By John Davidson, Date: 10/12/14
Scotland is punching above its weight on the international stage despite struggling in the amateur ranks. John Davidson reports.
One of the surprise packets of the 2013 World Cup, along with the USA, was the performance of Scotland. The Bravehearts beat both Tonga and the Tomahawks and went through the group stage undefeated after a 30-30 draw with Italy. Reaching a quarter-final was unexpected and although Scotland was well beaten by New Zealand 40-4, they were not embarrassed by one of international footy’s heavyweights.
But the World Cup finish was no flash in the pan. In 2008 Scotland defeated Fiji in the group stage. The country has improved over time and, building on last year’s progress, an ambitious Bravehearts went into the 2014 European Championships with a clear goal in mind. Despite France being the favourites, boasting more players with greater professional experience, Scotland managed to prevail after wins over Ireland and Wales. Winning the European Championships means Scotland has automatically qualified for the next World Cup and also gives it a coveted spot alongside England, Australia and New Zealand in the 2016 Four Nations.
“I think it’s a massive achievement to be fair,” Scotland head coach Steve McCormack says. “Over the last few years we’ve had some stability with coaching staff and some of our senior players, our key players, have made themselves available. We’ve got a pathway now in Scotland with some of our younger players coming through. All that combined, to win the competition and qualify for the Four Nations in 2016 is a fantastic achievement for everybody.”
McCormack has been at the helm of the Scottish national team for a decade. Over the years he has built a culture within the side, a strong camaraderie and encouraged players like Danny Brough to commit. He has developed a strong work ethic as the Bravehearts continue to beat the odds. McCormack’s team has embraced the tag as underdogs and continued to surprise. “No one expected us to do well at the World Cup and to get out of the group and to the quarter-final, again we were underdogs,” he says. “To achieve that was something special but we didn’t want that to be a one-off. When we got the camp together at the beginning of October we wanted to win the competition and qualify for the Four Nations, so I think to back last year’s achievements up with winning the competition this year is testament to all the hard work everybody’s done.”
Scotland opened the European Championships with a convincing 42-18 win over Wales. They followed that up with a 25-4 victory against Ireland but went down 38-22 to France in their final game. But France’s shock loss to Ireland in the first game of the Championships threw it wide open, and only points difference in the Wolfhounds win over Wales handed the title to the Bravehearts.
“Of course it was disappointing losing to France,” McCormack says. “We never like losing to anybody. If you look at the two squads, the French squad and the resources they have, they probably on paper should have won the competition.”
Winning the Championships means Scotland will be pitted against the three best nations in the world in the Four Nations in two year’s time. “We have to step it up, there’s no doubt about that,” McCormack admits. “Playing in the European Championship and then playing in the Four Nations is a massive, massive step up but I think we showed last year in the World Cup we beat Tonga and the USA. We got it right last year in that we got some good NRL players in Luke Douglas and Peter Wallace and Kane Linnett, they were outstanding for us. There’s a couple of more players that may be available from the NRL, with a couple of Super League players that are now putting their hands up as well.
“As we’ve shown the last couple of years our core of players that have been with us for a few years, I think we’ve got a good blend. We made eight debutants this year and in two years time they’ll have played more Super League games and have become better players. We’re certainly not fazed by the opportunity of the Four Nations but we know it’s a big challenge.”
Scotland will be planning for more games next year to help it prepare for the Four Nations in 2016 and also has the 2015 European Championships to look forward to. Samoa stunned the rugby league world with their inspired displays in this year’s Four Nations in Australia and New Zealand, and McCormack is adamant the Bravehearts deserve their opportunity as much as the Pacific Islanders did.
“Samoa were brilliant and really added value to that tournament,” he says. “When you look at Scotland’s performance since 2008, we beat Fiji, we beat Tonga, we got into the quarter-finals of the World Cup and we’ve won the European Championship so from that point of view, we thoroughly deserve to be in the competition and we’ll certainly do ourselves justice just like Samoa did.”
Working against Scotland and McCormack has been a number of factors, including a cut in funding that occurred after last year’s World Cup. The Rugby Football League stopped all financial support to Scotland Rugby League, meaning two permanent staff involved in development work were forced to leave the organization. It was a kick in the teeth for the sport in the country, which has been catching the eye at international level, but faces huge problems at the grassroots level. In 2014 a couple of amateur clubs were forced to close and only four clubs are expecting to be operational next year. Scotland Rugby League has been forced to reorganize as a volunteer-led body and is now teamed up with sportscotland.
McCormack describes it as a difficult time. “In Scotland I think a lot of people don’t really know about rugby league, basically because we don’t have a professional presence there or an amateur set-up,” he says. “You look in Wales they’ve got two teams, in France they’ve got Catalans but from the Scotland point of view we’ve only got a national team. That’s something that we’ve probably got to fix up and that makes our achievements even better because we haven’t had any resources.
“But the success over the last two or three years will certainly improve that and sponsors have started coming on board now. sportscotland have taken over and a lot of the juniors in Scotland are starting to play so that it’s important there’s a legacy from the World Cup and this year as well.”
Rugby league in Scotland has had to start from scratch again but there is no lack of passion, ambition or determination from the people who are part of the game in the country. Considering the poor state the sport finds itself at the grassroots and amateur levels, the fact that Scotland can field an international team, let alone a competitive one, at all is amazing. There is hope that the feats of the Bravehearts in major tournaments can have a snowball affect and encourage more investment, support and participation.
McCormack, an experienced coach who has spent time working in Super League and the English Championship, is certainly not one to give up. With the likes of the former Salford, Widnes, Whitehaven, Barrow and Swinton boss involved, Scottish rugby league can hopefully keep punching above its weight in the future.
“We’ve got a new board of directors and the money that we’re raising from playing in these major tournaments went back into grassroots,” McCormack says. “It’s difficult but we played in the Borders [in November] and that’s untapped territory for us. The Borders in Scotland is a big rugby area but not necessarily a rugby league area. So taking the game to places like that in the future, we’ve got some great feedback from there and we went to the schools as well. That’s what we need to tap into. It’s a good rugby country Scotland, it’s just a lot of it is rugby union and we need to tap into that and make that rugby league.”