Analysis: Review of SRU governance structures must be truly independent

Sir Bill Gammell is a Murrayfield insider with close links to SRU Chief Executive Mark Dodson and Chairman of Board Colin Grassie

SRU Board Chairman Colin Grassie and Chief Executive Mark Dodson have both known Sir Bill Gammell for some time. Image: Craig Watson

AT the end of a tumultuous year for the Scottish Rugby Union – stretching back to the scathing judgement issued against the organisation in the Keith Russell unfair dismissal case – the Board and Council have finally got around to commissioning the review of governance structures which they promised at last August’s AGM.

However, the decision to task millionaire businessman, former international wing and Murrayfield insider Sir Bill Gammell with spearheading the enquiry stinks of the sort of cronyism which led to the last major constitutional crisis faced by Scottish rugby back in 2005.

On that occasion, a “palace coup” by the old General Committee (of elected officials) against reforming Chairman David Mackay and his Chief Executive Phil Anderton led to a club uprising and ultimately the adoption of the governance structure which is still in place today.

This time, it appears to be the paid executives who are looking to fortify their position by keeping all scrutiny and influence in-house, believing that the clubs – the ultimate stakeholders in the game – lack the appetite and ability to hold them to account.


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Gammell has been commissioned to conduct “a wide ranging, independent review of Scottish Rugby’s governance structures”, but given his close connection with key players and significant events at the heart of the recent turmoil which has enveloped Murrayfield, there must be serious doubts about whether he can survey the situation with a fresh and dispassionate eye.

For example, back in November 2017, this website interviewed Scottish Rugby Chief Executive Mark Dodson about his recently unveiled plan to create a Super 6 league at the top of the club game. There had been talk for some time about Lowland League football side Spartans taking on a franchise and Dodson was asked if he had made that approach.

“No, no. Spartans have been mentioned to me by Bill Gammell for about five years. We didn’t trigger that. If it doesn’t work, or it isn’t the optimal solution, it won’t get the franchise,” Dodson replied.

It is understood that the relationship between the Chief Executive and the former Chairman of Cairn Energy began when Gammell accepted an invitation from Dodson to sit on a business advisory group he pulled together soon after arriving at Murrayfield in September 2011.

The Spartans idea drifted away, but Gammell stayed involved to play a central role in setting up Super 6 by chairing the selection panel which identified the clubs to populate this new competition.

The birth of Super 6 has been a tortuous process, with one of the major stumbling-blocks being the decision of Gammell’s panel to select three teams from Edinburgh in the new competition, with not one in the City of Glasgow or north of the central belt – completely disregarding the stated criteria that there should be no more than two franchises from any single region.

Colin Grassie, the Chairman of the Scottish Rugby Board and like Gammell an Old Fettesian, also has a pre-existing relationship with the oil man. He is a long-serving member of the Advisory Board for Gammell’s Winning Scotland Foundation charity.

It may be argued that bringing in a complete outsider would be counter-productive because that individual would have to expend valuable time and energy getting up to speed with the details of Scottish rugby – which is the same justification given last year when Board member Lesley Thomson QC was appointed to investigate the circumstances surrounding the Board approved unfair dismissal of Russell as Director of Domestic Rugby.

But those two extremes – a Murrayfield insider or someone with no knowledge whatsoever of the game – are not the only choices. There are scores, perhaps hundreds, of competent people with a working knowledge of Scottish rugby who do not have the same ties to Murrayfield as Gammell.

It is hard to believe that during the nine months since announcing this review, the Board and Council have been unable to identify any other suitably qualified, credible and more obviously independent candidates to take on the role.

Apartments in Leith

In their statement announcing Gammell’s appointment – which was distributed via social media on Friday afternoon, but not displayed on the governing body’s home page or issued as a press release – the SRU state: “In light of the rapidly evolving global rugby landscape (and with the potential for future external investment into the sport), Scottish Rugby’s governance structures must be fit for purpose to take account of the interests of all existing and future stakeholders.”

The statement fails to provide a specific timeframe for this review, any detail on who will assist Gammell, an explanation of how relevant ‘stakeholders’ will be canvassed, or an insight as to how the findings of the review will be reported and actioned (beyond being submitted to the Scottish Rugby Council’s Standing Committee on Governance chaired by Gavin MacColl QC).

The Dunlop Report, which provided the basis of the existing governance structure, was pulled together in eight weeks in early 2005, by a 10-person working party containing representatives from the Board, the Council, Scottish Rugby’s performance department, the Premiership Leagues (there were three in those days), the National Leagues and an ‘independent’. It was ratified by an SGM of member clubs.

Sheriff Bill Dunlop and his working party succeeded in winning over (if not fully uniting) all the various factions who were jostling for territory in Scottish rugby at that time, and until recently the report has been held up as a template for good governance of a national sporting body. There is a strong argument that this is still the case, so long as the constituent parts are willing and able to properly fulfil their roles.

The changing landscape of professional sport means that some updating may be required. However – against the backdrop of the Keith Russell affair, the at-best questionable use of non-disclosure agreements for departing staff, the fudged internal review of these two issues, the on-going Super 6/Agenda 3 saga, and the bitter taste left by the way Murrayfield stage-managed the recent SGM – it is absolutely essential that the independence and transparency of this review, which will have a huge impact on shaping the future of the game in this country, is beyond doubt.

Gammell is – by all accounts – a good man and a conscientious supporter of Scottish rugby, but he has been put in an impossible position with this appointment. An independent review needs to be truly independent or it will simply feed further mistrust and resentment.


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David Barnes
About David Barnes 1357 Articles
David has worked as a freelance rugby journalist since 2004 covering every level of the game in Scotland for publications including The Sunday Times, The Telegraph, The Scotsman/Scotland on Sunday/Evening News, The Herald/Sunday Herald, The Daily Mail/Mail on Sunday and The Sun.

3 Comments

  1. If there is nothing to hide why do your utmost to avoid proper scrutiny?
    You would have thought that they the would have learned from previous mistakes but apparently not? They still think they are right.
    Of course, even following the decision and comments made by the Senior Tribunal Judge they did not recognise the organisation he was commenting on?? Blinkers on and ear protectors inserted once again!

  2. I may be completely off the beam here but I get a gut feeling that “the SRU” view the members (the clubs) as feral cats whereby common concensus is an impossible aim & therefore determine strategies in isolation which they will impose with or without agreement of said members.
    However, a sizeable number of these clubs seem to me to be in awe of the SRU &, like nodding dogs, fail to use their power to remind the SRU of the need to acknowledge their respective roles.
    I would add that it may be that it is but further evidence of the failings creeping in to our democratic structures in all walks of life.

  3. This sitting on the fence won’t do you any good David 🙂

    Fully agree with your piece. The clubs haven’t been informed officially about this work, what it’s remit is, who will be involved in the working group, timelines and how clubs will be involved.

    We seem to have learned nothing from the shambles of the last couple of years. The crucial governance issue is between the Executives, the Board & Council and the clubs. As we always hear, the clubs are the SRU.

    Consider all the extra effort that has been expended to deal with Super 6 and Agenda 3. This would have been avoided if clubs were involved from the start. We are facing Groundhog Day again.

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