Even if he were not so personable, you would have to wish Frank Hadden well. If coaching Scotland is not the toughest job in rugby union, it is on a very short list.
Confirmed in post late last year, the 51-year-old Dundonian makes his RBS 6 Nations championship debut tomorrow when the Scots entertain favourites France at Murrayfield.
There is no complaint or anger in his tone as he enumerates Scotland’s handicaps. The list emerges steadily over an hour’s reasoned and thoughtful discussion of the context in which he and his team operate. In the best possible world Scotland would lack the resources of most international rivals, and the present world is far from the best.
The Scottish Rugby Union is heavily indebted. Professionalism was badly handled, culminating in an abrupt, alienating reduction from four teams to two, and then to three. “Crowds were better for those four teams than they have been since for two, then three,” he says.
Overall player numbers are declining and the under-21 team was a consistent loser until last year. You have to wonder why Hadden left Edinburgh Rugby, which he took to a Heineken Cup quarter-final and turned into a credible Celtic League force. But he is a fan as well as a coach, and reads the patterns of Scottish rugby history in a different way to many. “A lot will tell you that our history is one of failure. I’d say it is one of modest achievement, punctuated with periods of remarkable over-achievement, and I’d hope to produce another of those.”
He has an equally clear sense of how Scotland can play. “In the past, playing the Scottish way meant fast and loose, with a lot of aggressive rucking and chasing the high ball. It worked well for us, but the professional game demands a little more. It now means making intelligent use of the ball, combined with an aggressive mentality that relishes the role of underdog.”
It also means husbanding straitened resources intelligently. As a regional coach he was irked last year when then national coach Matt Williams centralised players and resources. Now that he is the national coach you might expect him to think differently, but he does not.
“Players were coming back to Edinburgh ex-hausted and we were losing matches we’d won the year before. I’m happy to have players spend time with their regions and come to national sessions happy and confident because they’re winning.”
Simply being Scottish ensures initial public favour in following Williams, an Australian, but he sees the advantage in practical rather than emotional terms. “The huge advantage is that I’ve watched almost every member of the Scotland squad since they were around 12 years old and I’m aware of their potential, their capabilities, strengths and weaknesses.”
Another coach might complain that, short on players of unquestioned international quality, he has two at scrum-half, which together with hooker is the most specialised of positions. Hadden is delighted. “You’ll only get better if there is competition for places. They’ll raise the bar for each other and their team-mates and we need that in more positions.”
Public opinion might have paired British and Irish Lion Chris Cusiter with outside-half Gordon Ross. Hadden has taken the tougher route of choosing Mike Blair at scrum-half to play alongside Australian-born Dan Parks, the lightning conductor for press and public frustration over Scotland’s limitations.
He says: “Dan has been treated abysmally by the press because he’s seen as an outsider. If he came from Stirling or Galashiels it wouldn’t happen, because the people of Stirling or Galashiels wouldn’t allow it. I think he has done superbly to take all this criticism and still play at a high level.”
Among his forwards, Jason White’s selection as captain has paid dividends. “Jason was always outstanding, but since he became captain his statistics have gone off the scale.”
As ever, Scotland start as underdogs, but they know the French are not always rapid starters. “I’m certainly not unhappy to be playing them at this time,” says Hadden.
After that comes a trip to champions Wales, but here too this hardheaded optimist finds encouragement. “Wales showed last year what can be done. They’re better resourced than we are and Mike Ruddock did a fantastic job, but our players play the Welsh all the time in the Celtic League and know they’re not supermen.”