IAN BARR has warned that the 31st October target date for the return of full contact rugby at domestic club level is not set in stone and may have to be pushed back depending on how Scottish Government progresses the easing of social distancing measures.
The newly ratified President of the Scottish Rugby Union recognises that the lack of live action at club level is a major concern, and could seriously damage the game at grassroots level, with some clubs in danger of going to the wall, but he believes that it is vital that a properly thought through strategy is adopted, rather than rushing back early and creating even bigger problems further down the road.
Barr added that he is keen to play an active role in helping clubs come up with a season structure which works for the full spectrum of interests in the club game, but will also press ahead immediately with a review of the governance of the Scottish Rugby Union.
“The 31st October [target date], when it was announced, we were supposed to be in Phase 4 [of the Scottish Government’s route-map for the easing of lockdown], but we’re still in what we class as Phase 3,” he pointed out. “So, will it happen on 31st October? I think we’ve all got our fingers crossed for that but I think the realisation is there that while we target for that date, it could disappear as we get closer to it.
“We’ve all seen what has happened in New Zealand this weekend, from full houses [at professional games] to no spectators and a game cancelled because of lockdown,” he added. “So, we know how fragile the situation is globally, but be reassured there are a lot of people working very hard to try to make the best out of this situation.”
It is understood that the Premiership – the top rung of the club game – is overwhelmingly in favour of trying to keep their competition distinct, and have suggested a conference system similar to the Guinness PRO14 in order to reduce the number of games that need to be fitted into a shortened season, as well as cut down on travelling.
Meanwhile, the three National Leagues below that, plus the Regional Leagues, are leaning towards a solution which focusses on more regionalised games, even if that means teams from different divisions playing against one another.
“The clubs have been very clear, and they understand, that we are not going to have a normal season, irrespective of what format they come up with,” said Barr. “There is not enough time, even if we start at 31st October, and the clubs have accepted that.
“Realistically, how many games will we get? If we get pushed back into November then you have Christmas and New Year, weather issues, and so on. So, in reality, the structure may look completely different [to what is being spoken about at the moment]. Worst case scenario, some people I have spoken to think we will only get four or five games this year.
“The only message I can give out to all clubs in Scotland is that we need to look at this objectively, we need to put self-interest aside, and possibly use this season as a stepping-stone – a kick-start if you like – just to get our clubs functioning again, see how many players we still have, see what the landscape is going to look like, and use it as preparation for the following season when hopefully we have got through this Covid together.”
During Saturday’s AGM, interim Chairman John Jeffrey – speaking publicly for the first time since his appointment in May – indicated that Barr’s review of governance will be based on tailoring the recommendations made by Sir Bill Gammell and Norman Murray earlier this year.
“Under the guidance of Dee [Bradbury], the President [at the time], she undertook a task force and looked at that, to take the good bits out of it and adapt one or two other bits before it came back to the clubs for consultation. Sadly, Covid got in the road of that and it has now been passed over to Ian, as soon as Covid is past, to review that, and we’ll get that renewed by the clubs sooner rather than later, and I look forward to seeing the outcome,” he said.
However, given the hostile reception clubs generally gave the Gammell and Murray review, and the Bradbury task force, Barr is likely to take the view that he needs to start with a blank sheet of paper.
“As a Board member and a Council member, I have to help keep Scottish Rugby going forward during this really difficult time, and I know there has been an awful lot of work going on in the background – Mark Dodson and the executive team have been working really, really hard to keep the business going forward – and I know that Dominic [McKay] and Dr James [Robson] have been meeting with Scottish Government on a weekly basis as part of the threat management group – and all these things will continue,” said Barr.
“At the same time, the Presidential and Council side of it … I think we need to get a handle on governance as soon as we possibly can. When we don’t have club rugby going on and all the issues that come with that, maybe one of the positives is to get a start on that quicker than we would normally.
“It was very clear pre-AGM that I had been asked, and the clubs were expecting me, to take governance forward when I took over as President.”