FOR anyone who has not already taken an entrenched view on the big issue which has hung over Scottish rugby these last three weeks, the overriding emotion when reading Finn Russell’s interview in today’s The Sunday Times must surely have been of sadness that it has ended up at this seemingly intractable impasse.
Russell has kept a dignified silence throughout this whole affair up until now, while the SRU have very deliberately pushed a narrative that the player’s absence during the build-up and first two weekends of this Six Nations campaign was down to him being “disciplined for a breach of team protocol” related to his desire to have a drink in the hotel bar on the first night in camp against his team-mates’ wishes.
The player has now given an eloquent and compelling account of the night in question in which he protests that the issue was not about his desire to have another drink, rather related to a far deeper-rooted unhappiness with the environment in the Scotland camp under head coach Gregor Townsend.
What is clear is that, at least in Russell’s mind, this tension between the playmaker and the coach stretches back way beyond that Sunday night, and indeed beyond last year’s Calcutta Cup match when Russell revealed on live TV that he’d had an “argument” with Townsend over tactics at half-time. The problem, it seems, began during Russell’s earliest days playing under Townsend at Glasgow Warriors eight years ago.
The fact that this has not been addressed before reaching crisis point speaks volumes about the general dysfunctionality of Scottish Rugby at the moment.
During the last two years, the Murrayfield machine has lurched from one governance and/or PR disaster to the next, with trust in the people responsible for running the game being eroded by each and every misstep.
The catalyst was the illegal sacking by the SRU of Russell’s father, Keith, from the role of Director of Domestic Rugby, which resulted in a scathingjudgement against Chief Executive Mark Dodson by an employment tribunal – this has undoubtedly created an uncomfortable backdrop for both sides in the most recent Mexican stand-off.
Following on from that, there was the internal review conducted by SRU Board member Lesley Thomson QC into the governing body’s handling of issues surrounding the Keith Russell case – including the decision of the Board to grant Dodson a lucrative three-year contract extension whilst still awaiting the outcome of the tribunal, and the liberal use of confidentiality agreements for departing staff – which ultimately provided us with absolutely no substantive detail of any concerns being identified let alone properly addressed.
Then there was the mysterious conception and heavy-handed implementation of Dodson’s Agenda3/Super6 project to restructure the administration and funding of club rugby in Scotland, which left many rank and file rugby people feeling railroaded and short-changed.
And there was also the SRU claim ahead of last August’s AGM that they were “debt free” when that patently was not the case.
More recently, we had the Typhoon Hagibis fall-out, when Dodson decided to pressurise World Rugby through the media into rescheduling Scotland’s all-important match against Japan if the storm hit Yokohama. Opinions are split over whether this was a good or bad move, but it didn’t go down well elsewhere and resulted in the SRU picking up a £70,000 fine as a consequence.
The SRU may have persuaded World Rugby to dress it up as a ‘donation’, but that was semantics. It was a fine. Nothing more and nothing less.
Next up, the governance review conducted by Sir Bill Gammell – a former Scotland internationalist, millionaire oilman and long-standing associate of Dodson – who came to the conclusion that concerns about the conduct of the Board and paid executives at the top of the Scottish game should be addressed by giving them more autonomy to do exactly as they please. The proposal was meant to be pushed through an SGM by the end of March but now appears to have been discreetly shelved after a furious backlash from member clubs, who have belatedly remembered that it is them and not the hired help who own the business and all its assets.
Perhaps most galling of all, there was the outrage last month at the revelation that Dodson had trousered £933k in salary and bonuses for the year up to the end of May 2019, more than doubling the £455k he had picked up the year before. This is a figure that dwarves, by some considerable distance, the emoluments paid to the CEO’s of the other home unions, with Philip Browne, chief executive of the IRFU, apparently taking home in the region of £175,000 during a similar period.
With Dodson’s three fellow executive directors at Murrayfield also doubling their income from £535k between them to £1.18m, those four suits at the top of the organisation accounted for 3.5 percent of the SRU’s £61m turnover last year, which is the equivalent of 73 percent of the total spent on grassroots ‘club support and development’.
All of this is relevant because it feeds into a perception that the sport in this country is being run by a small cabal of people who have lost sight [if they ever had it] of the core purpose of the business.
And it relates specifically to the national team’s current predicament because it looks like the focus has been so much on either empire-building or fire-fighting, and sometimes both of those things at the same time, that the people in charge have not bothered themselves addressing potentially uncomfortable truths about the failed World Cup campaign.
The SRU were without a director of rugby from the end of the last Six Nations right through the World Cup and up until the start of January, when Jim Mallinder finally took on the role, meaning that the relatively inexperienced Townsend – with only five years as a head coach with Glasgow Warriors before getting the Scotland job – had no senior rugby figure to bounce ideas off, ask for advice and to ultimately be held accountable by.
Now that Mallinder has his feet fully under the desk, you would have expected that top of his ‘to-do list’ would have been to pick up the phone to Russell – better still to hop on a plane to Paris – in order to get a proper feel for what is really going on. While he is there, he would also be able to check-in on Richie Gray, who is apparently back available for Scotland now having opted to sit out the World Cup. But there appears to have been no contact at all.
Furthermore, unlike England and Ireland [who did markedly better than Scotland], there has been no official review of the World Cup, although Townsend did explain a few weeks ago that there had been plenty of internal discussion by the coaching and management team, with their conclusions then passed upstairs – which is a bit like leaving the school kids to mark their own homework.
Had there been a director of rugby in place and/or a proper review of the World Cup, then the ticking time-bomb of the Russell’s rapidly deteriorating relationship with Townsend would surely have been identified and addressed before the almost inevitable explosion.
This lack of accountability has not helped Townsend, rather undermined him. Speculation is now rife about his relationship with the players and his suitability for the job. It was Dodson who gave Townsend his big break at Glasgow Warriors in 2012 (which was a bold move at the time), and their careers have been aligned ever since. Dodson shared Townsend’s glory when he led the Warriors to the PRO12 title in 2015, but now they both find their respective positions under unprecedented scrutiny.