JOHN JEFFREY is – and always will be – one of the greatest players ever to pull on a Scotland jersey. That does not, however, automatically translate into him being the ideal appointment as Chairman of the Scottish Rugby Board (even on an interim basis) during these days of extraordinary financial uncertainty and constitutional turmoil.
His unveiling earlier this week was widely greeted on social media and in some newspapers as a godsend – a fresh broom to dust away old grievances and clear the path for a new era of trust and co-operation – but we should reserve judgement until a better indication is provided as to how the Board plans to address the underlying pressure-points in the Scottish game.
Jeffrey has been a Murrayfield insider since he joined the SRU Council as a co-opted (unelected) member in 2010, and has therefore been either complicit or proactive in the significant governance scandals which have rocked the organisation in recent years.
Jeffrey’s predecessor, Colin Grassie, initially announced that he was leaving on 23rd April, and the job – to our knowledge – has not been officially advertised during the last month, raising questions about whether there was ever any intention of finding a replacement from outside the Murrayfield bubble, who would bring a fresh perspective and independent voice.
His standing in World Rugby and on the Six Nations Board could be useful, but at a time when Scottish Rugby is facing its own unique challenges which will require its own unique solutions, what we really need is a trouble-shooter rather than a politician.
Rebuilding the clubs’ trust in Murrayfield must be his priority, and a good starting point would be leaving them alone to pick their own Vice President at August’s AGM.
Ensuring that the inevitable retrenchment caused by Covid-19 does not fatally wound the grassroots would also earn serious brownie points.
An increased commitment to openness and a demonstration of respect for the Union’s ultimate stakeholders, the member clubs through their elected representatives in the Council, will go a long way to reassuring both banks and the public purse that Scottish Rugby is a business worth getting behind.
At some point, a proper governance review will be required and it is imperative that the Chairman makes it clear that it will be driven by the clubs via the Council, meaning that it is fully independent of the Board. There can be no reprise of the Gammell review.
In the meantime, Chief Executive Mark Dodson and Chief Operating Officer Dominic McKay are the guys in the box-seat as Scottish Rugby faces down the potentially ruinous consequences of the Covid-19 crisis. They should be given all possible support as they set about the mammoth task ahead. But it would be a catastrophic mistake if that single purpose is allowed to obscure the basic tenets of the Dunlop Report: that the autonomy of the Board is dependent on accountability, participation, responsiveness and transparency with regard to the clubs.
Learn from past mistakes
The best thing Jeffrey can do is learn from the mistakes of his predecessor.
Grassie’s valedictory comments in the press release issued earlier this week deserve more scrutiny than they have been given so far. “We have achieved many great things over the years as a Board and as a sport,” he claimed, in a fairly shameless attempt at putting lipstick onto a pig.
He is leaving one year earlier than planned, stating that the successful completion of the CVC investment in PRO14 was the perfect time to wave goodbye. This conveniently ignores the responsibility of now making the deal work for all parties involved, not to mention the still outstanding issue of CVC’s £300m bid for the Six Nations, which is the real potential game-changer for the unions involved.
If Grassie hadn’t chosen to leave now, there is a very good chance he would have been frog-marched out the door by the clubs at August’s AGM. The charge sheet against him is long and damning.
Dodson’s determination to implement his Super6/Agenda 3 vision for Scottish domestic rugby was achieved by railroading clubs into something that they were not properly consulted on and didn’t ever have an opportunity to endorse, but rather than challenge the chief executive on the damage this constitutionally dubious approach would do to the future harmony of a members’ organisation, Grassie played the role of loyal and obedient sidekick. Dodson is a forceful personality, he needs a strong character in the Chair to keep his bullishness in check.
Then came Scottish Rugby’s humiliating defeat in an unfair dismissal tribunal case brought by former Director of Domestic Rugby Keith Russell in June 2018, which ignited a chain-reaction of controversies which has reduced trust in Murrayfield to a pile of cinder in the eyes of many.
Grassie was posted missing in action during the immediate aftermath of the Russell story breaking, leaving Dodson and the then SRU President Rob Flockhart to face the music at a series of press briefings in Houston USA (during Scotland’s summer tour of the Americas). In fact, Grassie is not known to have given a single interview to the press since his appointment as Chairman in September 2016. Two of Jeffrey’s great strengths are his reputation and his charisma, so having him front and centre when key moments are being dealt with will greatly assist Scottish Rugby in bringing the rest of us with them.
The Chairman did briefly earn credit for his seemingly earnest contrition at the 2018 SRU AGM. “On June 7th , later in the day, I opened the email to the Board confirming the decision of the tribunal and it was a very tough read to say the least,” he admitted. “The Board and I recognised immediately that this was a low moment for Scottish Rugby.”
It was an eye-popping moment. Damning confirmation that for more than a year (between the sacking and the ruling of the employment tribunal), Grassie and his Board had been merrily oblivious to the ticking bomb which was about to explode in their faces. Where was the oversight?
Worse still, the Board actually awarded Dodson a lucrative three-year contract extension during the period between the end of the tribunal and the judgement being published, despite having two years on his previous contract still to run. Let’s hope that Jeffrey is more successful at keeping an objective eye on what is going on under his nose, and in ensuring that his executives recognise that they are there to serve Scottish rugby, not the other way around.
It soon became apparent that Grassie had been shedding crocodile tears at the AGM. The reviews he ordered into the Russell affair and the use of non-disclosure agreements to gag departing staff ended up being kept in-house, and over three months later we were told that we should all move on without any real outcomes provided.
We later discovered that the Board didn’t even address the executive bonus scheme in place for Dodson and his legal sidekick Robert Howat at this point – both of whom were eviscerated in the tribunal judge’s report – meaning that the chief executive picked up a near £500k bonus barely a year later.
‘Nothing to see here’, became the mantra of the Scottish Rugby Board (and Council) under Grassie. Can Jeffrey usher in a culture of greater transparency and engagement?
A lot of tough decisions are going to have to be made during the next 12 months, and they are not going to please everyone all of the time. A softer touch than we have seen in the last two years is needed, because the eviction of Murrayfield Wanderers from their historic home on the back pitches at the national stadium campus, the shameless profiteering off Doddie Weir’s name in the extra 2018 Autumn Test against Wales, and the fine imposed by World Rugby against Dodson for comments about the possibility of Scotland’s vital World Cup pool game against Japan being called off, has propagated the impression of an out of control corporate body.
However, it is through the shenanigans inside Murrayfield’s corridors of power that the outgoing Chairman’s stock really plummeted, thanks to – among other things – the corrupted relationship between the Council and the Board (epitomised by the decision making matrix which is used to limit the clubs’ elected representatives from doing their job properly), the misleading ‘debt free’ claims at last year’s AGM, the executive pay scandal, the clear power-grab that was the Gammell review, Grassie’s erratic behaviour at January’s ‘Town Hall Meeting’, and the perseverance of Dee Bradbury’s governance task-force despite protests from a growing number of clubs.
It is a woeful legacy, and Grassie will carry the can – but he was not acting alone. The ball is in the new Chairman’s court in terms of demonstrating that he is willing and able to exercise his responsibilities to the satisfaction and benefit of all of Scottish rugby.