YESTERDAY, the Scottish Rugby Union – SRU – announced plans for a tournament featuring the best of their young players from across Scotland, to be played next month at Oriam, the Scottish National Sports Performance Centre, on the Heriot Watt University Campus at Currie. The tournament will be played under trial revised laws, designed to get the young players involved used to playing a higher-tempo, more-pressurised form of rugby, with the games played at greater intensity.
Why cannot the SFA be similarly-ambitious? Well you might ask. The thing is, the “suits” at BT Murrayfield: (I use “suits” by the way, after one of their High Heid Yins pulled me up for referring to the decision-makers as “blazers”; pointing-out, they ditched the blazers in favour of a corporate suits deal some years ago), while revelling in the impression that in Scottish rugby, things: “Hae aye been and aye will be”, but, the reality is, the Murrayfield “suits” are a lot sharper than their counterparts across at Hampden.
The thing is, in Scottish rugby, THE NATIONAL TEAM COMES FIRST: everything is geared to putting the best-possible SCOTLAND team on the field. In football, SCOTLAND comes a poor third to a couple of permanently-warring Glasgow clubs. And, as for the rest, if push comes to shove between the requirements of the individual club, or the national team – the club comes first. You don't believe me? Well, just take a look at the Scotland squad, as listed on the official SRU website.
This squad list contains 42 players, who attended a start-of-season training camp in St Andrew's. Of these 2 players, 34 are with out two domestic full-time professional sides; Glasgow supply 20 players, Edinburgh 14, while the other 8 are with clubs outside Scotland. But, Edinburgh and Glasgow are wholly-owned subsidiaries of the SRU, so, in reality, the SRU controls 80% of the national squad. The governing body can impose limits on how many games each player plays, can make certain they are properly rested and their needs are catered-to – all the player has to do is stay fit, prepare and train properly and be ready to do his best for Scotland.
These two are "national assets"
He gets the best care the Union can provide, and is treated as a valued asset. You would expect top club footballers to receive the same treatment, but, the difference is, the likes of Finn Russell or Stuart Hogg and Jonny Gray are seen as “national” assets – Kieran Tierney, Craig Gordon and Stuart Armstrong, who you might say are their football equivalents, are “club” assets. Because they control the players, the SRU can insist, no player plays more than five games in a row, without a break, or that there is a maximum number of games he can play in a season – the SFA cannot extend that duty of care to their international squad, since, they are controlled by their clubs.
But these two are "club assets"
Gregor Townsend, as Glasgow coach, evolved a high-tempo, high-pressure, off-loading game plan for his club. That plan was extended to the national side, and now, while it is perhaps anathema to everything he has ever done before in rugby, Richard Cockerill, a Leicester Tiger and therefore a disciple of: “Stick it up your jumper and grind the opposition down with forward power” Leicester rugby, has bought-into the Townsend/SRU vision in his new role as Edinburgh Head Coach. Ditto, New Zealander Dave Rennie, Townsend's successor at Glasgow – although, to be fair to Rennie, that was very similar to the style he operated as Honcho of the Chiefs back in the Land of the Long White Cloud.
Thus, the main players in top-flight Scottish rugby are all singing from the same hymn sheet. The line-out and attacking calls might change for the national side, but, the basic pattern is the same, the players all know it, are comfortable with it and know how to play it.
In football, Celtic play one formation, Rangers another, various other clubs play different formations as well. Then, you have a look at the last Scotland squad which Gordon Strachan announced, the original one for the World Cup qualifying double-header against Lithuania and Malta. WGS named 27 players – 9 Home Scots and 18 Anglo-Scots. They were drawn from 17 different clubs – three, Celtic, Hearts and Hibs in Scotland, and 14 in England.
That is a lot more different formations and cultures to incorporate into one Scotland set-up, but, to give WGS credit, he built his team around a Celtic core, since the Hoops had provided six players, the most of any single club.
Gregor Townsend doesn't have many of the problems
However, I believe, it is easier for Townsend to put together a formation and tactical system with which the players are comfortable and familiar than it is for WGS.
Which Gordon Strachan has to try to overcome
That said, it would be nice to think the SFA could get their act together and, like the SRU, tinker with the Laws of the Game and find ways of getting our young players to play at a higher tempo, and under greater pressure. And that;s another difference between the two football codes. In rugby, while it must be admitted, some of the clubs do not like it, the high performance side of the game is administered and run by professionals – in Scottish football, it's the unpaid amateurs the “suits”, sent from the clubs, who call the shots. All the professionals are there to do is accept the blame when things, as invariably happens – don't work out for Scotland.