Gregor Paul

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Rugby: Clan do attitude in search of new recruits

Scotland are casting the net wide in a campaign to find eligible international players.

Sean Maitland. Photo / APN
Sean Maitland. Photo / APN

Stuck in the dark ages for much of the professional era, Scottish rugby is hoping to embark on a renaissance that will be driven by better talent identification, both domestically and internationally.

The original 'kilted Kiwi', Sean Lineen, is the man tasked with leading it, having recently been shifted from his post at Glasgow to coach the Scotland under-20 side and also take on the newly created role of head of acquisitions.

The first part is simple enough to understand: Scotland don't have a great record at age-grade level. The system is failing to identify, nurture and develop young players who can seamlessly transition into professional rugby.

The other part of Lineen's portfolio is the more intriguing. There are five million eligible Scotland players in England.

There is what is called an 'exiles' programme - a fledgling system to track and develop Scottish players who are based south of the border.

But there are, of course, also serious numbers of overseas-based players eligible to play for Scotland.

Australia, South Africa and New Zealand, especially the latter, have big numbers of Scots-qualified players - many of whom have worn the famous blue jersey over the years.

Some, such as Lineen, Glenn Metcalfe and Martin and John Leslie, have been successful, quality internationals who fully deserved their places and made an impact.

Others have been questionable in terms of talent and contribution and built public resentment towards the generic policy of importing foreign-developed players.

It's a tough balancing act for the Scots for, as much as they want to develop their own players and look within their borders, they don't currently have the depth of resource to build a genuinely competitive international team.

Lineen doesn't want to throw his net into foreign waters and randomly trawl.

The recruitment of any foreign-based players will be selective and highly specific, he says - pointing to the recent signing of Sean Maitland as an example of the targeted policy in place.

"I liaise closely now with Andy Robinson [Scotland head coach] and Gregor Townsend [Glasgow coach] and Michael Bradley [Edinburgh coach] about succession planning - identifying positions where we might be weak and lacking depth," says Lineen.

"We always look in-house first but the reality is we simply don't have a lot of players. We are a nation that does travel and we have qualified players all over the world. We have to use what we can.

"In the case of Sean, he is a player we identified as being able to bring something different to us, something that we don't really have.

"I came to Christchurch to talk to him; it wasn't a hard sell. He is a good player, he is young and talented, but we didn't pull the wool over his eyes and the decision was up to him. He had to want to play and make the shift."

Maitland's speed and versatility to play across the back three is what attracted the Scots but Lineen is clear that there is not likely to be a deluge of these types of signings.

He suspects there may be one a year, partly because the Scots want to focus on the internal development of their players but also because they only want to sign individuals who are determined to play international football.

In the past, some of the Kiwis who were selected came across as indifferent to the privilege, barely hiding the fact it was never their first choice and they would rather have won test caps somewhere else, had they been good enough.

Nor are Scotland keen on emulating the policy of other nations whose national bodies work in tandem with leading clubs to recruit foreign players and then entice them into test rugby through residency qualification. Lineen believes that recruitment tactic will be unpopular with the wider public and much tougher to sell.

But while it is not the preferred strategy, the arrival of former (South African) Lions captain Josh Strauss at Glasgow has opened that possibility.

The talented No 8 made a serious impression during Super Rugby this year but was released by the Lions following the decision to take them out of the competition and hand their place to the Southern Kings.

Strauss has washed up in Scotland, where it's probable he'll stay for the next three years to become qualified through residency.

To some, that may be viewed as a guarantee of a test cap but Lineen is adamant that no promises are ever made.

"These guys all have to play well and perform to the right level - that's the key. We don't make promises. We provide opportunities for them at clubs and the rest is up to them."

- Herald on Sunday

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