Blackadder the new power of Scotland

Click to follow
The Independent Online

The door to the upstairs lounge in the Murrayfield Wanderers clubhouse was locked on Wednesday lunchtime. "Well, this is Fortress Scotland," someone remarked.

In its own way, the queue of reporters arriving early for an Edinburgh team press conference was a sign of the new, crusading, times. The interest-stirring success achieved by the Gunners in reaching the Celtic Cup final and the top of Pool Two in the Heineken Cup reflects the bold vision for the future as seen by Matt Williams, Scotland's new head coach.

The cornerstone of Williams's "Fortress Scotland" plan is the thriving of Scottish talent within the country's borders. Exiled players have been told to return and join the super-districts structure or risk exile from the national team.

"It certainly is the way forward for us," Todd Blackadder maintained. Having shown the way forward for Edinburgh as their inspirational captain and blindside flanker for the past two years, Blackadder assumes a dual role from today, his club playing duties taking a back seat to his role as assistant to Williams.

"I look at the Irish sides and look at what the Munsters, the Leinsters and the Ulsters have done," the former All Black captain continued. "They have proved that in Europe the Celtic nations can do very well in the Heineken Cup. Now, if we can get three really strong sides up here in Scotland who do well in the Celtic League and the Heineken Cup, then the benefit's going to come through for the national side.

"If some players choose to go to England, that's fine. It's their decision. But if it comes to a 50-50 call on selection, we will choose the player from Scotland. I think it's the right attitude. It can be the only way forward."

It is by no means, however, the only progressive measure Scottish rugby is taking in the wake of a World Cup campaign that, according to those Australian wags Roy and HG, was drawn straight from the 12th century.

Bill Watson has been sacked as chief executive of the Scottish Rugby Union and 140 years of committee rule has been swept aside with the SRU's general committee handing over authority to a new executive board. Closer to the cutting edge, Williams has taken over from Ian McGeechan as the first foreign head coach of the national side, and the Australian has made a virtual clean sweep of the backroom team, appointing Blackadder, George Graham and Andy Nicol.

Williams has also moved the national team's training base from Murrayfield. His training squad for the Six Nations' Championship convenes at the Scottish Institute of Sport's headquarters in Stirling today. The 44-strong party is much-changed too, with 14 uncapped players and without several post-World Cup retirees: Bryan Redpath, Kenny Logan, Martin Leslie, Gregor Townsend, Glenn Metcalfe, James McLaren and Gordon McIlwham.

"This is just the start," Blackadder said. "We are ninth or tenth in the world and we are living on the same island as the country that's the best in the world. I know that we can get back to the top of world rugby, or to being competitive with the top teams. It's just going to take a lot of hard work, a change of attitude, and some fresh ideas.

"That's the thing about getting the players back in Scotland. At least we can control them. We can work on the skills and the attitude and the work ethic. I do believe that we have the players to get there. But, from where we are in the world rankings, we have to say that our attitude hasn't been good enough. We have to change. If we don't, we're going to be ninth or tenth in the world every year.

"This current crop of players is going to have to make a decision on which way they want to go, because if they don't want to change... well, where they are, it just isn't good enough. The sooner we realise that and get on with it the better."

It is precisely the pragmatic attitude you would expect from a classical hard-nosed New Zealand forward - not to mention from one who led Canterbury to three successive Super-12 titles and who won 10 of his 12 All Black caps as captain. At 32, Blackadder plans to retire from first-class rugby at the end of the season. His contract with Edinburgh and the SRU ends on 31 May, and his professional future beyond then has yet to be decided.

He could decide to return to his native New Zealand. But then the Blackadders do historically hail from the Scottish Borders. And now, it would seem, Scottish rugby has something more substantial to implement than a mere cunning plan.