Rugby Union: Telfer ready to redraw the Scottish map

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The Independent Online
FOR any Scot, the 50-point thrashing handed out by France at Murrayfield last weekend was almost too much to bear; for a veteran with 35 years' service to his country behind him, it should have been devastating. So it came as a surprise last week to detect an almost stoical tone to Jim Telfer's clipped Borders vowels as he contemplated his beloved Scotland's predicament.

"There's a gap growing in the Five Nations and it's inevitable," he admitted. "For years France and England have had consistently good teams and the others have only matched them occasionally. They have more people to choose from and a better system for producing top players. It was bound to happen once we embarked on the professional era. They have more money and can buy success. In Scotland we have only 30,000 players; the French have 300,000 and England more than that.

"The problem was highlighted by our district sides in the European Cup. North Midlands beat Pau, who reached the semi-finals. At full strength, they can challenge the other teams, but once players got injured the replacements weren't of the same standard. Bath have 25 internationals on their books and can pick a strong team every time.

"The same is true at international level. When we lose half a dozen players, men like Iain Jardine or Tom Smith [who had a groin operation last week], then we notice it whereas England can always bring someone good in. They can leave out the likes of Diprose, Rodber and Dawson, and their reserve locks - Grewcock, Sims, Fidler, Shaw - would all get into our side."

Telfer speaks from a position of unparalleled knowledge and experience.The granite-jawed Melrose No 8 won 25 Scotland caps and eight with the Lions before becoming one of the game's most successful coaches and the architect of his country's 1984 Grand Slam. Last summer, he applied the polish which gave the Lions' forwards their cutting edge in South Africa, but this season he was expecting to play a more strategic role as Scotland's director of rugby. Since the coach Richie Dixon's departure, though, Telfer has been recalled to active service. His aura was magnified as Scotland sneaked a one-point win over the Irish only to be dimmed so dramatically by the French.

What he says about the numbers game is undoubtedly true. But there is nothing new about Scotland living off scraps and until recently they regularly beat their more populous rivals. Indeed, France's victory was only their second at Murrayfield in 20 years. "Despite the discrepancy in numbers, we've often had a group of players in the past who could rise to the occasion for a few special games per season," Telfer said. "Now we're asking the players to do it more often and that's where strength in depth is an advantage.

"We need more schoolboys playing. The strikes of 1985 saw a real decline in rugby teaching, especially in comprehensive schools, but now we have more development officers in place. Also, the standard of grass-roots coaching is improving.

"Coaches coming through the system now have to be accredited. The more credits they get the more money their clubs get, so it's in the clubs' interests to support the scheme."

In theory, better coaching should improve the standard of domestic rugby, but it seems Scotland's future does not lie with its clubs. "We've got to make sure everyone in Scottish rugby is singing from the same hymn sheet. At the moment we have a halfway house between clubs and districts and it isn't working. Our players need top-class rugby week in week out and that means more competitive matches between the districts. If you think about it, it makes sense. There are only 100,000 people living in the whole of the Borders - about a fifth of the population of Leicester.

"This weekend sums it up. Tony Stanger, who faces Wales at Wembley on Saturday, had a cup match for Hawick against East Kilbride, who are about four leagues below. That's no preparation for a player. He needs a game at the same pace and level of commitment as an international to keep him sharp.

"The top players must play with or against each other more often. At the moment there's a lot of money in English club rugby but there may not be so much in a year or two's time. Then we might be able to compete better financially."

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