SCOTTISH RUGBY Chief Executive Mark Dodson discussed a wide range of issues as he unveiled a three-year strategy for the game in this country earlier today [Tuesday].
This is what he had to say:
1. Will the Scotland squad be able to fly out to Romania next Wednesday?
It is a waiting game. One of the issues is that Covid got into our camp and we have to do three or four more days surveillance. It is only when we find the outcomes of that surveillance can we take any judgments. I was talking to James Robson [SRU Chief Medical Officer] this morning when he gave me his daily briefing and I am afraid it is a wait and see situation.
“The results don’t come back daily. They come back in batches. As soon as we have more results we will come back to you.
“We have been extremely prudent and taken a conservative approach and put health first and that will serve us well in the end. We will be better placed to give out more information in three or four days time.
2. What’s this strategy – with the themes of ‘well-being’, ‘winning’ and ‘women’ – all about?
“During lockdown we have had time to reflect on exactly where we were and the issues that have come clear to us as we have gone through this last 15 months. One of the major things we have had to deal with, in society but also with our player group and other stakeholders too, is the whole issue of well-being, of mental and physical health.
“We understand how important that is, both to the physical health of the nation and to our own people. We have talked extensively to people in the business and we are looking at ways in which we can support them through hybrid working and ways we can help them re-enter the workplace.
“It’s got a whole different slant and emphasis on what we were already doing with our Rugby for Life programme. So, the ‘well-being’ element is a reflection of what has gone on in the last 15 months, and as we come out of this post-Covid business what our priorities are going to be.
“We want to have ‘winning’ teams on the pitch and when you look at the challenges we are facing with the United Rugby Championship and how that is going to alter the landscape of our league, it’s important that we address that head-on. We want to stay at the top table in Europe and in the new championship.
“The growth of the ‘women’s’ game is there for everyone to see. I think we are some way behind some teams in the world and we have to redouble our effort. One of the things we are going to do is put out an overarching women’s strategy sometime in the autumn that takes us from four and five-year-olds at mini rugby through to the international stage. There are quite a few of those pathways and pieces of the jigsaw that we do not have in place, for instance a dedicated school program and regional training centres.
“It’s basically kicking at an open door. There are so many different agencies and stakeholders and sponsors who expect us to invest heavily in the women’s game.
“When we started the Return to Rugby fund, we had 110 applications and 51% of them were specifically tied to women’s rugby. We’re kicking at an open door here. We didn’t specify in the fund what people should ask for money for; this is what they’ve realised they have to do, they have to change their clubs, make them more welcoming and sustainable … community hubs. The quickest way to do that is attract women and girls to a facility they feel comfortable.”
3. Has the Scotland Women’s team hit a glass ceiling? Does there need to be more professionalisation of the women’s game in Scotland?
“There is almost a three-tier situation. Some teams are at the very top, like France, England and New Zealand, then there is a second and third tier, and we are at the bottom of the second-tier.
“What we need is better quality of competition and more coaching across the country. It’s not just one single issue, there are several component we need to address, and we’re not just going to address one at a time. If it means a pro team then that is definitely part of a long-term plan.
“First we would have to find a place for a professional women’s team to play. A large number of women players play in the English league. What we are looking at with other unions is ways that we can perhaps supplement that. We will have to think about how we would position ourselves and whether we have enough players to do that. I think it’s one of the key components we are going to have over the coming years.”
4. Sounds like you plan to invest big in Edinburgh and Glasgow?
“We have always had to concentrate on squad depth because of the calls in international periods. We used to lose 20 or 25 players at that point and that put an enormous strain on our pro squads. They are United Rugby Championship and calendar this year does away with that, and so hopefully what we’re trying to do now is improve squad quality and also bring through the pipeline of young players quicker. I think we are going for quality rather than depth.
“One [way to do that] is having an improved Super6 or Super8 tournament which gives a higher quality of rugby on a regular basis for those players. Secondly, we’ve got to blood players younger as we’ve done this year. If you look at players like Rufus McLean, Ben Muncaster, Ollie Smith and Ross Thompson, you can see that our academies are preparing players better for that process than we have done before. Further investment into our academies as part of the ‘winning team’ strategy is going to be well resourced.
“It’s always a balancing act. We have pro coaches who want to win, and we want to win. We also have to make sure that our supporters are satisfied. We can all say that this season has not been glorious for our pro clubs, we accept that, but it’s also not a season when you can judge our coaches and teams too harshly. It has been one of the most challenging seasons anyone could possibly imagine.
“Looking ahead to next season, without the international overlaps, and with perhaps more resource for spending on quality players, we will have to be more judgemental about performances. That’s quite difficult because we are going into a brand-new competition which we don’t really know the strength of. This is the equivalent of bringing four Leinsters into the competition so it’s going to be hugely more competitive.
“I also believe that other teams, the Irish and Welsh and Italians, will also up their games. Jim Mallinder has left the coaches in no doubt about what expectations will be next season.”
5. The pro teams make big losses, can you ever start to redress that?
“The United Rugby Championship is not just another version of PRO14 or PRO16. This is going to be a watershed moment for the tournament, and it will help us close that gap [between costs and income for the pro teams]. We should be able to exploit the South African market in a much bigger way than we did before.
“We’ve seen an incredible demand for season tickets at Edinburrh. We’ve just put them on sale and there is record demand for season tickets for the new competition already. So, we find ourselves in a position where all the work that has been done with the South Africa project over the last couple of years is coming to fruition in this new URC.
“Pro rugby is expensive. We make a loss on our pro teams. We hope very much that this will close the loss and make sure it is more affordable for the Union.
“More importantly, we believe that you have to see that loss, as we do, as an investment in the overall business.”
6. Do you still plan to expand Super6 to Super8 and even Super10, despite the motion which has been tabled at August’s AGM calling for the competition to be scrapped?
“We’ve got to go to eight first. 10 is an ambition we would like to have down the line. But eight is certainly do-able. It will help us address the blank spots in our Super6 coverage. We know we’d like Caledonia and Midlands to have a side, we’d like Glasgow to have a side, and we also have potentially London Scottish wanting to play in a widened competition, which will also give us Scottish Qualified players who can come from out-with the Scottish catchment area.
“So, we’re not being in any way prescriptive in where things should go and what we should do. I think what we should do is have an application process – a shorter one this time – which will look at how strong the bids are, and we can alight on this hopefully in season 2022-23 and start to address a Super8 as soon as possible.
“The ecosystem has got to expand. We’re looking at Super8, probably Super10, even Super12 as it gets stronger and stronger. It depends on depth of talent and economics. Once you have a broadcaster in place you’ll find there’s a natural acceleration of how that competition is perceived by the public.
“There’s nothing to stop clubs from applying, Currie and Hawick did apply. We didn’t want anyone being disenfranchised by the first round and it was an independent process with sportscotland being involved. From where we sit, we believe there should be room for everyone who wants to and can play at that level over a period of time.
“Maybe Super6 will be the model with more than one league, with a second division. I don’t know. It’s not meant to disenfranchise, it’s meant to show the standards that’s required to be a performance path.
“We’d start a franchise if we felt it was the right thing to do. Our preference was clubs and consortiums working together to bring rugby to those parts of geography. But if we didn’t get a bid from Aberdeen, Dundee or Glasgow and we thought it was important to have one, that’s something we would consider.
“We’ve already learned lessons and got tons of feedback. And the resistance to Super6 is not universal, a lot of clubs are quite happy this is taking place. There’s a small number of clubs that feel deeply about it, that’s understandable and it’s fine. But there’s got to be a moment in time where we move on from this debate, and we have a concentrated effort to get behind Super6 or Super8 because it is going to be the performance pathway.
“I know there is emotion out there, and I want to make it clear that we as a Union, and myself as CEO, have absolutely no issue with an inter-district championship. We think it would be a good thing for players to be recognised outside of their club and potentially move up to play for their region, but we believe that it should be from the Premiership and below. An inter-district is by no means a performance programme and all of our performance people agree with that and have agreed on that for some time. So, this is why we shouldn’t fudge the line between the inter-district championship and Super6 or Super8.
“One of the problems we’ve got is, if we’d had three iterations of Super6 and cross-border championships then we wouldn’t be having this discussion at all. We wouldn’t have this motion. We’d have proved the case.
“We’re extremely confident about where this competition will go, we’ve got evidence to support our belief that there is real interest in developing this league. For example, Premier Sports’ FreeSport channel is looking at showing live games every Sunday with high production values and commentary. We’re also talking to BBC about Friday night games. So, we’re finding that broadcasters are interested in this competition in a way that they were never interested in the Premiership.
“We have to strike while the iron is hot and make sure we bolster the level that sits below the pro teams, because we can all agree that it is one of the weakest in the Celtic nations and we have to make sure that we have a strong Super6 or Super8 that allows the players to come through.”
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7. There isn’t much in terms of targets, benchmarking and costings in this strategy?
“We’re not going to put quantitative or numeric targets in because we’re coming into a post-Covid world and a new championship we don’t know the strength of yet, we’re also making sure that we are looking at the business as a whole.
“Our stakeholders are asking for us to support, help and aid them to come through and restart rugby, from a winning perspective we’re looking at starting a brand new competition with an emphasis on squad quality rather than squad depth, so we’re not going to give ourselves those numerical and quantitative targets that you either meet or don’t meet. Our issue is going to be around driving forward a brand new plan which sees us as a different style of business coming out of Covid, and we’re looking at the real problems that we know our stakeholders and people are facing.”
8. How significantly has Covid set the business back?
“It’s been one of the biggest frustrations is that we’ve had an influx of revenue from the sale of PRO14, and coming in from the Six Nations sale, so we would have been in an incredibly strong position. We’d have been able to do an awful lot of things we’ve always wanted to do quicker, things like the women’s game, like better facilities for our leading clubs across the piece, regional training environments, a match officials strategy, and a real focus on volunteers. We would have been in a fantatsic position, but we had to stop everything for 15 months and concentrate on our national and pro teams, because that’s where our money’s made. It was fortunate that the hiatus stopped the domestic game because I’m not sure how we’d have been able to service the domestic programme as well as the pro and international programme.
“We’re two and a half years behind where we want to be, ideally. We have to do a lot of things quicker to play catch-up. We need our overall turnover to be back where it was as quick as we possibly can and go beyond that number, and we need to restart rugby safely and sustainably.”
9. The Lions match at Murrayfield on Saturday seemed to be a bit of a shambles with the bars running out of beer before half-time?
“As far as we are concerned, this was our first Covid protocolled event at BTM and there were some issues around consumption of alcohol, we know that, but we took a decision based on health. We had an unprecedented demand for alcohol consumption and the estate had been differently configured for this game. Effectively, we had the opportunity to go back and restock the bars which would have created more problems for traffic round the estate and we decided not to compromise the social distancing protocols we had in place so we decided not to put alcohol for sale after half-time. We took a conscious decision and our focus was on health rather than hospitality.
“I spoke to Ben Calveley [Managing Director of the Lions] this morning. He said the feedback they had from fans, sponsors and broadcasters was incredibly good and they had no issue at all with what happened on Saturday. They were very pleased with the event.”
10. Is Murrayfield still fit for purpose as a top level sports venue?
“Ever since I arrived here [in 2011] we’ve had plans to upgrade Murrayfield when we’ve had the money. With a stadium of this size a few million pounds is like a flea bite, it doesn’t go that far. What we’ve had to do is use our money smartly and upgrade parts of the stadium which we could afford. We all know the infrastructure of the stadium has to be worked on. We haven’t touched any of the money from the Six Nations-CVC deal, haven’t worked on the strategy because we were leaving that money aside for generational or legacy projects. That could be Murrayfield.
“I was talking last week to the government about the redevelopment of the stadium and we should be looking with the government to upgrade the infrastructure as extensively as we can over the next five years. But we’ll have to have partners in that, we’ll have to do it in conjunction with government because it’s such a colossal capital item. The stadium was [redone] in 1994, our competitors have venues much younger than that, what we need to do is bring that up to speed. We now could be in position to contribute towards something that could be done.
“The cost of refurbishing a stadium and the costs of rebuilding and buying land are unbelievably different. You’re much better refurbishing a stadium if you can. We’ve got a prime piece of iconic, historic real estate – everyone knows where we are. Unless someone offers to build us a brand new stadium on the M8 … please put me in touch with them.”