Rugby Union: Scots fear success is only skin deep

Tim Glover says the winning feeling failed to reach grass roots
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The Independent Online
WHEN THE Wales centre Scott Gibbs blasted his way through the England defence at Wembley for the try that transferred the championship to Scotland, Scott Hastings felt as sublime as a 10-year-old malt. "It was another stunning game in one of the best Five Nations," he said. "Who could have predicted the outcome?"

Not Hastings. "At the start of the season Scottish rugby was in total disarray," Scotland's most-capped player said. "For us to come out on top is nothing short of a miracle."

The Scottish Rugby Union, partly for financial reasons, disbanded the four traditional districts (against the wishes of the coach Jim Telfer) and concentrated everything on two "super teams", the Edinburgh Reivers and the Glasgow Caledonians.

Hastings is the director of rugby at Watsonians and at the start of the season signed an SRU contract to play for Edinburgh. "Those who signed for the super teams weren't allowed to play for their clubs during the league season," Hastings said. "They were only allowed to play for the second or third XV. It was a disaster. With the clubs stripped of their best players, spectators left in droves, sponsors didn't want to know. Watsonians won the championship last season but with 12 players contracted to the SRU I had to build a whole new team. I saw a club with great history and tradition being shafted."

When Watsonians played Jedforest there were 200 spectators, eight of whom were professionals prohibited from playing. "How can you run a club like that?" Hastings asked. Making few appearances for Edinburgh, he negotiated his way out of the SRU contract, announced his retirement from representative rugby and returned to Watsonians.

The two super teams, who are supposed to represent Scotland's professional elite, made early exits from the European Cup in front of sparse crowds. "They chose to play at soccer grounds," Hastings said, "and there was no identity, no culture, no following and no sustained fixture list. The top players were involved in meaningless games. It was embarrassing, totally inept."

Edinburgh and Glasgow featured in a Welsh Rugby Union initiative, the anonymous Welsh Trophy, which was another debacle. Nevertheless, the plan for next season is for the super teams to play in a Celtic league with the Welsh Premier Division clubs, a proposal that has the Scottish clubs calling for a special general meeting and a vote of no-confidence in the SRU.

"For one thing," Hastings said, "it is against the SRU's constitution. It would be a meaningless exercise. Nobody's going to watch Edinburgh play Caerphilly. We need to return to our traditional support, not get involved in a second-rate competition. The union is forecasting massive losses, but they see this as a way of getting into a British league."

And Twickenham thought they had problems. During the course of the super fiasco, two of Scotland's greats, Andy Irvine and John Jeffrey, resigned from the SRU committee and Tennents, the sponsor of the Scottish leagues, announced their withdrawal, switching an investment of pounds 2m to the WRU and the Millennium Stadium. Meanwhile, the SRU have ordered an independent review, to be chaired by Lord Mackay of Strathfearn, but his findings are not due until later in the year. "The issues need to be addressed now," Hastings said, "and there has to be a compromise. Tennents are pulling out because clubhouses are dying and there aren't enough players and supporters."

So how on earth did Scotland manage to win the championship? "The players have been caught in the middle and the only way to respond was to do their talking on the pitch," Hastings said. "It has brought the nation together but it shouldn't gloss over what has happened on the domestic scene."

Scotland's World Cup qualifiers against Portugal and Spain, played in front of minuscule crowds, at least gave them confidence in the search for an expansive game. Scotland were also helped in their reinvention by the Kiwi factor, particularly the Leslie brothers, John at centre and Martin at No 7.

But the super teams, around whom Scotland was supposed to be built, provided a small minority. England's Premiership had a larger input. Then, of course, there was the born- again Gregor Townsend. But he is a Brive-heart from France.

Although Hastings is looking forward to Scotland's World Cup match with South Africa in October with renewed optimism, he has one famous grouse up his sleeve. At Watsonians he has a talented centre, Marcus di Rollo, a Scot with Italian grandparents. "He's only 21 but because of what's happened he's one of the more experienced players. He is looking elsewhere and I wouldn't be surprised if he moved to Italy."

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