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Frank Hadden interview. Part II: What must be done to make sure junior rugby produces the best possible senior pros?

On day two of his analysis of what needs to be done to save Scottish international rugby former national coach Frank Hadden explains the need to make the most of its raw material, drawn from a tiny talent pool.

Charlie Lonergan of St Aloysius' College takes on the youngsters of George Watson's College. Picture: SNS
Charlie Lonergan of St Aloysius' College takes on the youngsters of George Watson's College. Picture: SNS

Having coached in Australian and English schools rugby in the '80s, then had the longest involvement of any coach in the Scottish professional game before, more recently, travelling the globe as a coaching consultant, Hadden has campaigned for many years for changes to the Scottish youth system.

A breakthrough seemed to have occurred some four years ago when Scottish Rugby Union member clubs instructed their staff - through a motion at their annual meeting - to introduce an integrated youth and schools league competition to ensure that the best young players are nurtured in a genuinely competitive environment.

The SRU has failed to act on those instructions and the fortunes of Scotland's national team have continued to decline with failure to reach the knockout stages of a World Cup for the first time, followed by a double "whitewash" year of 2012 in the Six Nations and the autumn Tests. Since then 11 more defeats have been recorded in 16 Test matches.

Here Hadden explains why it is so overdue that the motion passed by Scotland's rugby clubs be acted upon.

HOW did SCOTTISH RUGBY lose ITS ADVANTAGE?

In the '80s and '90s we were unique in the world of rugby in having national senior leagues in our competitive structure. That gave us an edge on other countries.

At the same time, our schools rugby was no less intense than anywhere else and, in fact, in some of our private schools, where the whole school was forced to stand on the touchlines [for a first XV match], there was an intensity which was inspirational for a 12-year-old arriving at the school.

When I went [with High School of Dundee] to our first big game against Fettes in '83, the run from the changing room to the pitch was lined by baying Fettesians just a yard from you.

Now all the schools games [at various age groups] are played at the same time, so the first XV game has no greater kudos attached to it than any other game.

Meanwhile, every other country has national, professional leagues and development programmes and are properly harnessing far greater resources at senior level.

HOW FAR has our JUNIOR RUGBY FALLEN BEHIND?

I recently organised some matches for a visiting Australian school which started playing league rugby in the 1890s. The first was against an East Lothian Select, an area that is doing really good things in rugby in my opinion and is real rugby territory, with small communities that are enthusiastic about the game.

Although the Australian school team was full of 16 or 17-year-olds, we knew how good they would be and East Lothian pulled in some 'ringers' who are playing RBS Premier rugby: a centre, a winger and a back-row. Physically, we were more than a match for them, if anything slightly bigger and were just as enthusiastic and just as committed.

However, the fundamental difference, when the Australians were playing their first game of the season, is that the error count was far greater in the Scots team because they weren't used to playing under the pressure the Australians put them under, whereas the Australians were comfortable under that level of pressure, having done so since they were 11 years old.

As a result of the intensity of the game they had been brought up in, along with skill sets that were slightly broader man for man than our guys (who, technically, had some good things about them), [they had the edge]. The difference is their environment, because they [the Scottish players] would be perfectly capable of playing at the level the Australians were playing at.

If you speak to guys who coach our age-group sides, [they will tell you that] the problem is they are not just mismatched in terms of size and weight, it's their ability to train accurately, precisely and effectively in preparation for the event.

That comes down to a breadth of skill sets and also simply being used to the intensity because, elsewhere, every game from 11 years old is an big game.

WHAT IS MEANT BY 'INTENSITY' IN DEVELOPMENT TERMS?

Some people are unsure what intensity is. It is [having to] operate with less time and space than you would in a game that doesn't have it [intensity], so your decision making is put under a lot more pressure and you have to make decisions a lot more quickly. We've got to understand that a lot of our players get representative honours without walking over broken glass.

When I was teaching in England I was brought into a state school just outside Leeds to start rugby. Eventually we got to a level where we got guys challenging for representative honours and two of them were selected for England Under-16s. In order to get there, they had to play a Leeds trial and play for Leeds; a West Yorkshire trial and play for West Yorkshire; a Yorkshire trial and play for Yorkshire; a North of England trial and play for North of England; then an England trial.

The countries we are competing against at international level, the advantage they have is the intensity of their junior structure. People refer to the Irish model, to which we are frequently compared, and the significant number of foreign coaches they have at the top of their game with David Nucifora having been appointed as their new director of rugby as another foreigner.

Why can't we do the same?

Why can't we just copy other countries wholesale?

Having been to Ireland and seen them operate for so many years, [I can say] they are operating at a totally different level from us and are putting the icing on the top of their cake. Our cake isn't even baked yet. When we bring in guys like Tony Gilbert [as coach at Borders Reivers), Kiwi Searancke [at Glasgow Warriors], even Matt Williams [as national team coach], who have worked at an extremely high level, they tend to be surprised by what they're confronted with and consequently have a bit of difficulty maximising what they're confronted with. It's so different [from what they are used to].

The more I travel, the more I realise we are a unique environment that requires unique solutions, not solutions being used elsewhere in environments that are so different from us.

Some say you need to build from the top down, others say from the bottom up. My view is that you have to do both at once.

why is junior rugby not competitive enough?

In the late 90s, I was involved in a group tasked with creating a more competitive structure in schools. We came up with a template then went to the independent schools headmasters to try to get them to accept. It got lost in confusion between the SRU pathway and a competitive league structure, which was a separate issue.

We need to make that competitive environment happen, but the SRU don't believe it can be done, because they otherwise wouldn't be concentrating purely on academies as the way forward.

Those academies do the best they can with the expertise they have available and what they are trying to do is worthwhile, in putting together resources for coaches.

However, providing the instruction manual with bells and whistles on it in isolation, without the competitive structure, while it is going to be better than we've got, is not going to be effective in the development of players.

The thing about a competitive structure is that it's not just players who get better, it's coaches who get forced to improve because nobody wants to be last, and you start to go the extra yard.

In 1989, when I was working in Australia, the schoolboys of Nudgee College were doing 12 or 13 sessions a week. Their coach said his ambition was to make all the other coaches put away their golf clubs.

That's what I wanted to do when I came back to Merchiston. I wanted to try, by beating them so frequently, to make everybody want to improve, but the trouble is what happened in Scotland was it made them want to stop playing us. They told us we took it too seriously. How are we going to go anywhere with that attitude?

Now that they are employing former professional coaches who are bringing players in on scholarships, the private schools would say they are taking it seriously.

Yet they are [only] paying lip service to it because, without a competitive structure, you are not actually pursuing the excellence that probably appears somewhere in your mission statement.

WHY are CONVENTIONAL SOLUTIONS NOT WORKING?

If you take the more competitive structure at junior level, the massive ambition of the SRU was to increase the numbers playing the game.

For a long time I've realised that, if you look at the junior game throughout the world, increasing our numbers isn't going to get us any closer to people like Wales or Ireland, because the difference in numbers is so massive.

Time spent on missionary work looks impressive and I know this from my experience working with HSBC throughout Asia.

Instead of getting to the core of coaching in the countries I went to, it was inevitable that I would have to go to an orphanage because that would be the front-page picture.

For all that it was marvellous to see the work being done at the orphanage they were never going to be a power in rugby in that country.

That maybe sounds a bit crass but it's also why I wouldn't go to parts of our bigger cities where the sport is completely alien, to try to develop rugby. I would, however, go to places like Trinity [in Edinburgh] where they are trying really hard.

Wherever they're already playing is where I'd harness all our efforts to ensure that existing enthusiasm helps maximise our resources.

When I was Scotland coach a school once won a prize for me to go and coach them and it was at a time when we had just appointed sports coordinators in schools to organise teams. Their target was to introduce teams and this school was organising rugby, football and all sorts of teams; well done them.

Yet the standard was abysmal because they weren't properly coached; there wasn't a proper competitive structure for them to go into; there was no decent opposition for them to play against. It was paying lip service to the game.

WHAT NEEDS TO BE DONE?

The template we created in the 90s started local and went to play-offs. Some will say that's what the Scottish Schools Cup provides but the trouble with that is it only provides intensity of rugby for those who reach the semi-final and final and then only in a couple of matches. That is why we need an integrated youth and schools competition.

You do it all within the first school term, when the weather's still reasonable. In Australia the season was much shorter, but there is massive benefit in that because you can get commitment that you can't get in a club set-up which goes from July to May. The clubs are against a shorter season because of the bar takings, but that is not relevant to youth rugby.

There needs to be a clear pathway from the 10-year-old boy to the national team. You want him to see a clear competitive route through, inter-school and inter-club rugby leading to regional competition, then to regional academies all under the umbrella of the two professional sides.

There are three important cut-off areas in the developmental areas. One of the big drop-off areas in every country is around the age of 15. We need to try to encourage from under-14 upwards that we've got a competitive structure that you really don't want to miss out on.

All the stuff you have done up until now is leading you here and it is going to be exciting. I heard Sean Lineen [the Scotland under-21 coach] talking about the fact that we've got to get the regional age-group competition back on again to give these kids who are going to be playing for Scotland the opportunity of stepping up a level.

Fundamentally a short, sharp youth league structure over the first school term is the way forward. It requires incredibly strong leadership to get the school and youth club age groups matched, which is an issue in itself.

Then your best school and youth teams should be playing off in local groups, broken up depending on how many there are in each.

That feeds towards a national level where they operate at their level with the top four in each district playing off against one another, the next four in each district doing likewise.

Your local competition runs to half-term and then you continue to play throughout the term at a level that suits you best. It's absolutely optional that if you don't want to play in it you don't join, but you could insist that the players who will be involved in Scotland age grade teams will be selected from this competition. You've got to be careful but you also have to be bold.

It's time to give this a chance. The key is getting the age grouping right. Is it under-18, under-16 or under-15? I would go for all three but maybe to begin with it should only be under-15 and under-18.

CAN IT BE DONE?

It [depends on] how you sell it and how much effort you put into it. I believe it can be sold if the will is there. That said, one of the things the private schools always say is what about our traditional fixtures, but the traditional fixtures in 1983 are not the traditional fixtures now because the small boarding schools have fallen off the edge of a cliff. Things change and this anticipates the changing panorama.

You can still play your local games that have existed for however long in the first part of the season, however until we're offering a more competitive set-up we'll never know how well we can harness the potential of our young players.

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