Internal review must address all the big questions facing Scottish Rugby

The Dunlop Report requires accountability, responsiveness, participation and transparency from the Executive

Lesley Thomson
Lesley Thomson QC will lead the internal review into the Keith Russell affair ***Image: Fotosport/David Gibson***

MURRAYFIELD went into lockdown last week as the men and women charged with running Scottish rugby tried to digest the fall-out from the Keith Russell affair. With every passing day, the wider rugby community became ever more anxious to know whether a suitable response was on the cards.

Was Scottish Rugby’s governance structure robust enough to address the flagrant abuse identified in Employment Judge Joseph d’Inverno’s scathing ruling in the Russell case? Would the SRU Council, in its current guise, have the wit and courage to hold the SRU Board to account?

Seven days in the bunker – then they came out firing on Sunday afternoon.

Well, sort of.

A joint statement from the SRU Board and the Council announced that the Chairman of the Board had commissioned a member of the Board to conduct a review into a major failure of the Board. Nice and tidy!

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The Scottish Rugby Council – Dunlop’s crucial constitutional backstop – had gathered for an emergency meeting on Friday night and were evidently told to stick together and keep quiet. They duly followed orders.

Some avoided answering the phone, others politely cited collective confidentiality when refusing to comment on what had gone on at the meeting. Colin Grassie, the Chairman of the Board, is believed to have been involved, while the SRU have yet to confirm or deny whether Chief Executive Mark Dodson took part.

There are major concerns over the nature, scope, timescale and transparency of the internal review. Nobody will question Lesley Thomson QC’s credentials, but as a Board member she could find herself legally conflicted if the review cuts to the level that Scottish Rugby’s ultimate stakeholders (the clubs) are likely to demand.

All Dodson’s alleged non-disclosure skeletons will need to be exhumed well before the AGM. Employee confidentiality must be at the behest of the employee, not the Chief Executive.

Dodson’s own contract renewal will need to fall within the ambit of the review.

Frank and open dialogue will need to be held with past and present SRU employees to accurately gauge the working environment.

Remembering Dunlop

SRU President Rob Flockhart claims that Scottish Rugby’s governance structure is the envy of Scottish sport and that was undoubtedly the case when it was introduced by a working party chaired by Sheriff Bill Dunlop back in 2005.

The Dunlop Report, however, was absolutely clear. The Executive’s discretion to run the SRU’s business on behalf of its stakeholders is subject to four critical constraints – accountability, responsiveness, participation and transparency. The charge is that these constraints have been seriously eroded during the Dodson reign – a circumstance which any review will need to tackle aggressively before fundamental change is forced upon the structure of the game.

The joint statement on Sunday told us that the Board and Council “simply do not recognise or accept” that there may be an issue with the senior management culture at Murrayfield, and concluded that they “wish to place on record our full support for our executive and staff”. Thomson’s review into this situation will have to dive deeper than that.

Serious questions will need to be asked and answered –

  • Did any member of the Board question the decision to dismiss Keith Russell on 18th May 2017, after being informed that this was going to happen the following day?
  • Was any concern expressed at that time that a senior member of staff was being summarily dismissed on the grounds of capability?
  • Or did the Board share the view that Keith Russell was under-performing in his role?  If so, on what basis had they formed that opinion?
  • Did the Board take any steps to ensure that a proper process was being followed in the dismissal of Keith Russell?
  • Did the Council members on the Board, led by Rob Flockhart, confer separately to discuss the matter?
  • How did the Board and specifically the Council members on the Board report this development to the Council?
  • What was the Council’s official response to this news?
  • When did Rob Flockhart learn that Mark Dodson wanted to dismiss Keith Russell?
  • What did he – as the elected President of all the clubs – think of the unilateral decision taken by Mark Dodson to remove the director of domestic (club) rugby, without any reference to the clubs?
  • Was the SRU Board aware of the almost totally groundless nature of the Executive’s defence during the Keith Russell tribunal hearing?
  • Did the Board take the Keith Russell situation into account when agreeing a contract extension for Mark Dodson at the end of March 2018 (two years before his previous contract was due to run out)?
  • How many non-disclosure agreements have been signed by departing staff members since Mark Dodson became Chief Executive of the SRU in September 2011, and how much has been paid out in total?
  • Should these non-disclosure agreements be lifted [with commercially sensitive information redacted] in light of this episode so that we can ensure that employment law has not been routinely disregarded by a national sporting governing body?
  • Is the Board confident that the current governance structure at Murrayfield is robust, fair and effective?
  • Is the Council confident that the current governance structure at Murrayfield is robust, fair and effective?

At the same time as the joint statement from the Board and Council was being issued, Dodson and Flockhart (but not Grassie) were meeting journalists in Houston, Texas, in an effort to calm the waters. Contrition was not, however, on the agenda.

“I’m sorry that we arrived at this regrettable situation and we’ll learn any lessons that the review recommends,” was Dodson’s response when asked by the BBC’s Tom English if he owed Russell an apology.

“We gave a good deal of evidence around the reasons why we wanted to make the change. You can’t say we didn’t give clear reasons,” he added, choosing to ignore that Judge D’Inverno has said exactly that.

“If you look at my track record in the seven years I’ve been here, this is the first industrial tribunal. We’ve never been anywhere near a situation like this,” said Dodson at one point, which almost feels like a challenge to investigate how many non-disclosure agreements have been signed by departing staff.

No laughing matter

When asked about Russell’s allegation that Dodson is hostile to the Council having influence on SRU policy, Flockhart said: “I just cannot accept that suggestion at all. It’s almost laughable.”

When asked about Russell’s claim that there is a group of senior figures at Murrayfield driving the domestic game down a particular path with no real understanding of what they are dealing with, Flockhart had a similar response. “It’s laughable,” he said.

But Keith Russell isn’t laughing. He’s still looking for a job, 13-months after being unfairly dismissed, and has not yet been paid a bean in compensation.

After 25-years building an outstanding reputation as one of Scotland’s leading grassroots sport administrators, he has had to go to court to restore his good name and win his legal entitlement in severance pay.

Throughout that tribunal process, Russell succeeded where Dodson failed, in earning the right to be regarded as a credible witness. It is high time the SRU took that on board and stopped punting innuendo about their highly respected former Director of Domestic Rugby being a mischief-maker pedalling far-fetched misinformation.

Agenda 3 paper due this week

On a separate but related note, Flockhart was asked on Sunday about the hold-up in the publication of the “detailed document” he has promised the clubs, which is supposed to finally give a full explanation of how Agenda 3 is going to look and operate. It was meant to be issued in early June but has still not materialised.

Flockhart promised that the delivery date will be some point this week, and then attempted to shift the blame for the delay onto the clubs themselves.

“We have had to listen to the stakeholders who want slightly different things around player pavements than they said they did at the beginning. This has been a moving debate. We have to put together a paper that answers enough questions but does not end out asking more questions than it answers,” he said.

“That is why it took longer than we thought because the clubs have debated on several issues and come back to us saying: ‘We thought we wanted this but may want that and some people want something else’. It is like a menu of different views and we have had to reflect that on the paper. Any time lag on where we said we would be is only because of that.”

Wood for the trees

Or maybe Dodson, Flockhart and co should have listened to Russell just before they sacked him, because then they would have seen this problem coming. Russell is very clear that putting the genie back into the bottle with player payment was never considered workable, and that a more sophisticated solution than a blanket ban was required.

“In September 2016, player payments and player movement were identified as key issues within Agenda 3,” explained Russell during a recent interview. “At the President’s Roadshows in November 2016 we got the club reps to consider the issues and what solutions there might be. A working group was set up, including coaches, administrators and council reps, and it was chaired by Vice-President Dee Bradbury.

“The Group came up with a number of proposals that would help reduce player movements and player payments. When these proposals from the clubs were presented to Mark Dodson and the Executive Directors in about February 2017 they were blocked from being progressed further for wider discussion about the practicality of implementation, and the Working Group was terminated. Super 6 was then presented to the 2017 AGM by Mark Dodson.”

Dodson’s inner circle must have been the only people in the room at last August’s AGM to have taken it seriously when the chief executive (the man who balks at the suggestion that he might be linked to any sort of toxicity or bullying culture) announced that Murrayfield staff would be contacting HMRC to whistle-blow on any clubs suspected of breaking his strict amateurism diktat. The whole idea of outlawing player payments was impractical on several levels from the very start.

If Dodson, Flockhart, the Board and the Council believe that an internal review will help take the sting out of recent revelations and appease their stakeholder ahead of what promises to be a lively AGM on 4th August, then they are surely in for a rude awakening.

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About David Barnes 3821 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.


  1. Every point made would warrant the “black cap”

    However, the Clubs need to forget their personal agendas & remind the blazers who they work for. Unless they leave their parochial hats behind them & work together for the greater good, this will be a huge opportunity wasted.

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