MARK DODSON remains hopeful that some crowds might be permitted into Murrayfield during next year’s home Six Nations matches, but he recognises that the half-full stadiums previously targeted is highly unlikely given the recently announced tightening of Covid restrictions, which will come into place on Boxing Day for at least the next three weeks.
A 50 percent full stadium for Scotland’s three home Six Nations games and 100 percent (67k capacity) attendances during the Autumn Tests was given last month as part of Scottish Rugby’s “base-case cash-flow forecast” for the next year.
That has been blown out the window and the “severe but plausible downside scenario” of no crowds in the Six Nations and 25 percent attendances for the Autumn Tests now seems far more likely.
“It is a moving feast and we can only work towards the best information we have at any one time, but I think what has happened with this second wave – you might call it a third wave – has put the prospect back of having meaningful crowds at the Six Nations this year,” acknowledged Dodson, after the third and final instalment of this year’s elongated AGM for the governing body.
“We are still hopeful that we can get crowds in for the Six Nations,” he added. “Two of our three home games are at the end of the Six Nations period, at the end of March, so we’ve got more chance than we have at, say, the beginning of February – but it is something we have to keep talking to the government about and keep lockstep with them as we work through this whole pandemic as it pans out.
“The important thing is that our financial position, regardless of what happens in the Six Nations, is secure, because of the refinancing we’ve achieved through to 2022.”
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The purpose of last night’s meeting was to approve the audited accounts of Scottish Rugby.
During the video conference, Dodson gave a presentation in which he discussed the funds Scottish Rugby has received from the deal to sell a 28 percent stake in the Guinness PRO14 to CVC Partners private equity house.
“Essentially, the PRO14 monies remains ring-fenced,” he said. “Any decision on the use of these proceeds will be considered early in the New Year as part of an examination of our longer-term objectives and prospects.
“The bank facility we’ve negotiated will act as a safeguard against any future long-term Covid-related disruption.”
Smoke and mirrors
It was later explained by President Ian Barr that, in fact, not all the money has been ring-fenced, because some has already been spent.
“We have now received two payments arising for the investment by CVC into the PRO14,” said Barr, in the question and answer session that followed Dodson’s presentation. “Use of these funds is subject to specific Board approval. Some has been used as part of the refinancing arrangements made in the Autumn and to repay the long-standing term loan … [and] cover the distributions we will receive in the short term from PR014 due to CVC now sharing PRO14 revenues, and the rest has been ring-fenced [sic].
“Early in the New Year, the Board will be discussing longer term objectives, a strategy for achieving those objectives, and how best to use the various sources available to us.”
The video connection was unstable for everyone during this part of the video call, and Dodson was asked during the post AGM press briefing to give some more clarity on the amount which has been ring-fenced.
“The first tranche hasn’t been spent, it’s a proportion of the first [which has been spent],” he said. “It’s all in that text we’ve been through three times, it’s all in there. You should be able to pick it up from there.”
It was put to him that, withstanding the connection problems, a figure for the ringfenced money was not given during the AGM.
“I think it was actually detailed in the presentation, in the detail to some of the answers,” Dodson replied.
Dodson was just as irritable when asked about the fact Scottish Rugby has now drawn £17.8m from the deal.
It was announced on 22nd May, and WRU took £4.9m before its year end on 30th June, while the IRFU booked £5.0m by its 31st July year end. Both may have withdrawn more since then, although IRFU CEO Philip Browne indicated back in May that he expected the £30m windfall to be spread over three years.
“It is entirely up to each Union,” said Dodson, when asked about his business’ early cash-in. “We made that decision because we felt that we would have that money into our business earlier, and we would be able to do more with it from a rugby union point or view for Scotland. Other rugby unions will have another point of view because they have a different financial position and different financial strategies. It is just entirely what we decided to do as a Board.”
Sharing the wealth
Dodson was equally evasive on the distribution of the recent £15m grant and £5m low interest loan received from the Scottish Government, although reading between the lines it is clear that he plans to see the money stay at head office, rather than be distributed around the parishes.
“We have not yet been presented with the detailed terms of the government support package or a date for distribution,” he said.
“But it is clear that this funding is to be used to repair the damage to our revenues created by the pandemic. In short, there is an expectation that this emergency funding is intended to allow the Union to resume its core functions with its workforce intact. It is not there to support new or expanded projects, specific programmes, or particular sectors of the organisation.
“I am pleased that we have been able to secure the Union and it has taken some time to do that, but these efforts should put us on to a path to bring some sense of normality back to the planning and delivery of rugby in 2021.”
Dodson was pushed on why the Scottish FA has been able to give a breakdown of the amount of money being directed towards each domestic league while Scottish Rugby is still, apparently, in the dark, so unable to say where the money will be spent.
“We haven’t been given any details, that’s why,” he retorted. “I don’t know what their details are. I don’t talk to the government about other people’s details.”
Barr was then put on the spot with regard to how he thinks the bail-out should be shared around.
“Putting my Board hat on, I’m absolutely delighted that Scottish Rugby was able to secure that level of funding from the Scottish Government,” he said. “Why is there a disparity between us and football? I’m not sure, and as Mark says we are still waiting for details.”
“Putting my President’s hat on, of course I would like to see a large percentage of that money given to the grassroots game, and I think there will be that expectation there,” he added.
“Mark alluded to it earlier [during the meeting], that we’ve got to look after every aspect of the Scottish Rugby Union and that means from grassroots right up to international level.”
Always look on the bright side of life
Dodson stressed that the financial outlook is not as scary as has been portrayed by this website [among others].
He pointed out that the revolving credit facility of £8.5m which was put in place in December hasn’t – as of 22nd December [maximum three weeks later] – been drawn on yet.
“The audited financial statements provide comfort to our stakeholders until May 2021 but ensuring that Scottish Rugby continues to operate through and beyond this pandemic has been a key focus for our Board and executive in recent months,” he said.
“We’ve taken significant steps to ensure that we have a stable and robust footing, notwithstanding the impact of coronavirus, as we look forwards,” he added.
“So far, we’ve managed to trade through the current period as planned. We’ve continued to mitigate that through tight cost control and creating methods of driving new revenue.”
Making friends and influencing people
Both Dodson and Chairman John Jeffrey urged the congregation to stop “the infighting, the bitterness and the mistrust which exists between some clubs, forums, leagues, the Board, Council and the Executive” in Scottish Rugby “because it is divisive, corrosive and reflects poorly on us all”.
Then a question from Keith Wallace of Haddington was read out:
“Given that the prime cause of any rancour and mistrust has been the lack of clear strategy, can the Chairman confirm that a new clear strategy will be a key output of the reset phase [of Scottish Rugby’s response to Covid], and that to help ensure that there is full understanding and buy-in, the clubs – the members of the Union – will have the opportunity to input into the development of that strategy?”
Barr – the only Board member put forward to front the Q&A section – looking like a fighter pilot shot down behind enemy lines and forced onto TV to tell everyone how great his captors are – faced it down alone. [Note: Both Jeffrey as Chairman of the Board and Dodson as CEO had given pre-recorded presentations earlier in the meeting but didn’t take any part in the Q&A session, although both were available at the post AGM media conference.]
“Having spoken to the Chairman, I am happy to respond,” replied Barr, with all the enthusiasm of Finn Russell sticking to a 10pm curfew.
“The assertion that a prime cause of the rancour and distrust has been a lack of clear strategy is not accepted.
“That may well be the questioners opinion, and one which that club is perfectly entitled to hold, but it should not be put forward as a statement of fact.
“As explained in one of the earlier answers, the Board will be looking at future strategic objectives and at how these can be achieved early in the New Year.
“And I and other members of Council elected to the Board will be engaging fully in the process.
“Once that has been developed, the Board will in turn discuss that with the Council – that being the most appropriate forum.”
In other words: Unity on our terms – like it or lump it.