GAVIN SCOTT, Scottish Rugby’s recently appointed Director of Rugby Development, says he is encouraged by the positive noises he is hearing from clubland as the return of domestic league action looms over the horizon [first round of competitive matches next weekend] – but admits that it is impossible to say for sure whether any more clubs will follow in the footsteps of Hawick Harlequins, who announced earlier today [Thursday] that they will not be able to raise a team for the coming season.
“The difficulty in the amateur game is that you only find out at this time because that’s when your players came back,” he said. “There are very few teams in the domestic leagues who have lengthy pre-seasons where they have full compliance with all their players turning up for pre-season. A lot of guys turn up two weeks before the season and then you know you’ve got the numbers you need.
“SCRUMS – the database we use to track player registrations – is really good, but it isn’t going to suddenly tell us who has come back and who hasn’t.
“Anecdotally, particularly in May and June when we were allowed to start training, the numbers were really, really good,” he continued. “It was really buoyant. Most clubs were reporting almost a desperation by men, women and kids to get back to social connectivity on a human level, face to face, and getting back in training.
“As we’ve gone through the summer, that’s drifted a little bit as people have tried to navigate their own rules and holiday periods, but as we’ve built for this period we still see it as strong.
“One or two clubs have struggled and have issues around player numbers, but the majority are reporting people wanting to come back, including some who haven’t been involved for a few years who want that connectivity with other people.”
Step into the unknown
“It’s hard to tell because the clubs are obviously their own entities,” Scott replied, when pushed on whether any more clubs are likely to suffer the same fate as Hawick Harlequins. “I couldn’t say what the specifics are down in Hawick. It may be Covid in some cases where there is a reluctance – as there was in October, November time – around self-employed people and the risks they feel they might have in terms of isolation if they were to have to take time off their work.
“But I would emphasise that the majority of clubs are reporting good numbers, and not a reluctance but an enthusiasm to get back to playing with their mates.
The real problem is that nobody really knows how things are going to look post-Covid. Positive anecdotal evidence is nice to hear, but the reality is that we are moving into the most uncertain period in Scottish club rugby’s history, when the combined forces of anxiety over Covid, a genera societal shift away from participating in organised team sport and an increasingly avaricious global professional game, means that the grassroots are being squeezed from all directions.
In the circumstances, you can’t help but wonder what Scott was thinking of when he decided to jump ship after almost 25 years in Scottish Rugby’s Performance Department – as a player, analyst, national team manager and ‘rugby operations director’ – into the rather less glamorous world of trying to keep the ‘amateur’ game alive?
Needless to say, Scott has a rather more optimistic outlook than that. Throughout his time in the pro ranks, he has stayed in touch with the other side of the fence, and makes all the right noises about the importance of nurturing the roots of the game so that the tall trees can grow.Error, group does not exist! Check your syntax! (ID: 40)
“I’ve reflected on this” he said. “I have been in Scottish Rugby for a long time and had four or five specific roles, and each time I have moved from one to another it has been absolutely my choice to do it, but I honestly couldn’t say why I decided it was time to move on any of those occasions. There wasn’t a grand plan.
“This [job] obviously came up as a result of Sheila retiring and I thought it was a great opportunity, so I really relished the chance to apply for it and was delighted to get the job.
“It is a huge part of Scottish Rugby, that’s why I wanted to be part of it. I’ve always had my feet in the amateur game in Scotland, I have always been involved with a club, regardless of the fact that I was in the professional game … and I just think it is a great thing to be involved in.
“I think the role of club rugby is to be a really vibrant and thriving sport in Scotland, and to exist as it always has as part of its community – by supporting its community far beyond the sport,” he added.
“Doing that is what allows us to get more access into other walks of life, like schools, local authority areas and government.
Moving with the times
“At one stage players went from a club to play Test match rugby and that was just what happened then. The fact that there is now professional teams and a different route doesn’t change what domestic rugby is, it is still about that ability to attract people to turn up because they have heard that there are great volunteers there and an environment that you want to be part of, whilst enjoying a really positive pastime.
“The fitness, health and well-being is one thing, but there are other parts to that story as well in terms of how we connect with people by enjoying a beer in the clubhouse afterwards and all that sort of stuff.”
It all sounds very positive, but Scott must also be aware that what he needs to achieve as part of a governing body will not always align with what the people on the ground are looking for, so the biggest challenge he will face is plotting a path forward which everyone is prepared to head down.
“I’ve only been doing this full-time for six weeks and in that time, every person I’ve met, I can tell straight away – regardless of whether they are upset about something or enthusiastic about something – what they are as people,” he replied. “They are people who are passionately involved in our sport, who commit their time for nothing because they really want things to go well.
“And once you recognise that you can deal with anything, whether people are grumpy or crotchety. Trust me, there are plenty of people in the professional game who are like that as well.”