Rugby Union / Five Nation's Countdown: Telfer must find cure for sudden malaise: A shortage of players may not mean a shortage of talent for Scotland. Steve Bale reports

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The Independent Online
IN WALES, where rugby reaches into the soul of the nation, they are used to impassioned debate and goodness knows they have had enough to debate impassionedly during the recent dog-days which have stretched into years. But the Scots? Surely not.

Talking of souls, never has there been such soul-searching in Scottish rugby, never such a profound analysis of the ills of the game north of the border, as has occurred since the crushing disappointment of Scotland's 51-15 defeat by New Zealand in November.

This, as the Scots would say, was a right howkin', and it has inevitably cast a pall of gloaming over Scotland's Five Nations chances. To lose like that to the All Blacks was bad enough; to lose at all to the Welsh in Cardiff on Saturday would confirm the worst.

'I'm apprehensive, I must admit, in that we don't seem to have the hard core of eight or nine genuine international players at the moment that we did in the mid to late Eighties when they were all reaching their prime,' said Jim Telfer who, quite apart from being seven weeks into his new job as the Scottish Rugby Union's full-time director of rugby, is a figure of profound

respect in the Scottish game.

'We are scratching around to have four or five steady internationalists. In the immediate term I don't think I can do all that much except work on what we've got. But for the future we have to look to identify talent at 16, 17 and 18, especially in the front five, and put them on specific programmes which will help turn them into internationalists.'

It was not just the feebleness of the Scottish performance against the All Blacks. As luminaries as lustrous as Telfer, John Rutherford, Roy Laidlaw and even the immediate past coach, Ian McGeechan, acknowledge, the problems are such that - whatever happens at the Arms Park - genuine improvement will take years rather than the weeks that have passed since the New Zealand game.

This is a stark message, given Telfer's position of eminence, given that Laidlaw is the SRU's youth development officer for the Borders and that Rutherford is one of the coaches of the South (or Borders) district XV. Never mind the Murrayfield match, Rutherford will not quickly forget the 84-5 thrashing the All Blacks gave his team.

Add to these horrendous results the under-achievement - to put it politely - of nearly all the Scots who went with the Lions to New Zealand last summer and you find Scottish rugby suffering its most debilitating malaise since the melancholy time before Laidlaw came into the team in 1980 and formed one of the world's great half-back partnerships with Rutherford.

The situation is made worse by the growth of public expectation during the recent years when Scotland were good enough to achieve a Five Nations Grand Slam in 1990 and finish fourth in the World Cup in '91. 'People up here expect miracles from our top players,' Rutherford said. 'They expect them to turn in world-class performances every game.

'But what we are going to have to do is bite the bullet and realise we aren't going to win many games over the next couple of years. There's talent about but you can't lose guys like Jeffrey, Sole, Calder, Lineen, Armstrong and the rest as we have done and imagine there will be no effect.'

In fact this talent is some way short of maturity and in any case there is less of it where it is most acutely needed: in those forward areas which these days seem to require elephantine bulk. 'The sad fact is that, if you don't have 6ft 8in locks and a huge back row, you're not going to beat the good sides,' Rutherford said. Or, as Telfer put it: 'If you don't have 18st guys, you can't simply pick a 14st guy and make him a monster.'

As it happens, Scotland do have a 6ft 8in lock, Andy Macdonald, and an 18st prop, Alan Watt, but both are among the discards from the All Black match. The alternative is to make the best of what you have and, as McGeechan points out, native cunning allied with a clever, varied and constantly changing strategy ought to serve Scotland as well in the future as they have in the past.

'People going to Murrayfield have got into the routine of expecting Scotland to win there and players coming in sometimes think that because there has been a regular pattern of winning it will just

happen, without appreciating the amount of effort and work that is needed,' the former coach said.

This, evidently, is what happened against New Zealand. 'As soon as we think we can do it without that urgency and commitment we struggle,' McGeechan said. Rutherford went further: 'What you can never forgive is a lack of passion.' And Telfer: 'A lot of the senior players must be looking at themselves.'

As every one of the above keeps emphasising, all is not lost. Laidlaw is at the sharp end, trying to increase the rugby-playing population: a perversely difficult task in the Borders because rugby is already the major sport there.

'We have been in this situation before,' he said. 'I remember when I came into the Scottish team in 1980 there had been something like 17 games with only one win. But to be beaten by as many points as this at international level has been a terrible shock to the system and, frankly, if we don't encourage the youngsters and bring them on, things will get worse.'

This is special pleading but Laidlaw, Rutherford, Telfer and McGeechan all point out the difficulty of a rugby nation of 25,000 players (the Guinness Rugby Union Fact Book's over-optimistic calculation for Scotland) competing with one of 375,000 (England) or even 182,500 (New Zealand).

As it happens, Bob Templeton, these days coaching Harlequins as well continuing to act as Bob Dwyer's assistant with Australia, has been in Scotland spreading the message that small, while not necessarily beautiful, can have its compensations. The Wallabies hold the World Cup yet, according to the Guinness book, they have only 11,500 players, fewer than any of the seven other old rugby countries.

'Now that England have the structure, they are continually going to produce good teams where we will never have that luxury,' Laidlaw said. 'Instead we have to look at a country like Australia, study how they make the most of what they have, take the best of their system and put it into practice here.

'Bob Templeton didn't even say anything particularly new to us but it was the way he said it that was

refreshing, the emphasis on quality rather than quantity. If they can do it there, there is certainly no reason why we can't do it in Scotland even if there's no use in trying to hide that we are in for a lean spell.'

McGeechan would doubtless agree but at the same time he is

puzzled that the players he bequeathed when he retired as coach last March have subsequently gone backwards instead of forwards. 'I was more concerned last year, when we had lost a group of strong individuals and we knew we were starting afresh,' he said.

'We shouldn't have lost in Paris and in the end we were coming into the last game with a Triple Crown in our sights and had blooded a number of new players. They should have been in a position to take it on. I would have thought we were most vulnerable last season when there was quite an upheaval. I actually thought we had coped quite well.' Obviously not.

(Photograph omitted)