MANY clubs will quite understandably feel that they have more pressing issues to concern themselves with at the moment as they seek to chart safe passage through the tempestuous waters thrown up by the Covid-19 pandemic, but tomorrow [Saturday] morning’s SRU AGM (part one) should not be dismissed out of hand as a mere distraction.
It is going to be a key moment in defining the terms of engagement between the executives who are paid to run the game in this country and the stakeholders who ultimately own the whole shooting match as we enter a period of significant upheaval in the sport locally, nationally and globally.
Ian Barr of Lasswade RFC will be ratified as the new President, taking over from Dee Bradbury – the first female President of a Tier One nation – who is currently out of action as she convalesces from a cardiac arrest suffered back in June.
Barr was elected Vice-President two years ago, with a landslide majority, as a champion for the club and grassroots game. He has had a pretty low public profile since then, and there is a suspicion that certain figures at Murrayfield were initially keen to keep him at arm’s length, although he is understood to have been an influential figure in the Council finally resisting the Gammell review and the subsequent governance task force, and in recent months he has been brought closer to the centre of power with his appointment to the SRU Board.
Barr faces a challenging two years as the man the clubs are looking towards to bring to heel an executive team which is widely viewed as having attempted to run away with the ball.
His biggest task will be to balance the requirement for the suits to have the freedom to move fast and decisively as they battle the potentially ruinous consequences of Covid, whilst also ensuring that there is a marked improvement in accountability and transparency generally.
The key piece of business tomorrow morning will be the election of the Vice-President, who will support and assist Barr during the next two years, before ultimately taking over the top job in 2022. This is a two-horse race between Colin Rigby of Stewart’s Melville and Keith Wallace of Haddington. Both are regarded as committed club and grassroots rugby men, with Rigby perhaps a collaborative option, while Wallace tends to take a more forthright approach. It looks like being a tight contest.
We know from previous experience that the Murrayfield PR department are masters at stage managing these events, but the fact that this one is being conducted by video conference adds an intriguing new dynamic. It is going to be a lot harder to use the pre-meeting bacon rolls, the slick video montages and Chief Executive Mark Dodson’s charisma to generate positive energy as has tended to happen in the recent past.
Ultimately, however, you strongly suspect that the format will suit those at the top table who might ordinarily have expected to receive a bit of a grilling from a cohort of increasingly antagonised club figures.
Clubs were invited to submit questions by last Friday evening but have been warned that any enquiry should be relevant to the items of business scheduled for part one of the meeting, and that the response may still be deferred to part two if deemed necessary. There is no specific slot in tomorrow morning’s schedule to deal with ‘other competent business’ (i.e. questions).
Certainly, the decision to postpone the presentation of the accounts until AGM Part 2 has eliminated one potential flashpoint. Dodson explained last week that this has been done because there wasn’t time to prepare the required paperwork due to the huge hit to the business caused by the virus. This doesn’t bode particularly well for the new era of openness we are all hoping for.
We don’t know when we will get sight of the accounts. Part 2 of the AGM – which will also deal the two motions which have been brought by clubs in relation to those twin issues of transparency and accountability – is to take place when the relaxation of social distancing restrictions allow for the delegates to sit in the same room. Dodson has suggested that this could be as early as this Autumn, but it is also possible that we will have to wait until the New Year.
With Dodson and John Jeffrey, the recently appointed Chairman of the Board, both due to make remarks near the top of the meeting, clubs should at least get an opportunity to hear more about how Scottish Rugby plans to bounce back from the Covid crisis.
They will be keen to put some meat on the bones of Dodson’s pledge to make £14million savings without any redundancies, which will be some achievement in a business which spent £59million last year, of which 52% (£31.5million) was on staffing.
The clubs will be particularly anxious to find out how the imminent financial squeeze will impact the direct funding they receive from Murrayfield. Dodson has previously said that he is determined to protect the SRU’s Rugby Development department as much as possible, but that refers to the paid staff who administrate and assist the club game, not the cash that goes towards individual clubs to ensure that their facilities and infrastructure are up to scratch.
Then there is the issue of CVC private equity money. Scottish Rugby has already received a big lump from the sale of a slice of the Guinness PRO14. At the time of that deal, Dodson said the money would be ring-fenced and spent across the whole game in Scotland, but last week he suggested that the cash is now viewed as being the preserve of the professional game. A bit of clarity on this would be appreciated, as would be an update on the progress of CVC’s apparently imminent deal with the Six Nations.
We’re not likely to get all the answers we seek, but from what we are given we should be able to better gauge how the future really looks.