World Rugby

Scotland Must Wean Itself Off Imported Talent

Scotland Must Wean Itself Off Imported Talent

A home game to end the Six Nations against the bottom-ranked team. Win that, and Scotland will end third on the league table.

Mar 24, 2023 by RugbyPass
Scotland Must Wean Itself Off Imported Talent

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 unquestionably has been the most-improved outfit.

Scotland’s up to fifth on World Rugby’s rankings, a joint-highest standing on the governing body’s metrics in the team’s history. 

The roster is 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 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 at the bottom in four of the last five seasons.

As always is 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, either at 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 has 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 has 10 foreign-born players on its squad, while Wales and Italy each have seven. England and France, who have more robust domestic leagues, still partly rely on foreign talents. They have five and four recruits, respectively, but players such as 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, such as 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 has identified the need for reform and so launched an initiative to help develop locally produced props and hookers. 

Dubbed the Scrum School, this nationwide program 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 matchday 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. 

The list includes 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 center.

The FOSROC Super Series, officially launched in 2019, hopefully will 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-19 pandemic and did not run at all in 2020-2021, 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 leveled 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 1 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 of 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 program, 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 bearing fruit.

A win over Scotland likely would see Italy finish fourth on the under-20 table, replicating their position last season. They lost by a single point to France in Week 1 of the tournament, ran England close in Week 2, secured a bonus point against Ireland and then beat Wales. 

That pipeline now is connected to the senior team that might end up winless but undoubtedly is a squad on the rise.

Scotland will want to bridge a widening gap or run the risk of falling through it.