Over the last few seasons, Scotland have lost a fair share of stars. This week, Greig Tonks confirmed his move to London Irish, with Sean Maitland having signed for them last year and Edinburgh captain Mike Coman also on their books as of next season. Glasgow have lost two prop-forwards as Cusack has signed for Newcastle Falcons, following Jon Welsh’ switch to the Premiership side in the summer. Other stars who have left or are due to include Scotland internationals Matt Scott, David Denton, Tim Visser, Euan Murray and Tom Heathcote. Other players such as DTH Van de Merwe, Niko Matawalu and Connor Braid have left Scottish shores, with Taquele Naiyarovoro, Grant Gilchrist and Leone Nakarawa all set to leave too. Whether they’re Scottish qualified or not, or whether you rate these individuals is irrelevant. That’s an awful lot of players to lose over the space of a season. But is this a good or bad thing for Scottish rugby?
I thought I’d start with the negatives. These players who are leaving are big names. Some, maybe don’t fall into the international class category, but have made significant impacts at their clubs. These are players who have grown alongside Edinburgh and Glasgow. Last season saw Scotland’s first significant piece of club silverware in the professional era as Glasgow Warriors became PRO12 champions. Edinburgh also managed to shake off a poor string of form at the start of last season, to make it to the Challenge cup final. These are significant steps for these clubs and the players had a winning mentality which helped to achieve these things. With those players leaving, it feels like it’s a step backwards, especially for Edinburgh who are set to lose/have lost so much quality by the end of the season, they will need a rebuild.
The loss of players arguably may stunt the growth of professional rugby in Scotland, too. It’s a natural reaction to support a winning side and this has certainly shown at Glasgow. The club reported at the start of the season that season ticket holders were up seventy percent since the 2012/13 season, which is a significant growth within two years. Perhaps this growth isn’t so evident at Edinburgh, but even when you look to the national side, Murrayfield sold out in record time for the Six Nations this year. Following a disruptive season, with both sides losing players to the Rugby World Cup and the Six Nations, next season looks as though it may also be a tough one for the Scottish sides as the they attempt to gel and incorporate the new players coming through. My big question is, will rugby continue to grow if the results begin to drop off at club level? It won’t necessarily happen, but if it does, it would be a shame following all the steps Scottish Rugby has been making after a slow start to the professional era.
This is subjective. If you believe that International results will make more people interested in supporting professional rugby in Scotland, then the exodus could well work out positively with lots of new talent developing. On the other hand if you believe it all starts with the clubs being successful and increasing the profile of the sport in Scotland, to then feed the national side, then perhaps you will feel that the number of departures is worrying.
The above is, of course a worst case scenario. There are also a lot of positives you can take from these players moving on.
One positive to take is that ultimately teams need a good coach to win- In Vern Cotter, Alan Solomons and Gregor Townsend Scotland have that, and all of them have renewed their contracts (Scotland, Edinburgh, Glasgow respectively). They will be key in helping to nurture young talent as they have done for the past few years. People argue that although coaches are hugely important, at the end of the day, it’s the players on the field who ultimately decide whether the game is won or loss. The thing that makes a great coach is turning those new players into quality operators. Look how many players have become classy internationals who were in Sean Lineen/Gregor Townsend’s squads a few years ago (Hogg, Bennett, Dunbar..) and how many quality young players are coming through under Solomons at Edinburgh now (Sam Hidalgo-Clyne, Blair Kinghorn, Jamie Ritchie..)
This opens a real opportunity for young talent. Scotland U20’s have so far gone well in the Six Nations, defeating last years winners and world championship runners-up, England, as well as Italy. They recorded a narrow 18-15 loss to Wales. Players such as Jamie Ritchie and Blair Kinghorn have been slotting in well at Edinburgh during the Six Nations period. Out west, Glasgow Scott Cummings has been playing well in the second row and James Malcolm the academy hooker has looked comfortable in the front-row Glasgow this season. With established internationals and club players moving on, this gives young players the opportunity to step up to the plate and I feel that in Solomons and Townsend, these players are being given an excellent opportunity to become full-time and quality professional rugby players, players who can make the national squad a few years down the line.
Another large positive (depending on your opinion of the PRO12) is that the players who will be on, will be going to more competitive, better supported leagues. This will only help to push them on with their performances and rounding their skills. Lots of Premiership and Top 14 sides have got lots of strength in depth, where perhaps in Scotland some of the players would be pencilled in as the first choice player without a second thought. Players will have to fight for their shirt and that can only be a good thing.
At larger clubs it can also add that element of coping with pressure. With average attendances much higher across the board in England and France, the players will have to deal with larger crowds on a more regular basis, making them more accustomed to a pressurised environment. If there’s something Scotland sides have been criticised of, especially of late, its not knowing how to close out games and win. If key players are playing in a high pressure environment more regularly, this should help them to keep a cool head at International level- just look how well Greig Laidlaw has progressed in his overall skills and leadership since his move down south to Gloucester in 2014.
Of course, I wanted to see what people think the reasons for the number of departures is- The majority voted that it was a combination of financial reasons and a sign that Scotland is now producing more, quality players. Many also suggested that it was planned by the SRU to make space for the up and coming stars of Scottish Rugby.
Personally, I see these moves as a positive, with more Scottish qualified players getting access to regular, top flight rugby and believe that it will pay dividends a few seasons down the line. The only thing that concerns me is that a number of the players have gone to London Irish and Newcastle Falcons- both fighting to avoid relegation. This doesn’t provide a winning culture (at present) and could well affect players internationally- in my pre six-nations squad I went as far as dropping Maitland as I feel he just isn’t doing anything special at London Irish, only occasionally showing signs of how he used to play at Glasgow. He now gets more regular game time, but losing that winning culture has worked against the regular game time he now gets. If one of these sides is relegated, you’d hope the International players have a get out clause.
As usual, please let me know your thoughts by commenting here, Reddit, or on my Twitter!
The Scribbler, March 4th, 2016