Bonfire of the Blazers

There is no correlation between politics and sport…except in apartheid South Africa…and the London Olympics…and Putin’s Sochi…and…oh well scrap that first bit. There is a direct correlation between politic and sport and maybe we should worry about it.

The actual connection isn’t policy-based – usually – but more related to the ambient atmosphere sports creates and the mood people are in when considering political ideas and actually voting.

I left the pub on Saturday wondering if we really were up to running our own country after a dispiriting couple of hours watching the shambles of a rugby match in the national stadium which couldn’t provide even a proper playing surface, all preceded by charade of cod identity bravado which said to me Rock Concert not Rugby Game.

If we’d gone out of our way to provoke ridicule we might have added Rab C singing the anthem but there isn’t much more they could have done to embarrass the nation. And that’s what the Scottish Rugby Union is doing. Because it is a national institution, not a private club, it supervises the operation of an international sport and inhabits that crossover area between entertainment and public responsibility, it represents an aspect of our national life, whether we follow sport or not.

It is, in the widest sense, answerable to Scotland. It expects official plaudits – royal engagement, government acknowledgement, honours, broadcasting deals and the official respect of society when it succeeds. Then it says: Look at us. We’re doing you proud. Respect us. Therefore, when it flops it also deserves scrutiny, challenge, ridicule and, ultimately oblivion.

Normally sporting defeat is a one-day wonder. You do your best, it wasn’t enough, you try harder next time. But so abject was Scottish rugby’s failure at the weekend that you sense a re-writing of the rules. The arrangement by which Scotland is part of the Six Nations competition is founded in history but like the Union of the UK history only takes you so far. As soon as you prove consistently not to be contributing, your stock plunges and people look elsewhere for deliverance.

This isn’t about sporting failure as such. France ended up at the bottom of the heap last year after a pagaille of a season. They won’t do so again. Scotland however are now anchored at or near the bottom of the table every year and have been throughout the professional era with the rare blip. There is a persistent problem of not winning and often not looking like winning. On Saturday they didn’t look like playing never mind not winning. This is institutional failure on an historic level.

The roots of the game have not been refreshed, despite regular initiatives. As far as I can see, there is no obvious starting point for a youngster from where he can develop and see his future stretch ahead with the right coaching at each point until he enters the elite arena when his skills and mindset are primed for the highest level where he continues to learn. There is no straight-through system with the right national age group competitions providing demanding week-by-week experience. A small country with a small player base has to concentrate on recruitment, retention and specialised coaching, identifying and nurturing talent. Under pressure in big games you can see passing failures, fumbling the ball at pace, lapses in the core skills.

I read comments by the conditioning coach for New Zealand – smaller population than Scotland -saying that the All Blacks’ success isn’t a mystery…they do the basic things well, every time, in all conditions, under pressure or not. They don’t even have the biggest players, which is a modern myth of the game. They pick super fit athletic men suited to each position and as a game goes on it is the heavier less mobile players who tire quickest. It is the lighter expert practitioner who is still running at 80 minutes and beyond and who makes the game-saving tackle or the last-gasp dart to seal the game.  If they can do it, why can’t we even approach that standard?

It is institutional failure by another of our public organisations where officials regard getting there as the achievement, not the platform from which to progress.  The SRU has always contained talented people but its ethos is embedded in the v-neck culture of the committee man who is myopic about change. Even at the level of organisation of the game it has failed to create a sustainable professional set-up and the comparison with Ireland is too painful to ponder.

Don’t think this doesn’t play into the referendum at a subliminal level. Seizing our independence is act of faith in ourselves and if we constantly watch our national symbols deflate like balloons in an international arena, the message hits home: We are not good enough. This is a self-fulfilling prophesy and I think it has afflicted many of our national teams over the years. I don’t expect anybody at Murrayfield to be remotely bothered if their crass efforts reduce a Yes vote but I think like the Union itself, it must be time for a collective effort to decide if rugby is really a national sport, why it is so poor and what must be done. Even Unionists agree with this. The SRU is failing and our reputation is damaged – time for the parliament to intervene and start an inquiry followed by a Scotland-wide consultation and a rugby fraternity taking control of the SRU from the professional failures.

If there had been relegation from the Six Nations, as their ought to be, Scotland would now be playing in a second tier tournament with crowds halved at Murrayfield and ticket prices slashed. That would mean no more top salaries, no buying in overseas coaches. It would mean building again with homegrown personnel and finding our rightful place. The same surely now applies to the Heinekin Cup where Scottish failure is enshrined in the record books. The second tier competition is nearer Scotland’s grade.

And maybe that’s what independence means too. We will have to find our own way, reorganise according to what suits our needs and resources and find our own level. It would certainly create a movement to end the embarrassment of failed managers in key positions keeping their jobs while the purpose of their existence – in this case winning teams – sinks into oblivion.

When Britain joined the Common Market, we abandoned the New Zealanders whose produce we historically bought. They took it on the chin and found new markets and stopped the system of subsidising famers to produce food. Some went out of business, there was rationalisation and the outcome was a robust, thriving agriculture sector which again has a major market in the UK from apples to lamb. They also use rugby as a national brand to promote their country. They use their “rugby smarts” to create the best players and teams and thrive despite their small size. The All Blacks is a global brand which they use to proclaim that NZ is best in the world.

We’ll need a serious cull of some of our institutions if it’s ever to happen here. Right now the rugby people are letting Scotland down. They aren’t even producing teams with fight and fire in them, with a distinct Scottish style that can light up a stadium.

And is it time to stop the thunderous music and fireworks lightshow that only serves to focus the mind on how stale the actual rugby product is when the game starts?

It’s the equivalent of showing Braveheart on polling day. Nobody falls for it, least of all the opposition. Never mind a bonfire of the quangoes, let’s put a match under Murrayfield and get a national rugby team – and administrators –the nation can be proud of.

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