Scotland left to ponder over the long road ahead

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The Independent Online

Picture the scene. It is a bright spring afternoon in the Borders, and the Greenyards is packed to the rafters for a Scottish League title decider between Melrose and Jed-Forest. The cherub-cheeked Craig Chalmers and the tousle-haired Gary Armstrong have been slugging it out from the kick-off.

Picture the scene. It is a bright spring afternoon in the Borders, and the Greenyards is packed to the rafters for a Scottish League title decider between Melrose and Jed-Forest. The cherub-cheeked Craig Chalmers and the tousle-haired Gary Armstrong have been slugging it out from the kick-off.

At one point the groggy Chalmers departs for treatment. The "welcome back" for the Melrose stand-off is a poleaxing tackle from the Jed scrum-half. Chalmers picks himself up from the mud and offers a wry smile. A week later, he and Armstrong form the half-back axis in the Scotland team which poleaxes England in the 1990 Grand Slam decider at Murrayfield.

Those were the days when Scottish rugby, with its long-established national league and its thriving cradle in the Borders, still had a significant jump on the pre-professional English game. Fifteen years on, the picture is rather different. After a winter of blood-letting among the disaffected officers of the Scottish Rugby Union, and a second season of spectacular underachievement by the Scotland team, the Australian Matt Williams and his two coaching assistants, Willie Anderson and Brett Igoe, have been sent homeward, while the custodians of the Scottish game think again about how to extricate themselves from the kind of mess that Oliver Hardy would have described as another fine one.

The path forward on the political side has already been outlined. From 5 June, the SRU are to be run by one autonomous decision-making group, the Scottish Rugby Board. Only then, when the officers are decided, will a new coaching team be selected.

In the interim, a group of home-based coaches will take charge of the national side for a match against the Barbarians at the Pittodrie football ground in Aberdeen on 24 May, and for an international fixture against Romania in Bucharest on 4 June.

The men in charge of Scotland's three professional sides - Frank Hadden (Edinburgh), Hugh Campbell (Glasgow) and Steve Bates (the Borders) - are all involved, and will be responsible for selection. Hadden is head coach, with Campbell as his assistant and Bates as one of two backs coaches, together with Sean Lineen, who is Campbell's assistant at Glasgow.

George Graham will help Campbell in drilling the forwards, while Alan Tait will act as defence coach. With regard to the long-term job, the New Zealander Todd Blackadder, Iain Paxton and John Jeffrey could also come under consideration.

One thing seems certain, though. After the alienation caused to the Scottish rugby public, and to the players, by Williams and his entourage of fellow-Australian and Irish gurus, the next coaching team is destined to be drawn from much closer to home.

"It is a real difficult one," Craig Chalmers pondered, "because we're all saying we need to make it a Scottish appointment, but there is no one really obvious to step in. I don't know... Sean Lineen's name has been bandied about, but he says he's not ready for it yet. I think Steve Bates might have a chance..."

That is Steve Bates, the former England scrum-half. If Williams became increasingly ridiculed for the Australian influence he brought to bear at Murrayfield (his office corridor was known, less than respectfully, as Ramsay Street), it is not difficult to imagine the kind of flak that might come the way of someone who partnered Rob Andrew at half-back for England against Romania in 1989, and who famously discovered Jonny Wilkinson and his left boot at Lord Wandsworth College in Hampshire. Then again, having been born in Merthyr Tidfil, perhaps Bates could claim cross-border diplomatic immunity.

He can also claim to have made a favourable impression as a Welsh-born Englishman in the Scottish game while working on a limited budget at the Borders. "We need a Scottish input in the coaching set-up, but that would not negate Steve Bates," Fred McLeod, the SRU's interim chairman and chief executive, made a point of stressing after the dismissal of Williams set the guessing game going. A coaching team involving Bates or Blackadder as a head coach or an assistant, with someone like Jeffrey as a figurehead manager in a predominantly Scottish group, is likely to be a scenario that will come under some consideration.

"I don't necessarily think you should go for somebody because they're Scottish," Chalmers said. "It would be great if the person in charge was Scottish, but as I said, there's nobody who makes you think, 'Yeah, they should definitely get it'.

"The SRU might look outside Scotland again and bring in someone with a bit more experience, and maybe put in a few younger Scottish guys behind them as forwards or backs coaches - people like Alan Tait, Peter Wright, Kenny Milne."

Now 36, Chalmers is concentrating on his own coaching career with Melrose, having finally hung up his boots just a month ago. "As an ex-Scottish player and somebody who's still involved in the club game up here, I just want to see it all get sorted out," he continued. "I just hope we get the right people this time, and that we can move forward and redeem ourselves, because in the last two years people have not been looking at Scottish rugby with the highest of regard."

Not as longingly as they did in the far-off spring of 1990, that's for sure.

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