Where now for Scotland?

Date published: February 11 2014

Scottish rugby has been in the firing line this week after a run of uninspiring performances and defeats; what needs to change?

Scottish rugby has been in the firing line this week after a run of uninspiring performances and defeats; what needs to change?

Why are Scotland so awful at rugby? So asked my thirteen-year-old brother as we both sat in our living room eight days ago watching our national team crumble and wilt under Irish pressure in Dublin.

We weren't together this weekend as Scotland fell to their second loss to nil in three home matches – a 20-point reverse at the hands of England – but I have little doubt my sibling was posing the same query, with the sort of objectivity and untainted inquisitiveness best observed in children his age.

It's a question rapidly gaining magnitude as the Scots regress under Scott Johnson, who has rightly been the target for much of the public flak. It's also a question with more than one answer; the Test side and its deficiencies is merely the tip of the iceberg.

So let's delve deeper; beyond the puzzling selections, attacking impotency, defensive frailty, maddening indiscipline and error counts, and set-piece dissolution that are features of recent Scotland performances. Let's look past the five lineouts they coughed up to England on Saturday, the 27 missed tackles, the 34% territory, the 16 penalties, and the most glaring statistic of all: 21 points from four games, three of them on home turf. Or perhaps home mud is more appropriate.

Beginning at the top of the domestic game, many supporters assert that having the SRU set up and fund new pro teams would help grow rugby across the country. My brother and I would certainly love there to be a competitive professional side in the northeast, and we would support them heartily as we do Edinburgh and Glasgow Warriors. But at present, that's little more than a fairytale – spreading what limited resources the union has across a wider area hardly points the way to success and sustainability.

There are growing concerns too over the influx of overseas imports and “project players” to compete for a Scotland jersey. This debate has merits on both sides – the answer lies in striking an astute squad balance as Glasgow have done in recent seasons – but the sad fact is that Scotland alone is not producing enough quality home-grown talent for a successful national team.

For instance, Ross Ford's substitution was roundly cheered by the Murrayfield crowd on Saturday, but where will his replacement come from? Where are the next generation of front-rows? South Africa is probably the answer.

Though its morals are questionable, it's an SRU tactic designed to build a more competitive player pool and successful national team, which is key to driving interest and participation down the ranks. And besides, if you aren't good enough to win selection over Tyrone Holmes or Wicus Blaauw, then you probably shouldn't be playing Test rugby anyway.

But the pathway young Scots must traverse as they move from “promising club player” to “international regular” is a tricky one. There are some serious gaps to bridge and disparities to overcome. Cast a glance in the direction of the Under-20 squad, subject to regular maulings from their Six Nations rivals. They were trounced 48-15 by their English counterparts on Friday.

That England squad included Newcastle Falcons flyer Zach Kibirige, who scored two tries and regularly plays top-level rugby. In fact, nearly all fifteen players in the visitors' starting line-up were attached to Aviva Premiership squads or academies; many of them had already been given a handful of senior starts. Hardly surprising, then, that players turning out for Melrose, Aberdeen Grammar and Glasgow Hawks on a Saturday struggle to compete, for all that they display spades of pride and passion in their performances.

Even looking towards Wales, where the domestic game is in turmoil, the Under-20 squad features many names familiar to PRO12 viewers, and the WRU can point to their National Centre of Excellence at the Vale of Glamorgan, which includes a cryotherapy chamber.

And so, I invited my brother to take a look around; how many top-class sporting facilities could he spot in Scotland, let alone within the confines of our small corner of the Moray coastline? It is perhaps fitting that while the national team lapses in the Test match arena; his own high school side faces a battle for survival at the hands of extortionate amenities pricing and council bureaucracy.

Without such facilities and funding, I believe that summer rugby, at youth level at least, would help attract more youngsters to the game and offer a discrete alternative to other sports. In other words, if we want to encourage the growth of rugby at the “grass-roots”, let's not timetable it directly against the country's most popular sport (football). That is a battle we have been losing for decades, and there is no turnaround in sight for as long as results at the top continue to worsen. More simply, our climate is the butt of many jokes; why not make the most of what sunshine we do enjoy? Sport is rightly focused on fun at an early age, and though we all love a good slog in the filth and the mud, training is much more enjoyable when it's warm, dry and sunny.

The fee-paying schools from whence many Scotland internationals arise may grumble and moan about curriculums and cricket seasons – such institutions are not known for their flexibility. So be it. They can play against each other through winter, and when all is said and done, the talented players will still progress as they do now.

Change is not always a force for good, but if this ongoing trend in hapless Test displays is to mean anything, let it sound an overdue note that Scottish rugby in its present state is defective. I, like many Scots, am growing sick of our game and its failings since professionalism being pilloried by the wise men of the national press, portrayed as a laughing stock, and even told we should be jettisoned from the Six Nations.

So, while my brother's focus inevitably flitted from rugby back to texting, girls and which set of awful plimsolls went best with his school trousers, Vern Cotter will be left pondering the same query. He emerges later this year as the man tasked with mopping up Johnson's mess, and taking the first steps towards answering my brother's question.

By Jamie Lyall @JLyall93