Rugby Union: A game without frontiers: Chris Rea discusses proposals for Scottish clubs to team up with the Irish

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The Independent Online
FOLLOWING the crushing indignities heaped on Wales and the South of Scotland in Cardiff and at Galashiels in midweek, there is clearly an urgent need in both countries to take the domestic game beyond its insular boundaries. As our front-page story shows, moves towards the formation of an Anglo-Welsh league appear to be continuing apace. But the Scots, too, seem hell-bent on change. Scotland's rugby followers felt a deep sense of shock and shame in the aftermath of the massacre at Netherdale. The following day there was scalding criticism of the club structure, of the complacency which pervades the game and of the parochialism which for so long has stifled progress at representative level.

Seldom has a side so gruesomely lived up to its pre-match billing as underdogs as the South XV did last Wednesday. With one or two honourable exceptions, they were not fit to be on the same field as the All Blacks. Yet the fault lies not so much with the players as with the system which produces them.

Jim Telfer, soon to become Scotland's director of coaching, has been appealing for calm. After all, was it not against the All Blacks 10 years ago that the South of Scotland - then as now the flagship of the inter-district fleet - went down with all guns silent, 10 internationals included? The following week, in the precursor to a first Grand Slam for 59 years, Scotland emerged from a stupendous international with a 25-25 draw.

But John Rutherford, the backs coach for the South, believes that anyone who finds solace in such comparison is living in a fool's paradise. 'It was a poor performance by the South that day. But there were so many talented players in the side who were to form the core of the Grand Slam team. There was not the gulf in class that we saw last Wednesday.' But surely the Grand Slams of 1984 and 1990 were the products of the same league structure which is now being held responsible for the country's ills? Rutherford thinks not. 'The leagues had very little to do with our success at international level. It was much more the combination of an extraordinarily high proportion of quality players and a succession of demanding overseas tours between 1980 and 1982.'

Rutherford is clear in his own mind about the remedies. Whether his compatriots, in particular the clubs, are prepared to try them is another matter. 'First we must reduce the number of leagues and the number of clubs in each league. It is patently absurd to have seven national leagues and equally daft in a country which is struggling to produce 28 top-class players, to have that number of clubs in the top two divisions.' Rutherford's idea would be to have two national divisions, each one comprising eight clubs, and to complete the league programme within two months of the start of the season. 'That way we could build up to the international season through the Inter-District Championship. But we would have to extend its scope and competitiveness, and the most effective and practical way of doing that would be to join forces with the Inter-Provincial Championship in Ireland.'

Rutherford considers that this would be a natural liaison given the affinity that exists between the two countries and their shared need to bridge the gap between club and international rugby. Frightening though that gap is, it does not terrify Rutherford half as much as the chasm which is beginning to appear between Scotland and the world leaders, New Zealand and Australia - and even, he believes, England, South Africa and France. The first steps towards a merger with Ireland have already been taken with the South scheduled to play Irish provincial opposition later in the season.

Rutherford concedes that the clubs, who form the power base of the game in Scotland, will not readily be dissuaded from pursuing their narrow aims at the expense of the national interest. But he has a hunch that the sheer scale of the South defeat will provide the stimulus for action. 'Jim Telfer should be asked to produce a paper on the state of the game in Scotland and to come up with a blueprint for its future,' he said. 'And to get the message across loud and clear I would hire a marketing company to promote and sell it. The higher the profile the harder it would be to ignore. Because, believe me, we ignore last Wednesday's shambles at our peril.'

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