“Oh Flower of Scotland, when will we see your likes again?”
It is a line you will have hear passionately roared again and again by countless loyal Scottish fans as the Six Nations Championship rolls around once more; it is also a question which becomes increasingly pertinent every single year.
After winning the last ever Five Nations Championship in 1999, Scotland appeared to be entering the new millennium as a force to be reckoned with on the international stage. Grand Slam wins in 1984 and 1990 preceded a World Cup run to the semi-finals in 1991; respectable quarter-final defeats to New Zealand at World Cups ’95 and ’99 bore no portent of Scotland’s subsequent demise – a demise which would see them become a more regular contender for the wooden spoon than for the Championship they actually coveted.
Since tasting glory for the last time in 1999, Scotland have shown just brief flashes of their former pomp; third place finishes in 2006 and 2013 have teased fans with glimpses of potential, but optimism is invariably replaced by disappointment as the team slumps back to fifth or sixth position in the following campaign.
What, then, has caused the collapse of this former giant of the game? Where is the team that formerly graced World Cup semi-finals and regularly challenged Europe’s best in the Five Nations? As the supporters regularly roar with increased relevance, “When will we see your likes again?”
Scotland was a side which regularly punched above its weight in the amateur era. Scottish borders men of farming and industrial communities thrived in amateur rugby; naturally fit and strong, it was not just possible, but even natural, to be a good manual labourer and an international rugby player. Scattered among these men were the more refined products of the Edinburgh School system, who complimented the natural strength of the working folk with their more honed technical ability.
Committing to a full-time career in rugby, however, was a huge step for many of them. To leave safe family professions to pursue what, until recently, had been a mere hobby, was a choice many simply could not make. The professional era would snap the conveyer belt which had provided Scotland with such colossi of the game as John Jeffrey, Gary Armstrong and Roy Laidlaw. And, as became increasingly apparent, this unique production line was fundamental to Scottish success.
Simply put, what else could explain Scotland’s overachievement in the ’80s and ’90s when you consider their significantly lower participation rates compared to Europe’s other top teams? Today, there are almost 2 million registered players in England compared with fewer than 50,000 in Scotland – the fewest, in fact, of any Six Nations side.
The start of the professional era, then, was what heralded the start of Scotland’s demise. Even more damningly, further change was on the horizon. In 1995, the Heineken Cup was created as a grand stage on which Europe’s best club teams could compete, and the Scottish Rugby Union (SRU) feared the amateur teams which currently dominated the Scottish leagues would be left behind by teams from England and France. Scottish teams were predominately amateur; poor pitches and low wages meant the quality of players was comparatively low. The SRU had to make a change if Scotland was to challenge clubs in other countries.
The idea was therefore conceived to create four ‘super-district’ teams to participate in the Heineken Cup: Border Reivers, Edinburgh, Caledonia Reds and Glasgow Warriors. Initially, their players returned to their original clubs for domestic matches, only representing their super-district sides in European games, but before long they became full-time operations.
This model drained the finances of the SRU, who have, for the past decade, been operating with a debt of up to £20m. The district sides, without the natural supporter base or commercial revenue teams, fail to run at a profit, meaning that they rely on SRU funds. Financial difficulties limits the efficacity of the body with the power to make the changes necessary to reverse the fortunes of a national side which has been in apparent decline for fifteen years. Now, there are just two super-district sides – Edinburgh and Glasgow Warriors – and there is, therefore, a severe lack of opportunities for young Scottish players to break into the professional ranks.
This has created a bottleneck for the already limited number of Scottish youth players who could go on to pull on the famous blue jersey. What action can be taken, however, by the cash-strapped SRU to reverse the fortunes of a national side in spiralling decline?
Alistair Gray, the man behind the 2005 Genesis Report into Scottish rugby, has drawn up a radical plan aimed at doing precisely that. He believes it is of paramout importance that a third professional side is created, ideally in Aberdeen, to increase the number of opportunities for Scottish players to play professionally. To fund this, he proposes that the SRU sell Murrayfield to the City of Edinburgh Council and lease it back.
“Murrayfield is a constant drain on the resources of the SRU, with the latest expenditure being on the pitch, which was a disgrace during the Six Nations,” he bemoaned after last year’s tournament. “A lease-back scheme would give Edinburgh Council a top stadium they could use for other sports and allow the SRU to invest millions in the game north of the border.”
This change might seem drastic to some, but as the national team continues to disappoint, it is becoming increasingly clear that huge changes are needed if Scotland are to compete for silverware in the future. Gray’s paper is entitled ‘Now is the Time, Now is the Hour. Big Changes Scottish rugby must make now’. If success at this year’s tournament proves elusive once more, perhaps the SRU will finally find itself in agreement.