Exiles provide strength in depth and help home-based players to flourish
Back in the amateur days when we had Scotland trials before the Five Nations, the teams were usually Scotland v The Rest or Blues v Whites. If andy Robinson chose to have such a match now – which he won’t – he might make it between Exiles and home-based Scots. There is no certainty that the home side, drawn from Edinburgh and Glasgow, would win. Not surprising when you think that the Exiles might line up as follows: Southwell; R Lamont, S Lamont, Henderson, Danielli; Parks, R Lawson; Dickinson, S Lawson, Murray, Hines, J Hamilton; Strokosch, Taylor, Brown. Only andy Henderson and Simon Taylor are not likely to feature in the squad for the autumn internationals, and Taylor might well do so if he expressed a willingness to return.
Only Italy of our Six Nations rivals are in a comparable position. With a very few exceptions all the players in the French, English, Irish and Welsh squads will be drawn from clubs in their home country. Seven years ago, when the australian Matt Williams became the Scotland coach, he spoke of his intention to build a Fortress Scotland with an entirely home-based team. That wasn’t wholly unrealistic, if only because we had three professional teams then. Even so, it was never achieved. Now such an aim would look ridiculous.
It would also be undesirable. all the 15 players in that Exiles line-up have at some stage of their career been attached to either Edinburgh or Glasgow. Suppose they still were. The two Scottish clubs would probably be stronger, but Scottish rugby, as a whole, would be weaker. There would be a log-jam, with fewer opportunities for young players, whose development would therefore be slower than is desirable. So it is, for example, arguably a good thing that Dan Parks has moved from Glasgow to cardiff. If he had remained with Glasgow, Sean Lineen would have been tempted to play him in all the most important matches. Opportunities for Ruaridh Jackson and Duncan Weir would have been limited. In his absence they must be thrown in to sink or, one hopes, swim. So there has to be some movement out if young players are to come in and move up.
This is one way of looking at it, and is fair enough. On the other hand, as Rob Moffat pointed out earlier this week, the professional season is now a very long and demanding one, and all clubs need large and strong squads. Indeed, given the number of matches played and the certainty than a number of players will be injured at any given time, it’s clear that clubs really need to have two first XVs. By that I mean that they require two players in each position good enough to be first choice.
It is worth dwelling on the number of matches. There are now 12 clubs in the Magners League. That means 22 games, with the possibility of one or two more if you reach the play-offs. Then there are six Heineken cup matches and, again, one hopes, more if you qualify for the knock-out stage. There are eight international matches, three in the autumn, and five in the spring. any players selected for all, or most, of these, need time off to recuperate at some point. (There are Scotland a games too.) If you reckon that no one should play more than 22 full matches, or the equivalent, the need for strength in depth is obvious.
One can feel only sympathy for Rob Moffat and Sean Lineen. Their task is extremely difficult. They have to juggle selection, ensuring that too much is not demanded of their stars who require to be rested from time to time. They have to give their young players like alex Blair, Lee Jones, Stuart McInally and Duncan Weir, enough opportunities to develop their game at the top level. and they have to win matches and establish what is called a culture of success. Moreover, they will lose some of their brightest youngsters, including three of those mentioned above, to the Scotland Seven for the commonwealth Games, and probably to the squad for the IRB Sevens circuit.
Every team selection becomes a matter of fine judgment and balancing. For example it will always be tempting not to change a team that has just won a match. Yet the coaches know that even a winning team needs to be refreshed from time to time. They also know that with, say, the Heineken cup in mind, they have to have players whom they may think of as reserves match-fit in case a first-choice player is injured.
To cap it all, they have to satisfy a public that is both sceptical and hungry for success, and they know that their clubs remain the poor relations in the Magners League, with home crowds well below those of their Welsh and Irish rivals. There must be days when they wish that some of the exiles hadn’t chosen to seek pastures new – even if in the long run their decision to do so makes sense.
But you have to feel for Sean Lineen especially. Last season his team was built around Dan Parks and the back-row of kelly Brown, Johnny Beattie and John Barclay. Now Parks is in cardiff, and of the “killer Bs”, Brown has gone to Saracens, Beattie is injured and will miss the first half of the season, and only Barclay remains. Back to square one.
glasgow’s back row unit of, from left, John Barclay, John Beattie, and Kelly Brown has been broken up