AS disappointing as it was to see both Edinburgh and Glasgow Warriors tumble out of the Challenge Cup – Europe’s second tier tournament – at the quarter-final stage last weekend, this turn of events should not come as a huge surprise to anyone. In fact, this season has seen Scotland’s two pro teams perform above their usual level in continental competition, so it is perhaps more of a shock that they got as far as they did.
In 26 years of cross-border European rugby, Edinburgh have the slightly better record of the two surviving Scottish sides, reaching the semi-finals of the top tier Champions Cup eleven [in 2011-12]the quarter-finals twice [in 2003-04 and 2018-19]and ‘the round of 16’ eleven [in last season’s Covid condensed tournament when they were hammered 56-3 by Racing 92]. In the Challenge Cup, they’ve reached the final eleven [in 2015-16] and the quarter-finals three times [in 2016-17, 2017-18 and 2019-20].
Meanwhile, Glasgow reached the second round of the Challenge Cup when it was played as a straight knock-out tournament in 2003-04 and the quarter final in 2006-07, as well as the quarter-final of the Champions Cup in 2016-17 and 2018-19.
All of which in boils down to the two sides making it to the knock-out stage of either European competition a total of 10 times in just over a quarter of a century, winning only four of those matches.
At some point we are going to have to stop looking perplexed when Scotland’s teams come up short against the best in Europe and give up the pretence that the result is an aberration which doesn’t properly reflect true ability. If we are serious about ever becoming something more than also-rans, then it is time to face the reality that the squads aren’t strong enough to cope when intensity rises during the business end of the season – and the solution needs to be a long-term strategy because trying to buy ready-made solutions is a failed concept.
When Sean Lineen – the former Glasgow Warriors head coach and latterly head of Scottish Rugby Academies and national age-grade teams – left the Murrayfield payroll last December, he said in the press release issued by a Scottish Rugby that: “There are so many good things going on just now: uppermost amongst them, the turbo-charging of investment in the pro teams.”
This, no doubt, had many fans of Edinburgh and Glasgow punching the air in delight at the thought of instant gratification, but it should have left them feeling deeply uneasy at what might be sacrificed in the pursuit of this policy.
After a fraught year and a half of fighting off the huge financial challenges posed by the Covid lockdown, Scottish Rugby Chief Executive Mark Dodson and his team of senior managers were bullish about the way forward as the pandemic started to ease ahead of the current season, buoyed by the combination of a £20m Scottish Government bail-out and private equity investment in the Six Nations and United Rugby Championship worth north of £60m in total. Both pro clubs recruited aggressively last off season – but it’s clearly going to take an awful lot more money than has been spent so far to close the gap on the big guns. And once that money is gone, it is gone forever, whereas taking the time to develop a successful development structure will continue to pay dividends for decades to come.
Dodson did also speak about future-proofing the game, but we are yet to see real evidence of a credible plan which will ensure a stronger supply-chain of homegrown talent into the pro tier, which is required so that recruitment overseas can be targeted at Adding real value to genuinely raise standards, as opposed to plugging gaps with journeymen and individuals we hope might end up being rough diamonds.
In 2011, the IRFU [Irish governing body] introduced a rule that their three ‘big’ provinces of Leinster, Munster and Ulster were allowed one foreign player in a specific position between them from 2013-14 onwards.
Meanwhile, French rugby introduced their JIFF regulations in 2010, which stipulated that a certain percentage of Top 14 squads, starting at 40% but rising over the years, must have spent at least five years in the French Rugby Federation system before turning 23 or have spent three years in an approved set-up before turning 21.
Both were bold and far from universally popular moves at the time, which forced everybody involved to focus on improving the player pathway. There was certainly some short-term pain, but it is no coincidence that Ireland and France have been the two roaring success stories in European rugby during the last decade.
Scottish Rugby needs to find its own unique solution to the challenges it faces, with the discipline which comes from having clearly defined protocols and key targets, because the strategy at the moment – if there is one – isn’t clear, and a piecemeal approach to conquer Europe is destined to result in more frustration.