Finn Russell is gone. Stuart Hogg is going. It will take a monumental offer to stop Huw Jones following and more will be on their way – of that there is no doubt.
In Scotland, it was ever thus. Whether for money, for trophies, for new challenges and cultures and invigoration, sooner or later, top players pack their bags and leave.
You can chart the southwards flow of talent back well over a decade, to a time where the union were debt-ravaged paupers and the national team floundering. From the turnover come opportunities for burgeoning prospects to play, especially vital in an often-congested two-team professional set-up. And those who move on gather valuable experiences in a different rugby environment.
The worry is that now, with Scotland scalping big opponents while playing delicious rugby, with Edinburgh and Glasgow on a mission to become forces in Europe, and with the union richer than ever, the tide is not slowing.
Losing Russell, Hogg and – if he goes – Jones is not disastrous for Gregor Townsend. The head coach himself was one of the most-travelled players of his generation, soaking up experiences in England, France and even South Africa. Having three of his front-line backs and key leaders in Russell, Hogg and Greig Laidlaw in exile is not ideal, but they will be playing for three of the best clubs in Europe. They will get better and bring their learning back to the camp.
But for the pro-teams, this is an increasingly alarming drain.
Generally, Scottish Rugby does a decent job of keeping its players as long as is realistically possible. Hogg had opportunities to leave long before he did, and for him, it was more about a shot at trophies than a pile of money. Jonny Gray was heavily courted before signing a new deal last summer and there was plenty interest in Hamish Watson when his previous contract ran out. But there is an expiration date on all these big names and their time in Scotland.
Ultimately, the union is waging an unwinnable war and it knows it. They are stuck in a maddening position – armed with a record turnover, yet still wielding a knife when the beasts of England and France bring bazookas to the negotiating table.
The information on Jones is that although Glasgow put, by their standards, a good offer on the table, Leicester Tigers and other Premiership teams are happy to lay down a lot more. We’re talking in the region of £300,000 a year. Scottish Rugby has to be very careful about how it spends that sort of money. It won’t be held to ransom, even when a player as thrilling as Jones is on the line.
Its clubs are led by two fabulous coaches, but even with Glasgow’s lofty status in the Pro14, neither is classed as a true European heavyweight. Players fancy their chances of silverware to be greater elsewhere.
And the union can’t incentivise staying home-based by enforcing a no-exiles selection policy in the national team – not with only two clubs, the need to develop young talent, limited funds and swathes of Scottish-qualified players scattered across the globe.
Even if they tried to cram all of Scotland’s international players into two teams, the youngsters would hardly get a sniff, and they’d be cutting off a load of talent that they are currently working hard to cultivate all over the world.
When Glasgow won the Pro12 title, they did it with a core of hungry Scots supplemented by experience and cleverly-recruited foreign talent. When Edinburgh swashbuckled their way to the Heineken Cup semi-finals, they were almost exclusively Scottish, with a sprinkling of overseas nous.
There are so many competing interests in the business. You need a balance in these squads. You need to feed the national side. You need to give your home-grown crop a platform to flourish and role models to learn from without throwing them to the wolves. You need the teams to be successful in their own right and to do that you need top players.
The festive period is contracting season in rugby and this is a seismic one for Glasgow.
If you’re a Warriors fan, you’d want to be sitting down before casting an eye over the out-of-contract list, headed up by coach Dave Rennie.
Tommy Seymour is one of their most cherished campaigners, an eight-year veteran and a title-winner who loves the club. But he will be 31 in the summer and no-one would begrudge him a move should a wealthy suitor come calling.
Alex Dunbar has been there for a decade and although his injury record will count against him in negotiations, if he stays fit and gets back to his old rampaging self, there will be interest. Sam Johnson, the man who kept him out of the team at the business end of last season, is also coming to the end of his deal.
With Russell gone, Adam Hastings has come roaring on to the scene and as Glasgow’s first-choice 10, the salary he can command will have rocketed up too. Ditto George Horne and Scott Cummings, whose first professional deals are expiring.
Lee Jones, Adam Ashe, Zander Fagerson, Jamie Bhatti, Alex Allan, Rory Hughes, Chris Fusaro, Siua Halanukonuka, Greg Peterson – all internationals; all out of contract.
The picture at Edinburgh is a little rosier, although their recruitment may be affected by the search to replace Jonny Petrie, their outgoing managing director. Richard Cockerill weighed up what he had pretty early in his first season in charge, got those he rated tied down long-term and those he didn’t out the door.
Darcy Graham, Murray McCallum, Luke Hamilton, Grant Gilchrist and Mark Bennett are out-of-contract but even allowing for their plentiful back-row options, the big one is Watson. The sharks are circling again for the barnstorming open-side and Edinburgh will do very, very well to keep him.
Russell, Hogg, Jones, Watson – four of Scotland’s finest players. Four players who put backsides on seats. Four box-office talents who ought to be in the conversation when we’re picking fantasy XVs in the pub.
Scottish Rugby have proven to be good recruiters when it comes to getting bang for their buck – Leone Nakarawa is the most obvious example, and they could only keep the Fijian maestro for so long – but replacing this volume of firepower without a drop in quality would be hideously tough.
Some would argue that is fine, that the pro-teams’ primary function is to stock Townsend’s talent pool. That as long as they are competitive, if not outstanding, in their tournaments and the next wave of players is emerging, they are serving their purpose. That the rise of the national side and the interest in its big names shows the system is working. Rennie, Cockerill, the players and thousands of supporters may have other ideas.
Glasgow will never be a force in Europe and Edinburgh can only continue climbing so far while talent of this class is lost. The gap to the true giants of the continent will never be bridged. And there is scarcely a thing anyone can do about it. At a time where there is so much to admire and such positive growth across the Scottish game, this brutal reality remains as telling as ever.
RugbyPass has created a next generation rugby rating system, based on machine learning and shaped by game winning moments. The system (RPI) is a world first for its complexity and comprehensive embrace of northern and southern hemisphere players and teams. By using in-depth data analysis, RPI determines exactly what it takes to win, in real time. Explore the RPI now!