Rugby Union: The Scottish lament

'I don't exactly know where our money is coming from, and I don't want to know'; Tim Glover finds that life on and off the pitch is painful for the poor relations
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The Independent Online
FROM HIS office window at the Richmond Athletic Ground, John Steele can see how the other half live. London Scottish's director of rugby has a good view of Richmond's all-stars in training.

For 120 years the two clubs shared facilities at the Athletic Ground, one of the more well-appointed grounds in west London: hop off the tube, a couple of pints in the Orange Tree and a few more in the clubhouse afterwards. That was the just the players.

Now, of course, in an attempt to pay for professionalism, Richmond, at least for match days, have moved down the M4 to share the Madejski Stadium with Reading FC and London Scottish have moved down the road to share the Stoop at Twickenham with Harlequins. The grass is not only greener on the other side but splendidly manicured. The problem is filling, or even half-filling, the new stadiums. This has led not only to financial migraines but a split personality.

Given his background - a Scottish grandfather, an Irish mother, born in Cambridge and a player for the Army, Northampton and London Scottish - Steele seems well qualified to be the Exiles' director of rugby. On the playing field things have not gone well; off it the symptoms of splitting are worrying.

London Scottish, promoted after beating Bristol in the play-offs last season, won their first game in the Allied Dunbar Premiership, at Sale, and have lost every one since. "Only our defeats to Quins and Bedford were disappointing," Steele said. "We could easily have six points instead of two. Like the other clubs who have been promoted, we are learning the hard way. It takes a few months to get acclimatised. The commitment from the players has been excellent."

London Scottish lost 22-20 to Harlequins earlier this month. "Our guys performed to 95 per cent, Quins to 60 per cent," Steele said. "We should have beaten them, but then you think, should we really? We are not into buying all-stars. Every week we are up against what seems like an international XV. Whether we like it or not, money has a huge bearing but the days of writing off another pounds 1m are numbered."

If Richmond have an investor in Ashley Levett, London Scottish have, as their chairman, Tony Tiarks. The difference is that Tiarks is not writing the cheques any more and the board, disillusioned with the club's poor crowds, have cut Steele's budget. It is probably half that of Richmond.

In a ground that can take 8,000 people, London Scottish are not getting many more than 2,000. The message to the public was: "You don't need to be a kilt-wearing, whisky-drinking, bagpipe-playing individual to come and support London Scottish. We are a London club playing Premier Division rugby in England and can boast a truly international squad."

The McAuslands and the Camerons in the squad are from Australia and New Zealand rather than north of the border and there has been speculation that the club will change its name, leaving the amateur sides to carry on at the Athletic Ground as part of the old London Scottish RFC.

Others would prefer the Premiership club to retain the name, emphasise their Scottishness, provide a nice malt and haggis and have a pipe band performing at the Stoop instead of a tape of Tina Turner. London Irish, despite replacing many of their Irish players with southern hemisphere talent, remain a green island in a sea of Guinness and their traditional hospitality is as attractive to English supporters as the Celts.

At the Stoop, the arrival of the Scots has not been conspicuously marketed. True, there is the Tartan Suite, but without a touch of tartan. A couple of weeks ago, anybody ringing the London Scottish club line would have received the following message from the secretary John Smith: "Like the rest of the administration staff, I've been sacked."

It prompted further speculation: if Harlequins could take over London Scottish's ticketing, membership and so on why not go all the way and swallow them in a merger? Nothing is further from Steele's mind. Today the Exiles are at Gloucester and he is looking forward to the imminent arrival of two South Africans, the stand-off Jarnie De Beer from the Free State and the coach Alan Zondagh from Western Province. "Alan has already had a significant input and Jarnie will give us invaluable experience," Steele said. "They will probably get another 10 per cent out of the whole squad. Things have turned full circle in the last 18 months. Clubs are reducing their overheads and there's little recruitment. There's a more pragmatic approach and rightly so.

"I don't exactly know where our money is coming from and I don't want to know. The important thing is that the boys are being paid at the end of the month. I couldn't sit here and tell them that they'll never have a worry in the world because I might find one day that I'm not being paid, but we can't allow things that are beyond our control to cloud the atmosphere. That would lead to a negative spiral. It hurts every time we lose and if it stops hurting and we become used to it we are in trouble. We are at the crossroads. We have to pick up a couple of wins. The spirit is there. There's been nothing half-hearted about our game in any respect. The key is to survive to next year when the game should be able to capitalise on the raising of its profile with the World Cup. The second time around we'll be much better but the opposition won't be."

Few would back London Scottish to win at Kingsholm this afternoon but Steele, who watched Harlequins beat Gloucester at the Stoop last Tuesday, is one of the few. "Quins made a couple of changes which had an effect on the other 13 men and they played some brilliant rugby," Steele said. "People forget that five years ago we were still watching somebody winning a game by two penalties to one. We now have a highly entertaining product which is getting better all the time."

Even so, he can't see that many Anglo-Scots, whisky-drinking or not, making the journey to the West Country. "We won't fill the Shed, that's for sure."