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Scottish Rugby: The Key Questions, part one

The context

Niko Matawalu is a Fijian scrum-half at Glasgow but Frank Hadden believes the position must be held by a Scot. Picture: SNS
Niko Matawalu is a Fijian scrum-half at Glasgow but Frank Hadden believes the position must be held by a Scot. Picture: SNS

The context

All pro rugby is about for Scotland is closing the gap. For about 10 years we did that, maybe longer, but we've lost our way, which is why we need to re-structure the pro teams to make us more efficient.

For the Irish, their foreigners are the icing on their already baked cake but we're not at that level yet. Our targets for our national team should be to win 90% of our lineouts, 90% of scrums, make 90% of tackles. These are targets that are going to make us better. A lofty, distant goal is a ridiculous distraction.

I had this argument the last time the strategic target was set. I won't even go into how laughable these strategic planning meetings were when you've got people who are not involved in rugby saying I think we should be third in the Six Nations, then someone else says that's not ambitious enough, I think we should be second in the Six Nations . . . oh, bugger that, I think we should be winning the Six Nations, and people are standing up and clapping.

Then we came to world rankings and someone would say let's be in the top eight . . . no, the top four.

What's wrong with saying the national team's target is to prepare to win the match on Saturday? If we do that every Saturday then we will win the World Cup. So someone says, 'oh, all right, let's say we're going to win the World Cup.'

Even the All Blacks don't say they're going to win the World Cup. They say they're going to be the best team they can be or something like that. Why can't we say that?

How did we get here?

When I was Edinburgh coach and when I was Scotland coach I was never completely certain of what the purpose of the pro teams was, because it varied from one minute to the next.

If you go back to the beginning, the four regional teams was the obvious place to start. Why did we start that way? Because we had the foresight to understand that, if we didn't do it, with our playing resources, we could easily slide off the edge.

At that time, in the late 1990s, other teams - especially the Six Nations teams - were beginning to harness their resources. With the ball in play for 40 minutes instead of 20 it was harder for the underdog to have his day and we were starting to be beaten by 40, 50 and sometimes 60 points in that era.

My first experience of pro rugby was when we took Caley Reds to Treviso and Pau; we got absolutely stuffed so we were miles off. That, as much as any reason, was why we had to stick with pro rugby. Forget all the club v district argument; let's hope that's been put to bed.

Yet when I heard at the end of that year that we were cutting from four teams to two, I thought it was a disaster. The reason for it was we weren't professional at the time. We had a blank template and we weren't sure what was happening.

When we were four and cut to two for financial reasons I disagreed again because we weren't training professionally at the time, so we could continue to sustain the four districts as semi-pro teams and what would happen was that the cream would rise and maybe one team would go under.

Somebody would recruit the best players, somebody would get some sponsorship, somebody would get on a roll in terms of results, but that should have happened organically.

Then, when we were down to two teams with the budgets we had, I wasn't in favour of it going to three purely because I knew we were going to lose players and I wasn't going to be given a budget to do anything about it.

By the same token I didn't want to drop from three to two. Once we'd [gone for three teams], let's show some consistency and courage of our convictions for a spell. I know we have to react to a changing environment, but we went from three to two without the budgets [of the surviving two teams being increased].

That's when I began to fall out with them [Murrayfield's top brass].

Where are we now? We have had a change of leadership at the top and suddenly we went from not being able to afford money for our pro teams to being able to afford it. I don't know whether the financial situation changed that much or it was simply a change of attitude. However, my firm belief now, having been round the houses a fair bit and seen professional clubs operate around the world, is that we're in a position that, if we're going to do it, we have to do it right.

What needs to happen?

We now seem to have the money so we have to run a two-team set-up with reserve teams. My advice back in the day was that [professional] reserve teams should have been playing in the British & Irish Cup rather than the clubs.

This is the area where the pro game has to rub up against the club game and you will need club players to supplement the pro team second XVs. Somehow we have to get back to the days of 1997 when I went to Stirling County and asked them for Jim McLaren to play for Caley Reds when they had a first division match and they said they were absolutely delighted for the boy. We've lost that.

The whole British & Irish Cup, which was never suited to our clubs, was an appeasement to two or three loud voices in our top clubs which are semi-professional.

People want us to reintroduce a third professional team but the trouble with that is you will have more foreigners coming in to make that team successful. Then it's all about the success of that team; it's not about where it sits.

The purpose of the pro teams is to make Scotland, the national flagship, more competitive. The proviso is that it doesn't work unless the teams are winning matches because you cannot have players from two losing teams arriving on the international stage expecting to beat players if they're losing to them week-in, week-out. So we have to ensure that these teams are successful, but also packed with homegrown players.

imported players

My own simple criteria would be that there must be no foreigners at two [hooker], nine [scrum-half] and 10 [stand-off] because, if you have foreigners there you are blocking the very narrow filter. You can have them in other positions [without] compromising the national team.

It seems so straightforward the minute you say that the  whole focus of your 70 to 80 development officers around the country turns to making sure these guys are up to speed.

Eddie Pollock runs a very effective skills coaching structure at junior level but, by coming out with that statement, you are putting pressure on them to produce the players for these positions.

two or three teams?

The money should go into second XVs [at Edinburgh and Glasgow Warriors] rather than [creating] a third professional team at this juncture. That is also where your recruitment of foreigners comes in because, if you just recruit cheaper players to compete for positions rather than [going after] top-quality players, you don't get the same level of advice and assistance for our players who need it because they come from a less competitive environment.

People like Todd Blackadder [the former All Black who played for Edinburgh a decade ago] have folklore-type status because they were able to deliver to our young lads who had not come through anything like the environment he had come through. It's about getting the right characters in.

That's where Sean Lineen was so good at Glasgow Warriors. For example, he signed Daryl Gibson who didn't play very well but was hugely influential, so was a great signing. Through his knowledge of the Scottish game, Sean developed the knack of knowing exactly what our pro teams needed.

How can you expect Michael Bradley [the Irishman who coached Edinburgh] or Alan Solomons [Edinburgh's current South African coach] to know that having not been through what Sean's been through?

The importance of the understanding of where players come from, the domestic game and what is required to turn them into a really competitive outfit is vital.

It's different from Ireland where their junior structure is producing quality players. Coaches can come in assuming a level of player and game understanding.

The same goes for hiring the best young talent. Lineen completely outmanoeuvred Michael Bradley for all the best young players [in the Scottish game].

In the same way, when I was recruiting against Kiwi Searancke and Tony Gilbert [the New Zealanders who were in charge of Glasgow at the time], in one year I got Rory Lawson and Mike Blair, Al Kellock and Ally Hogg, Tom Philip and Dougie Hall; all the very best players in the age-group team that year, because the other guys didn't know [the Scottish scene].

how to combat this?

When it comes to the pro teams, you need a person in charge of recruitment for both teams. Some people might say that's not very competitive but someone has to keep an eye on the national team, and the pro team coaches should go to him for recruitment.

Bradley was a top-quality coach but he had never previously been given a pot of money to spend and his assessment of the situation was that our [Edinburgh's] first team reached the semi-final of the Heineken Cup and was a rock solid, top-quality team. He wasn't aware that some of them were on the wane, that some had over-performed during that run and he wasn't sure about who should come and who should go.

That's where you need a more experienced figure well-versed in Scottish rugby. Let's get the detail of what the director of rugby does and what his role is going to be. Why is the detail of that role not transparent?

You also need to ensure you keep a quorum of our international players in the country so you can continue the core training in between Six Nations matches. People say let them go and play elsewhere. It will help them. Well, yes and no. You have to be strategic about who you are willing to allow to leave.

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