have been two of the more successful imports Photograph: SNS

They love the people, they love the cities, they love their team-mates and they love the fans. They love the friendliness and they love the lifestyle. And they love the fact they are being paid for it.

Yes, coming to Scotland to play rugby is all very lovely indeed. And when the SRU opened their doors and chequebook last summer, they came in their droves. Into the country which could not afford to retain a third pro team to develop their own talent a few years ago came 22 players, only one short of a matchday squad, who had learned the game elsewhere.

It was a high-risk and controversial strategy. And it has acquired an ironic dimension since SRU performance director Graham Lowe and national coach Andy Robinson, the most powerful rugby voices in Murrayfield a few months ago, have now left the country they were so keen to attract players to. Shall we remember them fondly for their wisdom and foresight or curse them for leaving us with substantial bills to pay? Or even both?

Scotland has a decidedly mixed record when it comes to importing players. There have been a few successes – Bernardo Stortoni at Glasgow and Todd Blackadder at Edinburgh spring to mind – but there have been some high-profile failures – as well. Former All Black Daryl Gibson looked far past his sell-by date at Glasgow, while the Samoan wing Lome Fa'atau seemed incapable of movement for the same club when the temperature dropped below 70 degrees. Many more imports were simply too ordinary to be memorable.

So what of the current crop? Staggeringly, of the 22 brought in, only five made the starting line-ups of either Glasgow or Edinburgh in this weekend's Heineken Cup games. Some absences can be explained by injuries, others by registration issues, but the majority have simply been deemed not good enough for these potentially critical games.

Indeed, with the possible exception of Josh Strauss, the powerhouse Glasgow loose forward, none has set the heather alight in their first few months in Scotland. At Edinburgh, full-back Greig Tonks showed international potential in early games, and Niko Matawalu, Glasgow's Fijian scrum-half, has had electric moments, but it is fair to say that spectators have hardly been swooning over the rest.

"Our stated objective is that we need to stock the pond with top class players," said SRU chief executive Mark Dodson recently. Was he happy with what he had seen though?

"I think so," Dodson said. "They have taken time to settle, but I think you'll see that these are world-talented players. You can see the pedigree and they will get better."

You would hope so. Salaries are, and should be, tightly-guarded secrets, but soundings in the current rugby market would suggest an average of somewhere between £80,000 and £100,000 per import. Good value in some cases, but also enough to fund four or five young home-grown players through the Union's own elite development programme.

Or is this missing the point? Strauss and Matawalu look like game-changers and Willem Nel, Edinburgh's South African prop, may yet live up to his billing (he hasn't been close so far) and go all the way to the Scotland side, but the evidence of last season, when Edinburgh reached the Heineken Cup semi-finals and Glasgow got into the RaboDirect PRO12 play-offs, suggested it was strength in depth, not star names, that the Scottish sides needed.

Even from that viewpoint, however, the evidence is less than compelling. During the November Test window, when the sides were shorn of Scotland players, they each won one game and lost another against similarly understrength teams.

In fairness, it is the oldest truth in rugby that it takes time to build sides and for players to gel. Scotland's foreign legion deserve more time before definitive judg- ments can be made. But many could still do more to earn the benefit of that doubt.

And only then will all that love start coming their way.

EDINBURGH

Ben Atiga: The former world junior player of the year was rescued by Edinburgh after dropping out of rugby, but the New Zealander has done little to justify his contract. Currently injured.

Dimitri Basilaia: Big man, big reputation, little impact to date. A Georgian international, Basilaia has mostly been limited to bench service thus far.

Piers Francis: The English fly-half who spent four seasons in New Zealand has only just arrived at Edinburgh and last night's match was his first involvement with the team.

Willem Nel: The former Free State prop arrived with a fanfare, but until last night had failed to live up to his billing as a Scotland player of the future. Against Racing Metro, however, he was outstanding.

Perry Parker: The English lock has a modest background in lower-league rugby, but has shown good all-round skills and could be a surprise package for the future.

Michael Penn: Signed from Worcester on a one-year deal, the English utility back has been a peripheral figure and has not played a competitive game.

Richie Rees (pictured, right): The Welsh international has quickly established himself as first-choice scrum-half and has done little wrong in Edinburgh colours.

Andy Titterrell: The former England hooker has been in the journeyman class for a few years now, but has been more than adequate cover for Ross Ford.

Greig Tonks: The English-born utility back started the season well but then seemed to reach a plateau, making talk of an international career sound premature.

Izak Van der Westhuizen: Another late arrival, the South African has put in some solid shifts in the second row over the past month.

John Yapp (pictured, left): Brought in from Cardiff, the Welsh prop has done nothing wrong while establishing himself as first-choice loosehead in front of Allan Jacobsen.

GLASGOW

German Araoz: Argentine prop, brought in on short-term contract as front-row cover but has made just one appearance as a replacement. Almost certain to move on soon.

Ofa Fainga'anuku: The sturdy Tongan front-rower has been very much a back-up player, all but one of his five appearances being from off the bench.

Sean Lamont: No surprises here. The Scotland international wing, who qualifies as an import as he was brought back from Scarlets, has put in some solid performances since.

Viliami Ma'afu: The Tongan No 8 lasted only a few weeks at the club before moving on, for unspecified personal reasons, without playing a single competitive game.

Angus Macdonald: A former All Black, but reports from Macdonald's time in Japan suggested he was already well past his best. Has done little at Glasgow and is now out with a neck injury.

Byron McGuigan: The South African raised (but Scottish qualified) utility back has only started one game and has yet to make a significant breakthrough.

Sean Maitland: One of the project players, with a Scottish cap on the horizon. The New Zealander's appearance off the bench against Castres on Friday was his first outing, so far too early to judge.

Niko Matawalu (main picture): The Fijian scrum-half/wing has shown pace and skill, but Henry Pyrgos has taken hold of the No 9 shirt recently, so Matawalu has largely been restricted to bench duties.

Taylor Paris: The young Canadian wing is up against stiff competition for a place and didn't do enough in his solitary outing to date to nail down a berth.

Josh Strauss: The best of the newcomers, with a couple of man-of-the-match displays already, the South African is dynamic, skilful and a natural leader. Could well be on track for a Scotland cap.

Tim Swinson: An old-fashioned English (though Scottish qualified) boilerhouse forward, Swinson has played regularly and hasn't done much wrong in the time he has been given.

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