Speakers’ Corner – Capped, Capped, at Last

I heard great news this week: an old school friend and teammate, Julian Scott, or Dood as he is known, and I’m not sure why, has been retrospectively awarded a cap for playing rugby for Scotland in a touring match against France in 1986.  It’s just reward for an excellent scrum half who played during the era of Gary Armstrong and other talented scrum halves.  I always believed he should have played many more times for Scotland and could never understand why he missed out on selection.  That was until a couple of years ago, when I was told that he ruined his chances of an international career in the bar after a match and a few beers, responding to the claim from a then-Scottish selector that he was just a ‘soft city boy’.  Even today, Borderers dish out this insult at players from Edinburgh’s ‘posh schools.’  The fact that Dood physically dissuaded the said selector of that view did not help his cause.  This tale comes with the prefix – allegedly.  Therefore, there is something beautiful and sweet in the fact that Dood has been recognised.  He was good enough, a terrier, a hard competitor, and a natural leader.  He captained his way through school, the Scottish Schools team, and his club, Stewart’s Melville.

            As thrilling was that his elder brother, Simon, played in the same match at inside centre and he, too, has been awarded a Scotland cap.  Simon played for the Scottish Schools team with the famous Calder twins, Jim and Finlay.  He played stand-off at school but was a centre in senior rugby, and his international career was curtailed by injury and not a swinging right hook.  He had a searing break, was a gifted distributor and gave players around him space to showcase their talents.  In a trial match in 1986, Simon played a blinder, and the Whites (2nd XV) thrashed the Blues (1st XV).  As a result, six players were elevated to the starting XV against England in the Calcutta Cup match the following week, including first caps for Scott and Gavin Hastings.  Simon was not selected, and the disappointment must have been crushing, as the consensus from spectators, including me and my dad, was that he had been the lynchpin in the victory.    My late father would have been ecstatic at the justice of their elevation to a cap. Whatever Simon’s disappointment, it never showed.  He was forever funny, engaging, and always playing his rugby with a smile. 

            The Scott family were talented sportsmen, elder brothers Nicky, another scrum half, and Andy, a deceptively fast winger.  They all excelled at golf, tennis, and cricket.  I was lucky enough to be at the other end batting in 1980 when Simon majestically stroked and hammered 150 not out against Holy Cross at Arboretum.  His batting had the grace of all left-handers, and as I say, he would hit a four through the covers off his back foot and still have time to joke with the bowler, umpire, and wicketkeeper and manage a word of encouragement for me as the fielders retrieved the ball.

            The joy of amateur rugby of the 1980s contrasts with the professionalism of rugby today.  The game has changed, more like rugby league and players are physically bulked up that it makes me wince when they collide.  However, the World Cup started at the weekend; France dispatched the New Zealanders without playing particularly well, England beat a poor Argentina, Ireland hammered Namibia, and South Africa overpowered Scotland.  It was predictable, depressingly predictable.  You see, rugby is dominated by France, England, Wales, Ireland, Scotland, and three southern hemisphere teams, South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand.  And that’s just the way these powerful nations want it.  Emerging nations, such as Italy, Georgia, Fiji, Samoa, and Tonga, aren’t given the funding or regular competition against the strong nations that would ensure they’d be more competitive.

            That was never more obvious than in the Fiji vs. Wales game on Sunday.  The Flying Fijians are some of the most athletic and talented players in the world, but they’ve suffered from underfunding from World Rugby for decades.  This has hindered their progress, and they’ve flattered to deceive at various World Cups after winning the odd game.  On Sunday, they suffered from what I would call ‘unconscious bias’ from the English referee.  He wasn’t even-handed, opting not to penalise the Welsh for cynical and repeated infringements near their try line.  The referee chose not to act.  However, after one penalty on the Fijian line, he sent a Fijian to the sin bin for ten minutes.  I’m not suggesting that the referee calculated this action; instead, he is influenced by the political power dynamic in the game and the effect a Wales loss would have on the tournament.

            To become a truly global sport, rugby must address two issues.  Firstly, it must make the game safer by reducing collisions to the head during a tackle, regardless of whether it is intentional or not.  One option is to drop the tackle height.  I come from a generation where if you made a tackle above the waist as a schoolboy, the referee would give a penalty against you.  There must be a way to enforce this in the game.   Secondly, the game must widen and encourage emerging nations with funding and regular games.  This means that the old order may fall.  That process is already happening, as Scotland U20s have been relegated from the elite annual World Cup into a secondary tournament where they lost to Uruguay this season.  The home nations (Scotland, Ireland, England, and Wales) have no God-given right to be preeminent in the game.

That creates some fundamental issues for the game in Scotland.  Increasingly, the professional game relies on talent generated by fee-paying schools.  They play in leagues and cups, and few state school teams are entered, certainly not at the top level.  When Dood and I played in the ’70s, our fixtures lists were varied and included Edinburgh, schools like Portobello High, Boroughmuir High, Leith Academy, Craigmount High, Trinity Academy, Royal High, Ross High and Dunfermline High.  Consequently, state schools broke through and provided many players for international age group teams. This is now the exception; state school players tend to come through clubs’ mini and midi sections.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m not knocking fee-paying schools; I’m a product of the system.  They continue to produce brilliant players like Blair Kinghorn and George Turner.  But this small section of Scotland’s potential player pool will not maintain Scotland as a power in the world game without broader participation.   Scotland has a finite talent pool, as evidenced by the number of kilted Kiwis, Tongans, Australians, and South Africans imported into the international team to maintain our competitiveness. The professional game dominates these discussions, but the club game is crumbling.  My club, Stewart’s Melville, can field only two teams weekly.  Fifty years ago, they fielded six of seven teams every week.

Therefore, I doubt the solution lies with what the Scottish Rugby Union can do.  This requires political solutions from the Scottish Government. More funding for rugby in state schools, particularly coaching, and changing the Curriculum for Excellence to include more provision of playing sports for all Scottish children. However, this requires World Rugby to make it a safer game that satisfies parents that rugby is a game for their child.  It all seems a circular argument, especially when spending is squeezed, and we’re all living through a cost-of-living crisis, which will make increased monies an uphill battle.  But the future of Scottish rugby depends on it.  We must develop a safe game that is open to all, regardless of background and status.

I love rugby.  I will always love rugby, even if Scotland is no longer a power in the game.  However, I hope that those in the game, domestically and internationally, make the necessary changes to level the playing field for all nations and work to expand player participation.  And I’m optimistic that those administrators who finally acknowledged Dood and Simon as Scotland internationals will have enough sense to make the correct decisions.