DOMINIC MCKAY, the chief Operating Officer for Scottish Rugby, says he remains hopeful that some sort of Autumn international series can go ahead, despite increasing anxiety across the sporting landscape that getting anything scheduled this calendar year – or, indeed, before a vaccine for Covid-19 is developed – is pie-in-the-sky thinking.
“Until such time as we’re told otherwise, we expect to have New Zealand, Argentina and Japan in November, but it would be wrong of us not to give consideration to other options, and that’s what we’re doing just now,” he said. “It’s all talk as it often is in rugby, but as yet we’re not near any firm solutions.
“Of course, we’re looking at ways to reschedule those Six Nations games and do that later in the year if that’s at all possible, around October or November time. But it’s not an easy solve, of course, because we have two rounds of the Six Nations – although only one in Scotland’s case – and we’ve also got some other Under-20 games to be managed as well.
“I guess it will be a very challenging conversation but no-one actually has the ability to make decisions on this, entirely understandably, because we need to take guidance from our respective governments.
“About the PRO14, we’re still looking at scenarios which might find some way of potentially finishing the season if restrictions allow, later in the back end of the summer, beginning of autumn,” he added.
“That would definitely be a curtailed end to the PRO14 season. We’re still looking at scenarios and expecting that the PRO14 will come back to us with a paper looking at what might be possible. But that’s entirely dependent on the various restrictions in the respective territories.”
McKay, as Chair of Scottish Rugby’s Threat Management Group which is dealing with the fall-out from the Covid-19 pandemic, took part in a video conference call involving Joe FitzPatrick, the Scottish Government’s Minister for Public Health, Sport and Wellbeing, along with a number of other key sporting figures on Tuesday.
He reckons it was a promising first step and is clearly hopeful that Holyrood will take the view that sport needs to be supported during the process of recovery from this pandemic.
“I certainly made the point that rugby makes a significant contribution to society, the economy and the general health of the nation,” he said. “That point, I’m sure, is really understood by government and we will explore that further in due course.
“Last year, we had an independent study commissioned by YouGov which looked at the events we had at BT Murrayfield, Scotstoun and Celtic Park, and we generated £152 million for the Scottish economy, so when we can we want to play a part in helping restart the economy, but we also need to do that in a respectful way.
“Our focus now is that we can come to them with some ideas, get their thoughts and views, then come up with some appropriate measures. Because sport has a role to play in the economy, that £152m we generate for the Scottish economy is significant, but also the ability to lift the mood of the nation.
Getting back on track
“We gave a presentation which talked about that sort of phased introduction to training,” he added. “What we’d want to do when it’s right and appropriate is: get individual players training at home; then individual players training at BT Murrayfield; then a big group of players training at BT Murrayfield; and then in due course those players being able to play and to train in a contact environment.
“The next level up then is potentially playing a game against each other. And that could be some way off.”
Asked if that means the most likely first game back will be a derby match between Edinburgh and Glasgow Warriors, he said: “It is probably too soon to be talking about ‘likely’ anything in the current environment, but what we presented yesterday is what we felt is a solution to addressing initial issues around training, and then we have to come back and share and keep having that dialogue with the government and other sports around best practice on how you graduate to that next level of contact training, and thereafter playing a game, and that game may well be behind closed doors.
“It’s entirely possible that it could take eight to ten weeks before our players are back up to the physical condition they would expect to be in before they could play a competitive match. So, we’ve got time during that period of players being conditioned to continually adjust and review and reflect on what’s happening in the environment.”
News that the UK government is beginning to work towards phasing out their furlough scheme will be of significant consequence to Scottish Rugby’s cashflow. Over three-quarters of their 401 workforce, including all professional players, are currently on the scheme, which pays 80 percent of an individual’s wages up to £2,500 per month,
“From a sport sense, we would welcome that being extended – absolutely,” said McKay. “If I could just give an example of our players requiring a number of weeks to be conditioned to train, and that could be a real challenge. So, we will look at the detail of the update from the Chancellor.
“We are speaking at the moment to London in respect to our views on the furlough scheme, and we’re obviously having conversations with the Scottish Government as well, but we recognise that there is a big draw on the public finances and I suppose from a business perspective rugby has a role to play when it restarts to contribute back into the economy.”
The importance of grassroots
McKay highlighted that the process of bringing back professional rugby is a very different challenge to re-introducing amateur club rugby.
“What applies to two professional clubs with professional athletes, in a relatively self-contained environment, might not apply to the 200 clubs the length and breadth of Scotland who are manned and supported by volunteers,” agreed McKay. “So there are distinctions between the elite end and the grassroots end, and in our discussions with government yesterday we made it clear that the solution has to involve both sides, because you can’t have one without the other – notwithstanding there may be different times that different elements of sport could return.
“It’s really important to us as a governing body to make sure we communicate with our grassroots clubs and give them as much advice as we can, and we’ve really ramped that up over the last number of weeks.
“We established the Hardship Fund quite early on, worth half a million pounds, and I’m delighted to say that has been well received by our clubs. We’ve had around 80 applications for support from that fund. We also brought forward around a million pounds of payment to clubs, so we’ve tried to react with the means that we have at our disposal, and we’ll work with government as much as we can to try and get rugby restarted at all levels when it’s right and when it’s possible.”
McKay stressed that the Hardship Fund – which was set up just two days after the lockdown came into force and before the full scope of the crisis was clear – plus other SRU commitments to the grassroots game remain ring-fenced, despite the growing financial pressure the organisation is under.
“Yes, the half million pounds that we spoke about, absolutely [is ring-fenced]. That money will be distributed to our clubs relatively quickly. On the last day – the deadline – we had around 21 applications overnight. Once we’re through all those we’ll get the fund out to the clubs.”
Dodson is ‘leading from the front’
While Tuesday’s meeting with the Scottish Government was attended by the Chief Executives of Scottish football, horse racing and sportscotland, the SRU was represented by McKay, who is, of course, the Chief Operating Officer at the SRU, so effectively number two to Mark Dodson. This raises questions as to why the main man is not at the forefront of these crucial discussions, nor indeed Chair of the SRU’s Threat Management Group.
In fact, Dodson has kept a very low profile throughout this crisis, with a one-on-one briefing with media partners the BBC back in mid-April being the only contact he appears to have had with the wider Scottish rugby community, but McKay insisted that the Chief Executive remains at the heart of Murrayfield’s response to the pandemic.
“I chair the Threat Management Group, and also I have a line into government, so Mark was kind enough to suggest I take that meeting on the basis I am across the level of detail around that Threat Management Group, which was particularly relevant to the meeting because it was about the restarting of sport,” he said.
“Mark is immersed in every element of activity across our whole group. You can imagine [with] an organisation like ours, there’s a number of different challenging parts he has to get his arms around and he’s across all of them. He’s working like all of us are, our staff have been magnificent and working very hard in very challenging circumstances. Everyone’s doing what they can to support the organisation through these times and Mark’s leading from the front.”
McKay also acknowledged that Scottish Football’s Cup Final between Edinburgh rivals Hearts and Hibs could be shifted to Murrayfield if it goes ahead.
“I saw that report and we’ve got a proud history of hosting football games, whether it’s Liverpool last year against Napoli or Hearts playing a number of home games [at Murrayfeld. If there was an opportunity to play football games at Murrayfield we’d be very happy to do that.
“One of the things we spoke to the government about yesterday was strategic locations across Scotland earmarked as locations for sport resuming. We were making the point that Murrayfield lends itself beautifully to being a sporting bubble because we have training facilities, we have a gym and we have the stadium itself to host games. The whole environment and campus lends itself to being a sporting bubble. If that can be used by other sports, we’d be delighted to do that because genuine collaboration is the name of the game at the moment, to help each other step by step get sport restarted.”