SRU PRESIDENT Ian Barr has stressed that the regionalisation of the top four leagues in men’s club rugby is a temporary measure designed to restart the game as quickly and safely as possible following the coronavirus lockdown, with the governing body committed to resurrecting the Premiership and National Leagues as soon as possible, ideally for the 2021-22 season (government guidelines permitting).
Concerns have been expressed that the absence of hierarchical league structure will negatively impact the profile of the club game, but Barr is hopeful that the ‘hybrid’ model which is due to be unveiled in the next few weeks will provide a level of competitiveness which clubs can really buy into. Two consecutive conference competitions have been planned, with teams battling to qualify for three end of season cup competitions [one for Premiership clubs, one for National One clubs and one for National Two and Three clubs] which will climax with a finals day at Murrayfield.
“Let’s make no bones about it, once they get things up and running a lot of clubs are keen to revert to the structures that they had in the past – and I can understand that,” said Barr. “Clubs want to be competitive; clubs want to play at the highest level they possibly can.
“But what we did [is] we spoke to everybody all the way through, and we’ve applied this hybrid model. We have a real issue with the geography of Scotland, so we can’t get everybody playing within a very tight radius, but we have tried to be as consistent as possible and apply the same principles from the lowest leagues right the way through.
“I know at the top end of the game in particular they are very keen to have a competition of the highest level, and I think what we have got here with this hybrid model allows the more ambitious clubs to play in a pool competition to start with, but end up playing against each other in a separate competition if Covid allows. So, it is a bit like having a pre-season schedule and a proper season following on.
“It’s so fragile, that the main thing is just to get a couple of games of rugby under our belt. Clubs were asking us to come up with some sort of structure, so we’ve taken the bull by the horns and helped them over that final hurdle. The vast majority of people I’ve spoken to are very happy with what we’ve done.
“At the moment, there is no intention to continue this,” he added. “This is purely because the season has been curtailed by Covid. We have been very clear that this is only about coming up with a solution that is going to get us through these difficult times.
“We’ve already had that very good consultation with the Rugby Development department [pre lockdown[ where the National and Premiership clubs all agreed the structures that we would be taking forward for the foreseeable future, and we’re very keen to get back to that structure as soon as Covid allows.
“I know there was a slight fear from some people that this was regionalising all forms of club rugby, but this is certainly not about that. This is about finding a model to restart club rugby and getting everyone back up and running again.
“We’re hopeful we are going to kick-start on 31st October but at the moment we are very unsure. There will be a press release from the Scottish Government later this week and we really are at the mercy of forces out-with our control.”
With less games being played this coming season [it will vary from 10 to 18 depending on league placing and geography] it seems inevitable that direct funding from Murrayfield to individual clubs will shrink as part of the wider programme of retrenchment which is being embarked upon in order cut overall costs by almost quarter [£14million] this year.
“Let’s be honest, the new funding model has to fit with what Scottish Rugby has had to do with all aspects of the business. We’ve had to cut costs everywhere,” acknowledged Barr.
However, Sheila Begbie, Scottish Rugby’s Director of Rugby Development, suggested that these cuts will not be catastrophic for clubs.
“We will be announcing soon what the investment into clubs will be. Some clubs will get potentially a little bit less than they’ve had before, and some clubs will get a little bit more,” she said.
Meanwhile, schools and youth rugby is earmarked for a 7th November return with greater regionalisation/localisation of the conferences.