Future of club rugby goes under the microscope at AGM

Scottish Rugby CEO Mark Dodson will outline his vision for the future of the club game at this weekend's AGM Image: Fotosport/David Gibson

WHAT initially looked like being one of the most sedate annual general meetings in the long, turbulent history of the Scottish Rugby Union is now gearing up to become a seminal moment for the domestic game in this country, when club representatives from across the nation convene in the President’s Suite at BT Murrayfield on Saturday morning.

The long-standing issue of how the club structure should look in the professional era is going to be the focus of attention, with chief executive Mark Dodson outlining his vision [known as Agenda 3] of a breakaway league at the top of the club game, which will involve six franchised sides bolstered by around £120,000 of central funding per annum.

There has never been a shortage of trigger-happy snipers in Scottish club rugby, ready to shoot at the first sign of meaningful change, so Dodson was always going to have to be at his phlegmatic best to get his points across – even before the events of the last ten days escalated tension levels exponentially.

On the face of it, the revelation last Tuesday that three promising Scottish players were being farmed out to fourth tier French side Stade Nicoise seemed like little more than a gentle slap in the face to the BT Premiership.

However, a direct consequence of that story, which the SRU had clearly hoped to keep under wraps until after the AGM, was to turn attention once again to the governing body’s singular failure over many years to develop a coherent strategy for bridging the gap between the professional tier and the top end of the club game.

Criticisms were levelled and pointed questions were asked. Then, as if by magic, it emerged that the governing body did, indeed, have a plan.

When the BBC and the Sunday Times broke the news last weekend that Dodson would be unveiling this radical shake-up, it prompted the usual swirl of indignation. The chief concern was that a closed-shop elite was being created, and that those outside the ‘Super Six’ would be left in an ever more marginalised situation.

Some of the concerns expressed were justified but many were ill-informed and hysterical. These were not official press releases, and a lot of the detail was fuzzy, but that didn’t stop snap judgements being formed.

Murrayfield had lost control of the narrative, and as a consequence their carefully thought-out presentation of the whole proposal is now in danger being over-shadowed by contentious headlines, feverish email exchanges and incendiary social media posts.

But after years of lambasting the SRU for sitting on their hands, there must be grounds for giving them a fair hearing now that they have eventually come up with what might prove to be a viable plan. Surely there can be no harm in listening.

There are only two motions on the agenda for tomorrow’s AGM. Both proposed by the President and the Chairman of the Board on behalf of the Council and the Board; and both, we were told, are housekeeping devices aimed at tidying up and modernising the Bye-Laws and the Articles of Association for the governing body. They have been raised on the recommendation of the Governance Working Party, which was set-up in November 2015 with a general remit to examine and review Scottish Rugby Union governance matters and to advise the Council accordingly.

Inevitably, these motions are now being viewed with a rather more jaundiced eye, and the inclusion of Article 16.1.9 in the Bye-Laws, which grants the Board power and responsibility for “the determination of the format and structure of League competitions” has been identified as the mechanism by which the ‘Super Six’ proposal will be forced through.

The counter argument to this is that as the most senior decision making body in the organisation, the Board already has league structure and format in their gift under existing Bye-Law 15.1.2, which recognises the Board’s oversight of ‘the whole affairs of the Union and/or of the game of rugby football’.

The reason league structure has traditionally been debated at AGMs is because previous regimes believed that consensus was the only way of moving forward. Dodson has clearly decided that a more forceful approach is required and so Bye-Law 16.1.9 is really just a timely (and not-too-subtle) assertion of the Board’s existing rights.

Many clubs are perturbed by the proposed annulment of Bye-Law 4 which stated that –

The whole of the available admission tickets for international matches played in Scotland shall be sold to Full Member Clubs, Associate Clubs, Affiliate Members, Associated Bodies, ex officio Members and Honorary Members together with such others at a price and in such a manner as the Scottish Rugby Board may determine, and the Scottish Rugby Board, subject to the conditions contained in the Debenture Certificates shall allocate such tickets on an equitable basis.

The rationale provided by the Governance Working Party for removing this short passage of text is that –

This is a Union power anyway. This provision also appears to be an outdated and archaic concept given the manner that international tickets are distributed and sold commercially in the modern day.

Given that the SRU were heavily criticised during the most recent Six Nations for giving secondary sales site Viagogo an advance allocation of tickets for home matches, which allowed touts to charge 17 times face value for the national team’s victory over Wales, it should come as no surprise to the Board that rugby clubs across the country are adamant their members’ right to buy through the governing body should remain enshrined in the Bye-Laws of their Union.

The SRU insist that ticket allocation and club commission is not going to be tampered with, and it is almost inconceivable that the Board would dare mess with that, but if there is no plan to change the way distribution is handled then why stir the hornet’s nest by removing the Bye-Law? Surely the need to streamline the document is not so great that these 73 words needed to be eradicated?

Current Bye-Law 22 has also gone missing in the proposed amendments. It states that –

All investments or property of the Union shall be held by trustees and their successors acting under Declaration of Trust dated 12, 17 and 18 May 1911 or by Scottish Rugby Union plc. The right of appointing new trustees in succession to those who may have died, resigned, or been superseded, as well as the right of appointing additional trustees to act along with any existing trustees and the right to pass any resolution that any trustee or trustees shall cease to be a trustee or trustees, is in terms of the Declaration of Trust reserved to the Scottish Rugby Council.

Since the Trustees are referred to several times at various points elsewhere in the new Bye-Laws, and the report issued by the Governance Working Party in June discusses at length the role of the SRU Trust before concluding that “it is unnecessary to conduct a modernisation of the SRU Trust Deed at this stage”, it seems likely that this is some sort of oversight. But, this does reach to the heart of the question of who owns the Union, so the clubs do need clarification – which will presumably come from SRU President Rob Flockhart who, at the presidential hustings, firmly and repeatedly promised to put club interests at the centre of his manifesto.

About David Barnes 3908 Articles
David has worked as a freelance rugby journalist since 2004 covering every level of the game in Scotland for publications including he Herald/Sunday Herald, The Sunday Times, The Telegraph, The Scotsman/Scotland on Sunday/Evening News, The Daily Record, The Daily Mail/Mail on Sunday and The Sun.