THE thorny issue of centrally contracted professional rugby players being given game time in the BT Premiership was a hot topic again in some sections of the press last week, after an unscrupulous journalist jumped on a comment made by former Scotland hooker Jim Hay on social media and managed to punt a sensationalised story to a number of tabloid newspapers.
The gist of this ‘scoop’ was that Hay feared that the disparity in conditioning levels between ‘amateur’ players in the Premiership and full-time professionals from Edinburgh, Glasgow Warriors and the Scotland Sevens squad is such that a fatal injury could occur. It hardly needs saying that this is exactly the type of publicity that the Scottish Rugby Union can do without, and the vortex of the story was pretty unimpressed too.
Hay did not like being portrayed as the self-appointed spokesman on a subject he has had no direct contact with in several years. He had expressed an opinion in a debate amongst friends. It was on a public thread so it was perhaps naïve to think that nobody outside the conversation would pick up on his words, but his frustration that the comments were reported out of context and without anyone bothering to contact him for clarification is entirely justified.
He regrets raising the possibility of a player dying, because it allowed scaremongers such as the Isle of Arran’s leading absentee rugby reporter to grab a few easy column inches without having to give the subject proper consideration, but that apart Hay stands by the broad sentiment of his original comment.
A quick look on social media at the responses to Hay’s original comment tells us that his is not a lone voice howling in the wind. The professional player release protocol has been in place for over ten years now, but there is still a significant number of influential figures actively involved in the league who continue to have serious misgivings about the whole thing.
The issue of player safety is problematic. Rugby, by its very nature, is a sport in which there is an unavoidable risk. Statistics about people being more likely to get injured opening a can of peach slices than on a rugby pitch routinely get thrown into debates on this subject, but that line of reasoning is disingenuous. Rugby is a full contact sport in which dominating collisions is a key aim, and it doesn’t take a first class honours degree in physics to figure out the implication of more powerful players colliding at ever increasing speeds.
As professional rugby players tend to be bigger and stronger than their amateur counterparts, it stands to reason that there is an increased risk of the collisions causing damage – but the SRU say they are not aware of there being a single instance when a club player has been seriously hurt as a consequence of going up against a centrally contracted professional player. Responses to this debate need to be proportionate and taken within the perspective of where the Premiership wants to stand in Scottish rugby’s playing hierarchy.
“Player welfare is of paramount importance at all levels of the game and we feel that the standard and physicality of the players to be acceptable for the draft,” says Keith Russell, Scottish Rugby’s Head of Domestic Rugby.
“Pro players do not have a monopoly on physicality and the BT Premiership is not a division of ‘plucky amateurs’ facing hardened pros. These are experienced players who train and prepare very hard, many of whom have been part of age-grade international sides or academy set-ups in the past, and have ambitions to play at a higher level; and many do,” he adds.
“A good example is the recent Glasgow Warriors win over Canada A, a match which featured a number of players who will be playing for BT Premiership clubs this weekend, playing alongside professional players, all of whom were up to the required standard of skills and conditioning, as was reflected in the performance and score-line.”
Melrose have long been one of the most successful and overtly ambitious clubs in the Premiership, and their director of rugby, Mike Dalgetty, is clearly frustrated that this debate is still rumbling on.
“At Melrose we did a poll of all our players in the 1st and 2nd XV and the under-18s squad – it was a blind vote so nobody was under any pressure – and of the players who responded, there was only one who believed that the pros shouldn’t be involved. Everybody else said they should be involved because they want to play with them, they want to play against them, and they want to drive standards up in the club game. Our guys absolutely love testing themselves playing with or against players from Edinburgh and Glasgow,” he states.
“The safety issue is not any more of a concern for us with the pros involved than without. A lot of the teams in this division have several players involved in the academies, where they are training every day. The Premiership is officially deemed a professional league, it is not deemed an amateur league, and most of the boys are not strictly amateur in terms of the time and effort they put in,” he continues.
“In some ways this belittles the effort of the players in the Premiership because although they might not be getting paid, or not getting paid a full-time wage, they put the time and effort in. On Thursday night, most of our boys arrive at 5.30pm and they were still here at 10pm because they are working really hard. They are going to the gym in their lunch hours, they are doing loads of extra work by themselves in terms of fitness, skills and analysis.”
“It is demeaning to just write them off as amateur and say they shouldn’t have the ambition to test themselves against full-time professionals. If we do that we take away a huge part of their motivation for working so hard to improve themselves as players.”
Melrose’s head coach Robert Chrystie echoes that sentiment.
“The league is here as a stepping stone to the professional game, so it’s got to prepare the young aspirational players, or even slightly older aspirational players like Nick Beavon, who got his Edinburgh contract last summer at 29-years-old, by giving them the chance to challenge themselves against players who are used to operating at the next level,” he says.
“The coaches in the pro-game, or whoever it is making the decisions on who is being offered a contract, have got to be able to judge it as well, and to do that they have got to see these boys up against players of an equivalent standard.”
Stirling County coach David Adamson is equally forthright in his support of pro-players being involved in the Premiership.
“Having the pros released to play raises the standard of the games, and adds an extra dimension for the amateur club players. I disagree that there is a big difference in pace and power between amateurs and pros. I also completely reject the recent view that there may be a fatality in these games as most players in the Premiership are now essentially semi-pro – being either involved in the BT Academies or strength and conditioning programmes with their clubs, so are physically beyond where they were five years ago. It’s up to the coaches to manage these situations properly, which I believe all head coaches in the Premiership are more than capable of doing,” he says.
Russell claims that the draft is “a process that has been employed successfully for more than a decade, and one which the BT Premiership clubs support fully.” But that might be stretching it a bit.
While all ten clubs subscribe to the current protocol, and all have now used centrally contracted players this season, you don’t have to spend too much time hanging around clubhouses after the game to get the message that some participants are more enthusiastic than others – and that there is often a significant divergence in opinion on this issue within individual clubs.
However, rather than concerns about player welfare, the key complaint about the system tends to relate to fairness.
When Edinburgh hooker Neil Cochrane was released to Heriot’s last season to play in the Cup and play-off finals on consecutive weekends, it caused a minor furore. Michael Liness, the reserve hooker for the Scotland club international team started both games, but was replaced by Cochrane before half-time in each match.
Cochrane scored two tries in the Cup Final and another in the play-off Grand Final, as the Edinburgh side clinched a historic double. Given that he had never featured for the club before those two cameo appearances, the whole thing did leave a rather bitter taste in the mouths of neutral rugby supporters who felt that the sporting integrity of both competitions had been devalued. It certainly must have been a bitter pill to swallow for Liness, who had been a stalwart member of the Heriot’s squad throughout that season only to be turned into a marginal figure as the team entered the home straight.
“The draft is probably as good a way as any for allocating pro players, but it is an imperfect system. Clubs work really hard to pull together a strong squad for the season, they spend a lot of time and effort – and some of them spend a lot of money, too – persuading players to commit – but we all end up at the mercy of the pro team coaches, and who they decide to release on any given Saturday,” says Boroughmuir coach Peter Wright.
The situation is not helped by the fact that each club is linked to a pro team based on geographical proximity, and because there are more Premiership clubs on the east of the country the Edinburgh players are more thinly spread. Currie – as the western-most club in Edinburgh – have been allocated to Glasgow Warriors, but even with that there is a six-four split. Boroughmuir, Gala, Hawick, Heriots, Melrose and Watsonians have either eight or nine pro players allocated to them this year (which includes centrally contracted Sevens players), while Ayr, Currie, Glasgow Hawks and Stirling County have either eleven or twelve players (and none from the Sevens set-up).
How many pro players has each club had access to this season (up to and including 10th September)?
7 – MELROSE *
4 – CURRIE
4 – HAWKS
4 – HERIOT’S
4 – WATSONIANS
2 – AYR
2 – GALA
2 – STIRLING COUNTY
2 – HAWICK
1 – BOROUGHMUIR
*Six of these appearances are from first year professionals signed from Melrose during the summer.
The protocol states that there can only be a maximum difference of two in the number of professional players in each team in a BT Premiership game, unless a wider differential is agreed to by both clubs. That means that if one club gets three pro players released, while their opponents get none, then one of those professional players likely to find himself ineligible to play for his allocated club, in which case he is offered by email to the other sides in the division, with the first club to respond getting the player.
This happened last weekend, when Melrose had three players released and Glasgow Hawks had none, meaning Alan Dell was offered to the other aligned clubs, with Gala first to react and thus getting the player. This week Cochrane – who is now drafted to Watsonians – fell into that category and has been picked up by Melrose.
“That’s complete nonsense,” splutters Wright. “It means that if you have a coach with an office job then you have a better chance of accessing pro players than if your coach has a manual job. The whole thing is a lottery.”
“We all want the Premiership to be as high a standard as it possibly can be, and having professionals in the league helps that. I certainly have no complaints about the attitude and the ability of the one pro we have had involved – we had [Edinburgh winger] Mike Allen play for us last week and he was excellent. He’s a really good guy, who came into the squad and worked hard, and tried his best to pass on his experience to help develop our players – but I think we would still have won the game if he hadn’t been playing. I’m not sure I would have been as pleased with the win if I thought Mike had been the difference.”
How the pro player draft works?
- All professional players are allocated to BT Premiership clubs only, using an agreed draft process, excluding players in their first season as professionals who have joined the professional team from a BT Premiership club and wish to retain their affiliation with that club (and vice versa).
- First year pros players are allocated to their affiliated clubs and count towards their draft picks (as that club’s first/second/third choices etc
- Clubs are aligned to Edinburgh or Glasgow Warriors depending on their location. At present there is a six-four split [Warriors: Ayr, Currie, Glasgow Hawks and Stirling County; Edinburgh: Boroughmuir, Gala, Hawick, Heriot’s, Melrose and Watsonians].
- The draft starts with the lowest placed aligned club at the end of the previous season and ends with the highest placed aligned club. Each club selects one eligible player in turn, until all are allocated.
- The clubs may then agree individual trades, provided the players involved have not already played for their allocated club
- Should a new professional player become available after the draft, the next club in the sequence shall have first right of allocation
- Professional players are permitted to play in the BT Premiership and in the National Cup when two Premiership Clubs are playing against each other.
- Professional players are not permitted to play in National Cup round matches where a non-Premiership club is involved.
- There is a maximum difference of two in the number of professional players who may be available for any BT Premiership game. If the differential is greater, then the surplus player is offered to the other aligned clubs, with the first club to respond winning the prize. The process for managing this aspect of the protocol is currently under review.
- Professional clubs should confirm player release as soon as possible to allow the players to train with the domestic club sides on Thursday evenings (and, if possible, the Tuesday as well).
- If a professional player is released to play for their club then the final decision on whether to utilise the player lies with the club, however the club should make every attempt to make use of the player, and in their chosen position and support any game time limitations for the player.
- BT Sport Academy Stage 3 players contracted to Scottish Rugby are not considered as full-time pro contract players, so do not form part of the draft, but will continue to play for their clubs. These players will normally be made available to train with their respective clubs on a Tuesday and Thursday evening unless specifically advised otherwise.
Image Craig Watson Pix