Time is right now for a league of home nations

McRae believes Scotland can build on small beginning
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The Independent Online

And you thought English football had problems. The unprecedented appointment of a foreign manager to the helm of the national team may have raised most eyebrows in England, but no one batted so much as an eyelid north of Hadrian's Wall. Forget the management; it is the entire Scotland rugby league team who are made up exclusively of foreigners.

And you thought English football had problems. The unprecedented appointment of a foreign manager to the helm of the national team may have raised most eyebrows in England, but no one batted so much as an eyelid north of Hadrian's Wall. Forget the management; it is the entire Scotland rugby league team who are made up exclusively of foreigners.

The various rugby authorities - in both league and union - have long been accused of lacking scruples when it comes to recruiting players to represent their countries. When he speaks, Shane Howarth sounds as Welsh as Jonah Lomu, Mike Catt as English as François Pienaar and Budge Pountney as Scottish as Kyran Bracken. But at least they are exceptions in their respective teams. By contrast, not one of the players in the Scotland squad was born in the country.

But how much does it matter? Is not the key that Scotland were able to assemble a team for the World Cup, whatever their make-up? Their coach, an Australian, has no doubt that the country of his ancestors have adopted the right policy for taking the game forward. "I can understand people making a few sarcastic comments over the absence of Scots in the party," said Shaun McRae, who gained a degree in sports psychology at Newcastle College last year. "But Australia didn't complain when Terry Venables was given the football coaching job, and I didn't hear a huge amount of outrage about the fact that the Wales and Ireland teams have only two players born in those respective countries. If it's above board and it complies with the rules, what is the harm? I would just hope that Scottish folk could come along to our matches with an open mind."

McRae added: "We're not a bunch of mercenaries. On the contrary, we have abided by the regulations and have pulled together a talented group of lads, all of whom are entitled and pleased to represent Scotland. So where is the problem? Of course, people are going to be annoyed that all our players aren't Scots. But I'm being honest and up front about this. And, although I would be disappointed if we didn't have any home-grown players by the time of the next World Cup, the truth is that Scotland's amateur players aren't quite ready at this stage for the rigours of a full-blooded tournament.

"That's understandable, when you consider it is only a couple of years since Scotland were accepted as a fully fledged member of the international league community. People need to just get behind this team and support them."

Easier said than done. Indeed, such has been the dearth of support for the sport in Scotland that the question is not so much whether the fans are willing to embrace their team of exiles, but rather whether there are any fans at all. Before the tournament kicked off, the Scotland captain, the Brisbane-born hooker Danny Russell, was hoping for a good following. "We've played at Glasgow a couple of times and Edinburgh have already had a taste, so it will be interesting to see how many people turn up," he had said. "From what I hear a lot of people in Scotland love the game and are looking forward to following it."

His optimism did not materialise as clicks at the turnstiles. The attendance for Scotland's opening match against the Maori was 2,008. The Scots, it would seem, are simply not interested in rugby league. "I was disappointed we didn't get more for our opening game," McRae said.

"Perhaps it has to do with the fact that the media have been so negative. Or maybe it's the appaling weather which is deterring fans from coming out. I'm not sure. But even Ireland, who are supposed to be a step ahead of us, only got 1,700 people on Wednesday when they played us. So where were their fans?"

Herein lies the problem facing McRae and his wellmeaning team. They are playing with the pride and passion of born-and-bred Scots, yet nobody is giving them a chance.

The team's 18-year-old scrum-half, Richard Horne, who has no Scottish background but qualified because he was born in the neutral offshore territory of the Isle Of Man, believes the aim is not only for Scotland to take part in a World Cup, but also to play a big part in enabling the game to be established north of the border, where union dominates the rugby scene. "It is our task to sell the sport to the punters," he said.

McRae, whose team were in a with only a slim chance of qualifying for the quarter-finals before Ireland's final Group Four match with Maori last night, believes the only way to get more Scottish players and supporters involved is by establishing a home nations' tournament. "It could be held every year, like the Six Nations' event in rugby union," he said. "And that would encourage youngsters to watch and then, hopefully, play the game."

McRae added: "People are interested, I'm sure of it. We had a taste of what might be when Bradford and Leeds met in the Challenge Cup final at Murrayfield in May. The game was very well received and I cannot see why rugby league should not have its place alongside football and rugby union."

McRae, who guided St Helens to the league and Challenge Cup double in 1996 and coached the Australia and New Zealand national teams with great success in the Nineties, is not someone who has tasted failure very often. It may just be that, on this one occasion, he has to accept defeat.

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