A home game to end the Six Nations against the bottom-ranked team. Win that and they’ll end third on the league table, their first top half finish since 2018 and only their third in 10 years. Ireland and France might be the pace setters in European rugby, but Scotland have unquestionably been the most improved outfit.
They’re up to fifth on World Rugby’s rankings, their joint-highest ever standing on the governing body’s metrics. They’re littered with star players who wouldn’t be out of place in the four teams ranked above them. And though they’ve been grouped in the pool of death at the World Cup later this year alongside grand slam chasing Ireland and the world champions South Africa, it wouldn’t be a seismic shock if they managed to sneak into the quarterfinals.
This is an astonishing turnaround. But a glance beneath the glossy varnish of the elite level suggests that not all is as well as it seems.
The night before Scotland’s seniors gave a good account of themselves against Ireland, eventually succumbing to sustained pressure to lose 22-7, the under-20 side was being taught a harsh lesson, going down 82-7 to Ireland’s youngsters. Two weeks before, Scotland’s under-20s lost 54-12 to France in Agen and they started the tournament with another defeat, this time to England, going down 41-36 on the same weekend that Duhan van der Merwe starred in a historic triumph in Twickenham. Were it not for a single point win over Wales’ under-20s, Scotland would be staring at a possible wooden spoon.
Of course, they’re well acquainted with the timbered utensil. Scotland’s juniors have finished dead last in each of the previous two campaigns. They propped up the table again in 2019 and 2018 meaning they’ve ended bottom in four of the last five seasons.
As is always the case, there isn’t one clear answer that could explain this disparity but an explanation lies in Scotland’s reliance on foreign imports. In all Gregor Townsend can call on 22 players who were born and trained elsewhere. As many as 14 of them had previously represented a foreign country in some capacity at either school or junior levels. Three South Africans – Duhan van der Merwe, Pierre Schoeman and WP Nel – qualified through residency laws.
None of this is new. According to some neat stats work from Americas Rugby News, Scotland have for some time been fielding players who learned their trade elsewhere. Last year that number was a staggering 27. It was 23 in 2021 and 2018, 19 in 2019, 18 in 2017 and a comparatively low 14 in 2016.
It should be noted that they’re not alone. Ireland have 10 foreign born players in their squad, while Wales and Italy each have seven. England and France, who have more robust domestic leagues, still partly rely on foreign talents with five and four recruits respectively, but players like Marcus Smith, who was born in the Philippines but is very much English, are included on this list.
What does this mean for Scottish rugby? Clearly there is a problem with the pipeline and a change in the residency rules in 2022 which increased the required time to qualify for a country’s Test team from 36 to 60 consecutive months would further delay the incorporation of any foreign talent. Which means South Africans like Boan Venter at Edinburgh or Nathan McBeth at Glasgow can’t be fast tracked to the national team like some of their predecessors.
The Scottish Rugby Union have identified the need for reform and so launched an initiative to help develop locally produced props and hookers. Dubbed the Scrum School, this nationwide programme will seek to upskill young players with the necessary attributes required for this unique position. Coaches at all levels have been asked to join. But this is simply one area of concern.
Every position in the Scotland first team is either supplemented or entirely filled by foreign imports. More than half of the match day 23 named to play Italy on Saturday were born abroad as 13 players, including eight of the starting XV will stand shoulder to shoulder and sing their adopted nation’s anthem. They include both starting wingers, both match day scrum halves, two members of the starting back row, all three reserve backs, a lock, two props and a centre.
The FOSROC Super Series, officially launched in 2019, will hopefully address some of these issues. Its founding mandate was to close the gulf between the elite club teams in Edinburgh and Glasgow and the teams that feed them. The first season was curtailed due to the covid pandemic and did not run at all in 2020-21 which has delayed the intended development of players not yet ready to make the step up to the United Rugby Championship.
There have been some criticisms levelled at the competition, most notably the concentration of half the teams in Edinburgh without a single team in Glasgow, but the idea behind the concept is commendable. Other tier one nations, such as South Africa with the Currie Currie Cup and New Zealand with the rebranded Bunnings NPC, have a structured pyramid ensuring the continued cultivation of youth players. Scotland’s hope is that they will wean themselves off from players who cut their teeth in these leagues.
Wondering out loud if an over reliance on foreign talent might hurt Scotland in the near future is not to veer into xenophobia or jingoism. And if anyone needed a case in point as to the benefits of building a more robust youth programme, they only need to look at Scotland’s opponents this weekend.
This is the most homegrown Italian side in seven years. Last year as many as 22 foreign-born players, up from 10 the year before, were included in the Six Nations squad. That number has dropped by 15 for this season as a well-oiled and recently refurbished national academy is now bearing fruit.
A win over Scotland would likely see Italy finish fourth on the under-20 table, replicating their position last season. They lost by just a single point to France in week one of the tournament, ran England close in week two, secured a bonus point against Ireland and then beat Wales. That pipeline is now connected to the senior team that might end up winless but is undoubtedly a squad on the rise.
Scotland will want to bridge a widening gap or run the risk of falling through it.2023-03-17T14:31:27Z dg43tfdfdgfd