Rugby Union: Aitken rounds on his partner in time

Phil Gordon hears a former captain say Scotland's ills start at the very top
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The Independent Online
SCOTTISH rugby seems to have been stuck in reverse gear for a dangerously long time. Now things are going backwards before the season has even kicked off.

The Scottish Rugby Union's decision to turn back the clock and hand Jim Telfer the task of rescuing the nation's pride in the Five Nations' Championship after the coach Richie Dixon's departure on Thursday, has not won universal approval. Telfer, the celebrated coach of the 1984 Grand Slam team, was the SRU's idea of damage limitation, after the Dixon era ended ignominiously in Treviso last Saturday with a defeat by Italy. Ten defeats in 12 games made even the prospect of Ireland on Saturday strike fear within the Scots' hierarchy at Murrayfield.

However, one man believes that far from riding to the rescue, Telfer is driving the whole of Scottish rugby over the precipice. Amazingly, that critic is someone who shared Telfer's greatest hour: Jim Aitken, the captain of the Grand Slam side 14 years ago.

Aitken is worried about the route that rugby north of the border is travelling. It is not just that the inception of professionalism two years ago has brought the biggest under-achievement by the national team in two decades, nor that the dwindling pool of quality players is being plucked away by voracious English clubs. What disturbs Aitken more is that he believes Murrayfield itself has been the source of the decline.

He points the finger particularly at the chairman of the executive board, Duncan Paterson, and Telfer, who is also the national director of rugby. "They are both to blame for the current state of Scottish rugby," Aitken said. Aitken accused Paterson of having "an obsession with power", while Telfer's shortcomings, he said, lie in delusions of grandeur on the pitch. "Telfer is consumed by some fantastic dream that he can turn every rugby player in Scotland into an All Black," Aitken said. "He is obsessed with New Zealand rugby and wants to model everything we have on their game. Yet we will never have their strength in depth."

The SRU think differently. After the Italian job, they believe that Telfer and his assistant Ian McGeechan can recreate the chemistry that worked for the Lions in South Africa last year. Scotland may have teamed up the two men who have led them to their last two moments of Grand Slam glory, but Aitken insists that the raw material is no longer there to work with.

Around 100 players were put on full-time contracts, thanks to the money generated by sell-out internationals and debenture schemes, by the SRU two seasons ago. However, Aitken is sceptical. "I would not pay any player in Scotland right now, because they are not worth it," he said.

Certainly, most of those Scots who do appear to be worth anything in rugby's brave new world earn their corn down south. Nine of the side who lost in Treviso play with English clubs. The exiles have left behind a club landscape that resembles a wasteland. "The club scene in Scotland has been decimated," said Aitken, whose entire playing career was spent in the competitive all-embracing rivalry of the Borders.

"The clubs are dying on their feet. People say they are not producing players, but why should they when the SRU run the show. The SRU should turn the money over to the clubs and let them decide whether they want to spend it on youth development or attracting players.

"Now that professionalism has come in, it's a fact of life that players will be lured to England. If the best players want to go, that's fine, just as long as they want to continue playing for their country."

The solution, according to Aitken, is simply a return to the spirit of the past, rather than its figurehead.

"In 1984 we had a group of players who wanted to play for Scotland. We had one or two good individuals but they and the rest of us never kidded ourselves. We knew our shortcomings and we worked hard to overcome them."

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