Opinion: Of Leagues and Men – how do you structure adult male rugby in Scotland?

TOL and Grangemouth Stags stalwart Dom Ward picks through a thorny issue which continues to hang over the club game

Glasgow Hawks versus Edinburgh Accies at Balgray. Image: © Craig Watson - www.craigwatson.co.uk
Glasgow Hawks versus Edinburgh Accies at Balgray. Image: © Craig Watson - www.craigwatson.co.uk

Regular reader, commenter and Grangemouth Stags stalwart, Dom Ward, picks through the thorny and persistent issue of how to structure male adult leagues in Scotland. 


THIS week’s news of another rugby club facing an existential crisis brings into sharp focus the challenges facing clubs across the country, and last season provides a great illustration of the complexity of the problem.

On the plus side, there was something at stake in almost all leagues right to the end of the season, with many close matches and surprising results providing a timely reminder of the glorious unpredictability of sport.

However, and more worryingly, the season had its fair share of unfulfilled fixtures resulting in teams being ejected from leagues. Hamilton, Hawks 2s, Edinburgh Accies 3s, Dalkieth 2s, Galloway 2s and Strathendrick 2s were all disqualified. In the East Reserve Development League, only 11 fixtures were played. In West Reserve Development League, only 28 out of 85 matches (33%) were fulfilled.


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What to do?

One regular solution that is proffered is to adjust our league structure. But what is the optimal competition structure for a country like Scotland which is geographically diverse with the main population centres in the central belt?

According to the 2011 census, Caledonia region covers 52,089 km2 and a population of 1.95m, East region is 1,557 km2 and has a population of 912k, and West region covers 20,241 km2 and has the largest population at 2.4mm. South was originally incorporated into East region, but for the purpose of this discussion we will list it separately as 4,732 km2 and 114k population. Add in islands travel and some East-West road issues and we have a challenging set of constraints that don’t care about league structures, only geography.

There has been vociferous and heated debate on the merits of national rugby and the number of leagues that should play at a national level (we currently have the Premiership and four National Leagues), with regular calls for more “local leagues” to address the decline of fulfilled matches and reduced number of adult players.

But is it that easy?

The simple answer is: No.

Simple solutions to complex, multi-factor problems rarely work.

How many national leagues would serve Scottish rugby best?

The obvious answer to the above question is: ‘That depends!’

The current structure was brought about by a move to 10 team leagues, from the previous 12 team structure which saw matches being played in May. Interestingly, due to severe weather issues last season, we still had matches being played in May, so the best laid plans and all that!

The original proposal was for four national leagues, but this was amended at an AGM to create a fifth league to avoid a chaotic restructure to the regional leagues.

Now let’s assume that two National Leagues becomes the chosen format, giving us a Premiership of 12 teams and a National One league of 10 teams based on next season’s structure –

 

 

That’s the easy bit. Moving National Two, Three and Four sides into a regional format is where the major headaches begin because, as already noted, populations and therefore teams are not evenly distributed around the country.

West region has a good balance of teams and little in the way of obvious mismatches –

But East, Midlands and North present very different pictures with team being asked to play as many as four leagues above their current station –

I’m pretty certain that the regional clubs would not be happy about playing National Two clubs, no matter how convenient it is for travel. How this would encourage playing matches is usually left unasked.

A different scenario can be created by moving the cut-off to National Two However, that then brings in many more clubs from the second tier of regional competitions with essentiality the same mismatch problem.

Interestingly, we had an example of this in the women’s leagues last season when National Two was merged into the regional tier (though the definition of ‘regional’ in the women’s game is very different to the men’s game). This resulted in some very lopsided scorelines and a large number of unfulfilled fixtures. Of course, we are using two very different contexts here but it would be foolish to assume that the men’s leagues would not be subject to similar problems.

 

 

How local is local?

Would these leagues have a maximum 30-45 minute travel time? That may work in the cities of Edinburgh and Glasgow but be almost impossible everywhere else. Therefore, what structures would be created to accommodate these teams and their vastly different playing resources? If you are outside of the ‘travel zone’ – who would you end up playing against?

My own view is that five national leagues is probably about right. It provides the right type of ladder for clubs to climb the leagues without a cliff-edge moment of dropping in or out of national rugby into regions.

Winston Churchill said of democracy: “Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time …”

Replace democracy with leagues and I think Churchill nails it.

The real purpose of this piece is to start discussion and debate –

  • What is the optimum number of national leagues?
  • How would we go about arranging a new structure containing less national leagues given the vast shift in teams going down?
  • What impact would this really have on clubs (fundraising, player retention, etc)?
  • How will these changes shift the needle in terms of improving match fulfilment rates and getting senior men playing matches?

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About Dom Ward 2 Articles
Dominic Ward is Secretary of Grangemouth Stags Rugby Football Club. His playing career started in school rugby before joining the junior section at Grangemouth, where he couldn't keep a place in the U18s and turned out for the 5ths. Dominic then progressed through the club sides at Grangemouth making his 1st XV debut in 1989. He was also actively involved in the management of the club joining the committee and fulfilling different roles before taking up the Secretary position. Dominic is a member of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development and has held learning and development roles across a wide range of business sectors.

35 Comments

  1. Great effort for a starting point Dom. The club rugby structure definitely needs revised. A look at the league structure for the 10 team national leagues says it all….a planned season end of 8 February!!! I appreciate this is before the cup structure is known but personally I think this is a joke. Even leaving space for postponements this is too early.
    On another item I wonder if committed 2nd XVs being included in the full regional/national league structure would help raise the quality of club rugby. I would like to see 2nd XVs being allowed to progress into national leagues if they are good enough as there is in football in a number of European countries. They could be limited to progressing as far as the league below their 1st XV. A thought worth considering

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    • Ken I am all for competitive 2s teams, but having them in the league structure is just going to have big clubs hoarding players and push smaller clubs out. We need clubs building local links down the structure.

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    • Can anyone explain the logic around maintaining the Reserve Leagues in the current format, rather than trying to smash them together into one structure like every other team sport around does?

      Clearly there would need to be guidelines around a club having two teams in the same league, but it would instantly almost double the number of teams in the structure, significantly reduce travel (and associated costs) and bring some extra spice to the regional rugby leagues. I can’t see many downsides, other than short term disruption while teams find their level (so introduce mid-season promotion/relegation for a year or two to accelerate that) and a few bruised egos fr4om the bigger clubs…

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      • It already happens in Caledonia Region principally because we don’t have enough teams to run a reserve league and need some heft in the 1st XV leagues.

        Personally I would shift back to a reserve scenarios as I think 2nds and 3rds in leagues skew results. If a national one side has its 2nds in a competition that is four leagues down from their firsts there is a very good chance they will be competing at the top of the league. And looking at the results last season that’s exactly what happened.

        Where I do draw the line is promotion into national leagues. It wouldn’t take that long until we would have national one & two with lots of premier 2nd XVs. Of course if that is what the clubs want we can lobby for that. But at least let’s go into this with our eyes open on the consequences

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  2. Do we need to completely reboot and go back to the future, at least for a couple of years, with an unofficial championship. Club fixture secretaries would arrange fixtures with other clubs based on their relative strengths. Let the Borders clubs play the Borders League as part of the fixtures. Similar for the West clubs given the strength of clubs in that part of Scotland.
    One would expect the strongest teams would want to play each other and fixtures would avoid clear mismatches.

    If there are to be leagues then no end of season playoffs.

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  3. Great initial primer , Dom ,for everybody to ponder on .
    It made me ask firstly the basic question – what are the benefits we get from rugby and how should we support them in terms of organisation , laws and funding ?
    Rugby is one of the best team games in the world and until now has found a home for players of all shapes and sizes where teams and supporters enjoy the banter pre , during and post match ,involving all levels in the club .
    The result is we have a game that gets players fit and even post retirement encourages ongoing fitness . It also encourages players to give back to the game through volunteering ,coaching and general socialising in and around the game -so there are physical and mental health benefits which can only help reduce the costs of the NHS and maybe this should be more recognised through Govt funding to the SRU and then clubs as happens in Ireland .
    I think also we need to be careful about how we make law changes in rugby which could reduce participation .Let’s remember it’s a game for all shapes and sizes and not reduce the importance of the scrum by giving penalties rather than a rescrum – lets put the ball in straight , let’s have a maximum of 3 players on the bench giving more game time for all .
    Let’s make the pre and post match experience more attractive to players and spectators alike by helping clubs with their fund raising to sustain good quality clubhouses
    Increase the “good feel factor “by giving
    end of season awards to the best team in the club , be it the 3rd XV , 1st XV or Ladies , to the most improved player (s) , coach , volunteer etc ,etc grow the minis section and build bridges with all the local primary and secondary schools
    All of the above are important foundation stones to whatever league structure we have in the search of getting fit , enjoying playing and spectating and healthy socialising with participants and friends for years to come.
    Looking at your admirable statistics I see great scope to grow the numbers in the game ,especially in the West and North and Midlands . We are 50% behind Ireland in total numbers playing the game and they have 5 leagues of 10 teams each at national level – I would go for 4 leagues of 10 teams to keep a strong competitive element and keep the end of season InterDistrict Championship to help bridge the gap between club and Pro rugby and bring back the club international matches – all of the above will help aspiring players and create excitement for the regional spectators especially if you could move to separate venues for each representative match .
    I see the regional and reserve divisions below the National
    divisions as an opportune way to reduce travel time but also being valuable links in the development chain between school and senior rugby and key steps to more socialising around the game as people initially join and then eventually retire from playing the game but importantly stay on as spectators .
    Sorry a bit of a ramble but just trying to join the various points to try to find a constructive way forward

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    • Leftie, some interesting, albeit debateable points there, a few based upon assumptions & generalities, the rest clearly from the depth of your own experience and leanings – not least that comment about rugby being “one of the best team games in the world”. Is that so? Who says – you, or the people you know within the “rugby community”? Serious dangers lurk inside the “wha’s like us?” mentality……

      You might be surprised to see the authenticated postion, confirmed by professional / academic studies & research, the RFU’s independently commissioned, funded and produced “Impact” review for instance.

  4. There’s some very thoughtful material here in all of these contributions which suggests to me, at least, that there are a lot of supporters still invested in the welfare of the Domestic game who want to make helpful suggestions as to its improvement.

    I’m sure the recently formed CLUB RUGBY BOARD at Scottish Gas Murrayfield will be aware and will be considering how we can all keep going and progress.

    We have to support them in their endeavours and indeed ALL of those VOLUNTEERS who strive to keep the Domestic game alive.

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    • Bernie, on behalf of the Rugby nation can you please apply for Dodson job? In the event you don’t get that role given your experience, tireless work for our game get yersell on the CRB board. They need you and we need you on it, someone with moral fibre representing the West and beyond. Go Bernie!!

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    • Bernie, on behalf of the Rugby nation can you please apply for Dodson job? In the event you don’t get that role given your experience, tireless work for our game get yersell on the CRB board. They need you and we need you on it, someone with moral fibre representing the West and beyond. Go Bernie!!

  5. Well first things first, well done to Dom Ward for activating the discussion.

    I am fairly certain of several aspects, firstly I never wanted the game to go open, however we are where we are and perhaps the decisions that were kicked down the road back then will have to be addressed now.
    The well-worn saying on responding to being asked for Directions: ‘well if that’s where you want to go, I wouldn’t start from here’ is an appropriate response. Personally I consider that when the game went ‘Open’ hardly any of the Home Unions managed the transition, a factor that is proven by the article in my opinion.
    The basic fact that nobody wanted to consider then or now is how can you have paid professionals, semi professionals and amateur players all in the same system, you need to have a cut off point and organising the game with leagues from top to bottom doesn’t offer that, but how then do you get from School and Social Rugby to the Professional or International game?
    Frankly it’s a mess and I don’t think World Rugby have helped either with constant tinkering with the Laws, especially in recent times as they are scared ‘witless’ about the aspect of the Group Action, they changed a Sport for all sizes and abilities in an effort to ‘have a product to sell’ I’m sorry I never looked at it as a product, it was a magnificent Sport and Social experience for over thirty years.
    In my playing days [I can hear the groans but just wait] there was a feeling that when you stood at the Bar after the game, even if you were playing for the Ex B’s you were in the same ‘system’ as the blokes in the Firsts’. It may have been unrealistic but it was an arguable fact, but you can’t do that today unless you have a league system that makes you travel from one end of the country potentially to the other.
    So perhaps the choice is Glasgow and Edinburgh supported by 3 leagues the immediate one below and two regional leagues, all teams showing financial competence with supplementary funding from SRU.
    Below that the amateur game based on local fixtures in the main and facing up to the fact that just as in 1895 the Professional game and Amateur game need to go their separate ways.
    In one respect if you are good enough to move up from the amateur game if that is what you want, the opportunity will be there as no doubt the SRU would employ ‘Scouts’ to watch out for those to fill the gaps with players in the Leagues moving up or retiring.
    Is it the answer? Almost certainly not but it’s chucked into the debate with slightly less confidence than other more knowledgeable contributors, and hopefully any criticisms coming my way will not be too harsh.

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    • Agree, to almost everything you say, but as fan of club rugby,I love travelling all over Scotland(well mostly the central Belt) to watch club rugby. Always get a warm welcome and looked after where ever I go. Would hate to be straight jacketed into regional leagues rather than National as you suggest. But if the Cost and duration of travel threatens participation in club rugby then I concede that may be the only way forward sad though it is

      • Just to say I don’t disagree about the pleasure of travelling to other clubs but the point I attempted to make was that if you have Leagues across the board it is a commitment, and if the Club obtains promotion and the travel becomes longer for some fixtures than the club player who just wants a game on the Saturday perhaps Training once a week wants to be involved with then it is possible that player if he isn’t willing or can’t make that commitment he may well leave and be lost to the game, similarly a youngster coming into the game from school with other distractions might prefer a less structured commitment.
        That’s why I suggested, regrettably, that there needs to be a distinct differential and the most obvious is to say a Primary League and a couple of Regional Leagues that can be based as ‘Feeders’ for the Pro Game and part of a ‘pathway’ and below a limited league structure and an amateur non league local [or a bit further afield] fixtures for Clubs that are content to play competitively but on a Social/Friendly basis, just like it used to be. I can’t quite get my thought process around ‘Jim’ suggesting he found local Derby games boring, they were anything but as I recall.
        There is no reason as far as I can see, that a Club that is in a League has to have the lower sides in a structured system, the lower sides that wish to opt out surely can do so if they wish.
        It’s a bit messy but we are where we are, and as I said back in ’95, be careful what you wish for, and before anybody thinks it that’s 1995 not 1895.
        Ps: wishing well for our Soccer Cousins in Germany next week.

  6. Statistically West regional Rugby is of such vastly higher range and depth that this whole exercise is and article are brought into doubt

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    • The purpose is about debate. As in all debates you do need to provide your working to show where I’ve erred -which I fully accept is likely.

      What are these statistics?

      The only comparator we have are the cup competitions. Two West clubs prevailed by 2 points in the Shield and 3 points in the Bowl. No West clubs got into the final of the National Cup or the Premier Cup.

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      • You have formed a west league entirely comprised of N league sides where the other three regional leagues have multiple regional sides uplifted to regional 1. It is hard enough to get out of W1 as is and like last year Garnock and year before Allan glens and before that Accies you see back to back to back rise… So there’s that. All best/

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          • Cheers Dom. Yes more players more population go hand in hand. W1 is already a good deal more competetive than all the other regional 1s. I understand the desire to keep it local for some but a good national 2/3 shouldn’t be an issue. N4 was low standard last year I’ll grant you that. All best.

  7. There should be a qualifying criteria for any club wishing to participate in the league structures. Let’s use Marr Rugby club as an example of having developed young players for years and reaching the top. This is not the case now and many players from differing clubs with very little contribution from local lads or as commented the weans. The SRU should impose rules around how many Bosnians clubs are allowed to support local weans getting opportunities.

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    • It wasn’t always like this at Marr. I recall being there when they were in the further reaches of National 4 back in the day. A shed and rather dilapidated pitch is my recollection.

      I do agree with you on some minimum standards for National rugby. My one would be running at least two teams.

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      • Bang on Dom, always a warm welcome and positive atmosphere with a good group of men on a Saturday afternoon. I hope they get their house in order too much negativity about this club. Always been a great admirer of the youth system but for me far to arrogant more of a football crowd at matches. Suspect refs would be fed up of them.

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        • Youth section are, at present, a nightmare frankly. Like a fish that rot comes from the head down…

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    • Local clubs for local people, what a terrible backwards step. We need to make the game more open not put more restrictions in.

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      • Nothing wrong with local clubs for local people!!. Many folk have a pride in their town or area and are happy to play alongside their friends and neighbours and Old school friends. It’s also a way of persuading non players to try the game. Just because it’s local doesn’t mean that it restricts membership. My club had players who moved on and played for teams in the top leagues,

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        • Alan absolute not, but to suggest restrictions or requirements on who can play is nonsensical. That could prohibit those guys you mentioned moving up to play a higher level or someone who wants to join because the clubs has a good reputation or is an open inclusive environment.
          Anything that puts limitations on who can play for a club is a backwards step.

      • Meant to say that the need for 6 “finishers” was probably the cause of many games being cancelled due to lack of players. In my opinion this should not be needed in the lower leagues. 1 front row p!ayer, 1 back should be enough!

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      • I’m rather confused with your point.

        The point is about setting minimum club standards. Such as number of pitches, changing facilities perhaps floodlights.

        It might also be minimum number of teams as we know that one team clubs struggle once injuries and unavailability kick in.

        The comment in no way was about limiting players playing where they want to.

    • Glenda, there should be criteria and sanctions on clubs not behaving properly. I have been a player, coach, parent, president, referee and janny in the west of Scotland for over 55 years. Many of my compadres have been discussing the boomerang effect of clubs in the West over the past 20 years and the potential drought of players coming through. Evident in private schools feeling the impact often not fielding 2xvs across age groups. The big Clubs Hawks, GHA, Hillhead, Allan Glens, GHK WOS struggling to be competitive in the body of Glasgow Kirk by not getting mixed ability of players. Dark days, so league structure need to reflect predicable playing numbers in all structures

      A wee wink to the sides in Ayrshire Garnock, Ardrossan, Ayr and Marr. In my school days loved a wee run down the coast in Douglas Academy shirt to play Marr college. The public airing of Marr behaviours has been disappointing, recent revelations of a young player moving into senior section being mistreated by a coach is completely unacceptable. Our game is struggling for young player engagement and these behaviours discredit core values and has no place in modern society or the game.

      Our game will only get better from the ground up with good behaviours, values and player engagement. Rugby is a game for everyone. I look forward to Marr putting plans in place to avoid this public debacle escalating and best wishes to the young player you are welcome to WOS anytime.

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      • Maurice, several valid points, particularly alarming private schools struggling to develop players given their resources. People’s have moaned about the number of private boys getting preferential treatment not the case anymore in pathway system. On many occasions compare Sco vs NZ & IRE functioning youth systems lets copy their homework. Thus over time increased participation improving overall standard of player? Dom”s summary is very good and worry about clubs folding over years to come with Walkerburn and Royal high both wobbling established historical clubs. The SRU sanctioned Marr 2s coach for bullying and assaulting young player. Like you say no place for archaic behaviours, young fella would be welcome at Hamilton a good family club.

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        • Graeme, the private schools are under pressure to encourage boys to play hockey especially at Hutchie. The very valid fears of concussion are putting many parents off allowing boys or girls playing the game we love. I remember my brothers playing for HOS against other Glasgow private schools and was often 3 maybe four teams at U18 level. Looking at these schools now a complete shadow of those times. I know some will moan about private schools but they did develop a lot of players. Off topic slightly but my nephew played ( pathway) with the young Marr player in question and it breaks my heart as a mother and rugby fan to hear what happened to him. Hopefully, gathers resilience and heads along to Glasgow Accies and the SRU provide him all the support he needs.

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  8. Speaking as a former amateur player, I found the local “derby”matches to be pretty boring. IMO, playing the same familiar opposition doesn’t inspire players to train and play each week. However I understand the dilemma with travel etc. There needs to be at least 3 national leagues of 10-12 teams. The best players from these teams should also compete in a regional competition at the end of the season (South, West etc)

    The lower leagues could operate somewhere between totally regional and national. Perhaps a north/south split around Dundee?? This would reduce the enforced mismatch of teams. To help mitigate the impact of the geographical issue, why not arrange for matches to be played at neutral grounds? No reason why 2-3 games couldn’t be played in one location on the same day (let’s switch to summer rugby while we’re at it!). The best of the lower league players could also have a version of the regional rep rugby too.

    Amateur rugby in Scotland has became a shambles. It doesn’t have to be complicated. Players want to play competitive games (no one wants to be getting pumped 60-0 every week), they want the odd decent away trip (beers on the bus) and they (most) want a chance to improve and play at a higher level.

  9. I like the idea of just 2 national leagues far better than 5 national leagues. Perhaps teams in the regional leagues would be strengthened with playing numbers and stronger squads without the added element of travel involved. We already see lopsided results in every league (including super 6). This is surely more sustainable than clubs having to fork out hundreds every week on coaches to travel far and wide. Regardless of what’s best I think discussions must be held with all parties to come up with the best plan of action moving forward. It seems we are out of touch with what attracts players or is important to players at the minute.

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    • I like it just the way it is , I think the elephant in the room
      Here is not enough young players are taking up the game and wanting to play , the SRU needs to organise after school rugby in state schools and increase participation others more clubs otherwise more clubs will go to the wall . Don’t understand the not wanting to travel bit , love travelling to different clubs

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      • Andy B, I totally get to travelling thing. Very few guys work Monday to Friday now, home games or short travel allows for a shift Saturday morning or getting a homer done. Saturday morning with the family, or watching your kids play sports. So much more going on in guys lives now, rugby needs to evolve to fit in.

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        • Hence the need to increase participation in club rugby by organising after school rugby in state schools so we increase the pool of players that can/want to play and travel. I honestly believe its the only forward anything else IMHO would be a retrograde step.

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