SQ – Identifying and nurturing talent for Scotland
Those who are fortunate enough to represent their country on the international stage get there through tireless dedication to their craft, hours upon hours on training fields in all manner of conditions, and normally with the support of family, friends and of course excellent coaching.
Not every player’s pathway mirrors the next of course and Scotland, like every other nation, needs to ensure that an extensive network of scouting and knowledge is in place in order to realise the full playing depth the country has on offer.
Such avenues have existed long since rugby turned professional in the 1990s. The Anglo Scots morphed into the Scottish Exiles – a group of players who were eligible to represent Scotland through their parental lineage – with the 1990 Grand Slam-winning squad boasting the likes of Damian Cronin, Paul Burnell and Chris Gray all having represented the Anglo Scots.
With the advent of professionalism, there became a need to move with the times, although it took until the early 2000s for a tangible system to be put into place. Indeed, it wasn’t until 2006 that an Exiles Manager was appointed and that man, Rob Brierley, remains a key part of the system we now know as Scottish Qualified (SQ).
“Initially, the focus was to create teams at age-grade level who would help feed the national side,” says Rob, whose role is now SQ Performance Manager. “It evolved into many versions until SQ was established under [former Director of Rugby] Scott Johnson in 2017.
“There have been numerous players that have been identified over the years, who hold a Scottish heritage and who have gone on to represent the jersey with distinction. The most notable in the current squads would be the likes of Ali Price and Hamish Watson, and Leah Bartlett.
“SQ is an identification and talent development programme for players who qualify to play for Scotland and our job is to ensure that any pathway for men and women to play for Scotland is realised.
“The player journeys are different each time. Some are inextricably involved and have their pathway through us, Ben Vellacott for instance came through the youth teams. Ben White was involved at under-16s, went down the England route and then of course he’s ended up playing for us.
“It involves identifying players, running sessions with volunteers around the country, watching games, having relationships with schools and universities as well as parents. We work very closely with the Premiership Club Academies too. There’s coach development and tracking players, but fundamentally it’s about recognising ability.”
Rob has seen countless players come through what is now the SQ system, from Henry Pyrgos in 2006 (he was the first SQ international under Rob’s watch) through to Marshall Sykes, the current Edinburgh Rugby second-row and recent cap.
As Rob suggests, though, SQ is so much more than recognising sheer rugby ability: “We’re interested in them as a person, we want them to progress as a player and Scotland is a great environment to achieve those goals. These players have strong Scottish heritage and might have family living here, so you can foster relationships with families in a bid to prove that ours is a route they should want to look at.”
Scottish Rugby recently widened the SQ remit in appointing former international and 1999 Five Nations squad-winning member Peter Walton, himself a player identified through his seven years of schooling in Edinburgh.
Peter, who is SQ Player Transition Manager, spent years in the English youth system, helping to nurture some of the finest talent on offer south of the border. After nearly three decades in professional rugby, Walton knows the intricacies – and rewards – of talent identification.
“You feel like a proud parent for sure when a player makes his or her way through,” he says. “First and foremost, and as someone who came through the Anglos myself, you’ve got to want to play for Scotland over anyone else.
“Part of our job is to find players who we think will go on to play for Scotland, but they have to be open to it and willing to work as hard as it takes to get to that stage. I know what it’s like to pull on that jersey – it makes you try a little bit more and that’s what we’re looking for in any player who is identified as one who might have a bright future.
“That excites me and makes me proud.”
“I’ve had 27 years in professional rugby, I’ve been around and seen most things, and in order to win games regularly at international level, we have to give ourselves the best chance of having the strongest possible national squads. Our jobs are not necessarily the under-18s, under-20s – we are identifying players we think can get to the very top for both our Men’s and Women’s teams.
“You’ll always need to have Scottish-qualified players in any successful national team we have, given there are two professional teams. We’re also going to concentrate on Super6 squads, bolstering them and creating that pathway.”
“University rugby, which is stronger than ever – I see Premiership scouts there. University set-ups are actually really professional in their approach, and that’s a huge untapped market for us in particular.
“I just love watching rugby and seeking out potential players. Talk about job satisfaction – when you spot someone who comes through, and you always have that relationship with them, there will always be that link between you.”
GET INVOLVED WITH SQ
The Scottish Qualified Programme is a player centred initiative designed to identify, develop and support Scottish Qualified players living outside of Scotland. The programme recognises individual playing pathways then provides appropriate support and opportunities to progress towards age-grade, professional and international rugby. There are two ways to get involved:
- Register your own details
- Nominate a player
You can also volunteer to be a part of the SQ programme, with committed rugby people always welcomed to register as part of the network of pathway coaches and programme co-ordinators. You never know, you could be the first person to identify a player who goes on to represent Scotland.
If you are interested in volunteering please email [email protected]