The rugby league 4 nations tournament has now kicked off and, for the first time, will feature the Scotland Rugby League team. The team is there on merit and will have the opportunity to face up to the strength of Australia and New Zealand. It should be noted that the players themselves will be of Scottish decent and that the decision was made somewhere that no game will be played in Scotland which, it could be argued, takes the edge of the Tournament. In truth, if rugby league has hopes of expansion, this is how it has to start. The suggestion that Scotland should switch to a different code en masse will be met with howls of derision and indeed ridicule but what belies the suggestion is how a changing world of sport has left some of our traditions behind to suffer.
This blog does not attempt to re-open the frankly tedious "league vs union" argument, nor does it wish to analyze the historical grievances that rugby league followers air on a regular basis. The fact is rugby league has always struggled to gain a foothold in Scotland despite its relatively close geographic proximity to the heartlands of Northern England. Here an argument is presented as to why that should no longer be the case.
A look at the history books will tell you that Scotland's rugby union side last won the 6 nations tournament in 1999 and the last Grand Slam was in 1990. Since professionalism, even the most myopic of Scotsmen would concede that Scotland has struggled to compete regularly. The Rugby Union World Cup has also never been won by Scotland. Indeed England in 2003 have been the only Northern Hemisphere team to win that particular trophy. Frankly, this is hardly surprising given the manifestly uneven playing field Scotland has to compete on. The Scottish player base is considerably smaller than the other 6 Nation's teams and, financially, Scotland cannot compete with the riches of England and France in particular. It is difficult to see this status quo changing in the modern era. Scotland are unlikely to win the 6 Nations or the World Cup ever again.
Whilst professionalism in rugby union will have brought benefits certainly, one of the drawbacks could be seen to be the loss of the Border heartlands. The famous names of Scottish Rugby were the likes Hawick, Melrose and Kelso. The Border Reivers franchise was designed to encapsulate the tradition of the region but was deemed surplus to requirements in 2007. Whilst the famous Border teams still exist, the franchise sides are in the (traditionally footballing) cities of Edinburgh and Glasgow. One suspects the idea was to guarantee larger attendances but the average attendance in Edinburgh is under 5,000 and in Glasgow is just over 6,000. In fairness, it should be noted that the international games sell out easily and it also should be noted that Glasgow did become the first Scottish team to win a significant trophy in the professional era in 2015.
Rugby League could benefit as well. Nothing is going to happen overnight but an increase in geographical coverage and an increased player base would clearly be advantageous. Scottish teams having their own rugby league or joining the existing English set up would a start point. A Scottish team in Superleague remains a possibility. Rugby aficionados tend to agree that the best standard of rugby of either code comes with the Australian State of Origin. English Rugby league has tried and failed to emulate this in the past but perhaps one day a 3 match England versus Scotland series could get close to emulating this high standard. An increase in player base could see a return of the Great Britain team and might make it more competitive with the all conquering Australians.
English Rugby League and Scottish Rugby Union have a lot in common; close proximity of heartlands, broadly similar player base, a competition with association football, limited finances and a challenge to compete in a modern sporting world. Many will point to the loss of tradition if all the Scottish Border teams were to switch codes but no-one is being asked to stop playing rugby, merely to switch to a sport that may give a more even playing field.
So there you have it. Scotland should switch to Rugby League so that is has a chance of winning trophies (albeit not straight away), can play on a more even playing field, can give its traditional clubs a lifeline and can give symbiotic benefits to rugby league.
Its not going to happen of course but just think if it did?