SCOTTISH RUGBY issued its six-phase route-map for the return of domestic rugby this morning, with a target of October for full-contact, inter-club matches. And while it was made clear that a regionalised season structure as opposed to National Leagues is the preferred option for Murrayfield in order to keep in line with Scottish Government guidance, Sheila Begbie (Director of Rugby Development) has stated that club opinion will be the guiding factor on that.
“What we are saying is that clubs shouldn’t expect a traditional season, because we don’t envisage any competitive rugby before October,” she said. “So, what we have actually asked is our Council members [elected club representatives] to work with the Championship Committee because we want the clubs involved with what next season can look like.
“From our perspective, we would be potentially recommending some sort of regionalised, localised rugby, because we heard the First Minster talking earlier in the week about [the fact] there will be local transmission, there will be local incidents – as we’ve seen already Dumfries and Galloway, in Aberdeen, and in what has happened down in Leicester as well.
“Our concern is that we start the season with National League rugby and then we have to shut-down the whole game, whereas if we go for much more of a regional model then it could be that if there are local instances of Covid we can shut-down specific regions but allow the rest the country to continue to play.
“So, we are not saying there is no competition, what we are being clear on is that we want feedback from the clubs through their Council rep and their appropriate Championship Committee representative in terms of what their thoughts are on what they want to do. And, there is a caveat that it does depend on the Scottish Government’s movement through their route-map.”
A video conference on this issue involving SRU Council members and Championship officials took place last Tuesday, and another meeting is planned for next Tuesday, at which point Begbie expects Council representatives to have a number of options to take to the clubs. The plan is to have a proposal to put in front of the Council meeting scheduled for 30th July, ahead of ratification by the Board.
“One of the issues might be in terms of transportation,” Begbie continued. “If there is some kind of social distancing then it means things such as the hire of buses to go to matches will become much more costly for the clubs. There might also be some restrictions on how far people can travel. So, we’re just trying to plan ahead in terms of what we see within the Scottish Government route-map, and what might impact on us having a full National League programme.
“Also, if it [the return to play] goes past October, then it would be difficult to have a National League season because we wouldn’t have enough weekends to be able to do that.
“We are asking the clubs to support making a recommendation along the lines of what they want. So, we are not saying that we are going to determine what it is, we are saying quite clearly that whatever it is the clubs come back with we need some consistency across the National Leagues if we are talking about promotion and relegation and so on.
Money makes the world go round
Club funding will also come under review as a consequence of the ongoing uncertainty, although that has not been properly addressed yet.
“We do have the outstanding investment that we didn’t spend from the first round of the Club Hardship Fund (CHF),” said Begbie. “If I am being honest, we’ve not really progressed that discussion too much at the moment because we’ve been quite focussed on trying to get the road-map and trying to communicate with clubs what that will be.
“We have a meeting later in July to look at what will be the investment that we are going to make into clubs going forward into next season because we’ve not only got CHF, we’ve also got our Club Sustainability Awards (CSA), Minimum Operating Standards (MOS) and so on, so we do have other pots of money as well that we are investing into clubs, so we want to look at that in the round.”
Begbie stressed that clubs should not take a funding hit as a consequence of the restricted nature of next season preventing them from achieving the specific targets laid out in the CSA and MOS frameworks.
“I don’t think we can measure the clubs on what we have previously measured them on because it is not going to be a traditional season, so we can’t measure them against number of coaches, number of players and so on,” she pointed out. “So, I would want us to be much more relaxed around that investment and to look at that investment more around supporting them to be Covid compliant.
“I also want to be quite clear that if we have got clubs that are struggling and we need to re-invest in another CHF Fund then we will look to do that.”
Club rugby is different
One thing is clear: while Scotland’s pro teams have already returned to training on a ‘voluntary’ basis, and Edinburgh are due to play Glasgow Warriors behind closed doors (or with a very limited crowd) on 22nd August, the club game is facing a much longer journey. “The big difference is the amount of medical staff we’ve got, and the opportunity of testing on a regular basis,” explained Begbie.
She also pointed out that rugby is different from sports such as football because of the level of contact involved.
“And we know that one of the frustrations with the clubs is that they have seen Ireland, England and Wales moving at a different pace, but what we have to appreciate is that here in Scotland we were in lockdown longer so we are lagging behind in that sense,” she added.
Super6 falls within the Performance Department’s remit. “Stevie Gemmell [Scottish Rugby’s Technical Director] will lead a consultation with the Super6 clubs during the next few weeks,” she said.
Begbie also explained that Steve Turnbull [the former Edinburgh second-row who is now Scottish Rugby’s Technical Director for the Midland Region] had a meeting with representatives from schools rugby earlier this week, looking at what kind of structure can work at that level next year, with the big takeaway being that head teachers are anxious that extra-curricular activities such as sport should not be pushed into exam time at the end of the next school year.
Begbie signed off by stressing that she and her department are cognisant of the stress the club game will come under if a meaningful fixture schedule cannot be pulled together for next season, but pointed out that there is a fine balancing act to be performed between protecting public safety and supporting the need for clubs to get their players re-engaged and their revenue streams back up and running.
“We need to be sure that we are putting our players and our clubs back into a safe environment,” she said. “We hope that clubs are not going to go to the wall, and if there is any thought of that happening then we would want to intervene to provide support, but we need to be quite clear that this needs to be driven by public health.
“Although we are suggesting regional/local rugby, we are absolutely open-minded to whatever Council members come back with following discussions with their clubs. We absolutely will seriously look at supporting whatever comes back to us, if it is possible within the timescale of when it is we are able to start the season. We are going to give Council members a couple of scenarios to go to clubs with and we are genuinely interested in what the view of the clubs is, because at the end of the day it is their game, it is not our game.”