IT is the Monday night following that 36-14 loss to Ireland at the Stade de France which sealed Scotland’s early World Cup exit and the last flight out of Charles de Gaulle airport is headed for Edinburgh. It is scheduled to depart at 10.40pm but has been delayed.
All the bars, restaurants and shops in the terminal are closed, so the hundred or so passengers left in the building – many wearing the same kilts and dark blue jerseys they had on during the flight out to Paris three of four days earlier – kick their heels near to the flight gate, fearful of straying too far away and somehow missing the boarding call.
Off to the side – still part of the hubbub but somehow detached from it – a solitary figure sits almost entirely motionless, staring straight ahead through a giant window on to the near pitch-black airport runway. This is a man with a lot to ponder.
John McGuigan has been in post as Chair of Scottish Rugby Limited [the operating arm of the SRU] since early June, during which time he has kept a low public profile. But he hasn’t been idle. During an hour-long conversation with the former senior executive for a number of multinational businesses such as the Phoenix Group and Telefonica, it quickly becomes clear that he has been canvassing views widely, assessing the merits of each argument, and thinking deeply, to formulate his own opinion on what Scottish Rugby needs to do to survive (let alone thrive) in a rapidly changing sporting landscape for both the professional and amateur games.
It is hard to imagine either of McGuigan’s two immediate predecessors travelling home from a World Cup in ‘cattle-class’ with Easy Jet. The fact that the new guy – who didn’t know he had been spotted until he had joined the queue on to the flight – chose to do so suggests a change of tone may be on the cards at the top of an organisation which many feel has become detached in recent years from the heart and soul of rugby in this country.
The 63-year-old makes it clear that he does not plan to throw the baby out with the bathwater, but neither is status quo an option. He wants to be a disruptor with an agenda for positive change.
“Scottish Rugby is an integral part of Scottish life, but its future is totally dependent on having the ability to compete with other sports for its audience,” he says. “That means we need to think about things differently, and be ready to adapt and change, whilst not forgetting about what it is that makes rugby great for all the people who are already lucky enough to be engaged.
“The game in Scotland is underpinned by a very strong club culture, full of brilliant volunteers who help introduce the sport to new players and new supporters year after year,” he adds. “It is from that base which everything grows, whether it is the women’s game, the pro teams, or the international team. So, it is very important that we sustain and help grow that level of the game, but that doesn’t mean doing exactly the same as we’ve always done. We need to continue to modernise so that we stay relevant in the global market where lots of sports are competing for players and supporters.
“We also need to find a way of engaging our total community of people who have a passion for the game and who can add value, including those who for one reason or other have not seen an obvious role for themselves as part of Scottish Rugby in recent years.”
“Scotland punches above its weight”
Perhaps mindful of sounding too negative about what has gone before, McGuigan highlights some of the positive storylines of recent times.
“Scotland punches above its weight,” he stresses. “Things that I didn’t know then [when he was appointed] which I know now around the stats of how many people play rugby in Scotland compared to how many referees there are in England has been an eye-opener. So, from that perspective, to manage to get the men’s team to No 5 in the world ahead of the World Cup given the population size we have to choose from is phenomenal and has outperformed where outsiders perhaps think we should be as a nation. That is a great starting point to push on from and really challenge the top four nations in the next World Cup cycle.
“The women’s game is going to be hugely important to us, so we’ve got to put money into that just now, and we’ve got a hugely committed team at international level who have started to achieve some terrific results in South Africa during the last month,” he adds. “And we’ve had exponential growth [in playing numbers] in the women’s game in Scotland since Covid which is something to be really delighted about.”
Then, just as he is beginning to sound like another voice in the chorus singing from the standardised Murrayfield hymn sheet, McGuigan expands his analysis.
“I think the world around us is changing so we as an organisation will change with it,” he promises, when asked if he is comfortable that everything necessary is being done to future-proof the game in Scotland. “My sense is that we will make changes to ensure that we have the best people and the best expertise and the best opportunity to execute at speed, because that is going to be a hugely important part of our future.
“Things are moving quickly, therefore if you can’t quite get your own act together, you can’t quite articulate what you want, and you don’t have the right expertise to exploit the opportunities that come at you, then you are going to be disadvantaged and you are going to lose.
“The types of things we want people to be good at now are different to those that were relevant five or ten years ago, so it is natural for us as an organisation to continually check in to say: ‘Are we set up to succeed? Have we got the right structure to make sure that we are ready for whatever change is coming down the track?’”
“Where we want to go now requires us to think and behave differently”
Given his business background as “a customer Director drawing on a profound understanding of customer behaviour to drive business performance”, according to LinkedIn, it is not a surprise to hear McGuigan wax lyrical about the importance of Scottish Rugby communicating better so as to secure buy-in from its stakeholders. It is safe to say that this is something the organisation hasn’t always excelled at in the past.
“We have to make sure we address the mechanism for getting stuff done,” he says. “One key part of that, for me, is openness and a culture within the organisation that attracts people in and doesn’t rebuff people. And where people understand the skillset which is there and why that skillset will support the strategy we’ve got.
“The big questions we face are: Where’s the game going? What’s it’s main competition and how do we succeed in that context? What does that mean for the game in Scotland? What do we need to do differently to make sure we can compete at a strategic level? How much does that cost? How do we get the money to pay for that? How do you operationalise it in terms of splitting up the tasks? And who are the right people to make that happen?
“People rightly have different views on how we should develop and that should be welcomed and harnessed by Scottish Rugby,” he continues. “Internal bickering is a distraction. What we need is an effective way of connecting and collaborating because the competition sits elsewhere with other nations and other sports. If we have competitive behaviours internally which don’t contribute towards promoting our game and our country, then we are the only losers.”
McGuigan resists being drawn into a conversation about Scottish Rugby’s past failures and whether the new governance structure, which was voted into existence at last year’s AGM, is really the key to creating a more harmonious future.
“My view is that the structures are not as important as the people, the capability, and the culture, so I want those things to be absolutely aligned behind the strategy,” he says. “I want to communicate really effectively back out to the sport so that we tell people what we are doing.
“Ultimately, why I am here is that I think Scottish Rugby has an important role to play in Scottish society for a whole bunch of different reasons, and how we develop our ability to deliver that is by creating a sense of urgency and being very clear that we have an ambition in Scotland to be doing things before the rest of the sport catches up, so that we are on the front foot.”
“Therefore, we need to make sure the culture and the way we communicate – the way we tell our story – is very clear, and everyone has a good understanding of their respective roles. My job from a leadership point of view is to make sure we instil that.
“I am conscious that a lot of stuff has gone before and that an organisation which has been around for a long time will have a lot of baggage, but I’ve got to be prepared to say that most of that baggage was relevant to things in the past, and where we want to go now requires us to think and behave differently, so let’s see if we can do that together.
“Is the SRU/SRL/CRB set-up the best structure? I don’t know. Everyone has their own views on it – but it can work,” he adds.
“All we’re really saying is that SRL is the commercial operation which makes sure Scottish Rugby not only sustains itself but performs incredibly well and punches above its weight, so that we can pay all the bills, maintain the facilities, and invest in the things that are going to be important.
“The SRU Custodian Board’s job is to make sure we are answerable to them in terms of strategy and financials, but I anticipate it being relatively light touch.
“The Club Rugby Board, from my perspective, is something that we work with to make sure that element of the game is as healthy as it possibly can be, and when we direct money into that area there is clarity about where the money is going, what the objectives are, what we are both trying to achieve, and what the outcomes look like.
“So, it will work if we all believe in it, and it will work if we have that level of transparency and openness to make sure if we all do our bit the overall performance of Scottish Rugby will be really vibrant.”
“What is the club game there to do?”
It all sounds very reasonable and positive, but history tells us that getting everyone on the same page is not going to be easy. Many before McGuigan have tried and failed.
“I am doing the rounds just now,” he says. “It is obviously early days for me, but I have spent time with the men’s and women’s national teams, Edinburgh and Glasgow, the Super Series pieces, and a number of clubs who I will continue to engage with over the winter.
“I think the thing we are really keen to get right just now is defining what each constituent part’s contribution should be to making Scottish Rugby the best product it can be.
“What is the club game there to do? I think it is to create more people – boys, girls, men and women – wanting to play it. I think rugby clubs should be seen more as local community facilities by diversifying into other sports, because they shouldn’t just see existing membership and the SRU as their only source of income, there must be other opportunities to bring money and people in.
“Ultimately, they need to be the start of us nurturing talent from a young age and we have a huge amount of discretionary effort from people coaching their kids’ team on a Saturday and Sunday morning which we need to really acknowledge and appreciate, but there comes a point when a person at 14 has shown a level of talent to suggest they might get into the professional game or even the international game and that’s when we need to have an arrangement with the club where we can say: ‘You’ve done your job really well by producing this talent though your pipeline and we thank you for that, but we now need to think differently about how we evolve this talent both mentally and physically which is not necessarily through their local club.
“So, we take these people onto a different path, where it is about building their capability in order to be a professional rugby player. I think, in the first instance that is much more aligned to Edinburgh and Glasgow being accountable for that, with a very close working relationship from the national team coaches. We are in the process just now of redefining that.”
“Then, what we are looking for Edinburgh and Glasgow to do is to provide opportunities for Scottish raised players to play rugby at a high level, and the outcome of that will be a flow of more capable players better prepared to move into the national team.
“Therefore, there is a golden thread between what happens at a local level, and how that works into the performance area, and how that works into the national team, and those people who don’t make it, fall out of it back into the clubs and you have better prepared players at a club level, which helps to reinforce that tier of the game.”
“Momentum must be towards more opportunities for homegrown talent”
Of course, this only works if the pro teams keep up their side of the bargain, and McGuigan indicates that lessons have been learnt from both Ireland and France in terms of managing recruitment and regulating squad composition.
“I don’t think it is hard, and I think both sets of pro team coaches are fully on board,” he says. “We understand that if you are sitting there as coach of Glasgow or Edinburgh you are there to win, and that has to be the mentality because it is not a great advantage to developing a national team if you are selecting people who play for pro teams which are not in the habit of winning, but there also needs to be a balance.
“So, we need to work with the pro coaching staff, alongside the national team coaches and the performance director, to find a way to get towards that goal of more Scottish produced players coming in to both these teams and ultimately the national team, without destabilising performances on a week-to-week basis.
“They [young players] might not be brilliant in their first game but after five games they will start to pick up, so there might be a small drop-off and you’ve got to manage that with the coaching staff. The momentum must be towards more opportunities for homegrown talent and accepting the fact that the balance needs to change for that to happen.
“We also need to think about whether there is an opportunity to create more of an ‘A’ team schedule at Edinburgh and Glasgow, where you’ve got people who are waiting to get into the senior team but still playing at a competitive level.
“If you look at Ireland or France, they’ve taken the hit and said we’re prepared to transition to that model because that gives us the best chance of success. We need to do the same.”
After taking his time to find his bearings and then develop an overall sense of what needs to happen for Scottish Rugby to move forward positively, McGuigan is clearly enthused about the next stage of trying to turn his vision into reality.
Most of what the new Chair says is broadly consistent with the chat around the game in Scotland. The challenge, as he acknowledges, is to ensure that every branch of the sport binds together and works as one to deliver on the priorities of growing the amateur game, fuller engagement with all stakeholders, extending the fan base, developing more homegrown talent and creating more opportunities for that talent to achieve full potential.
It is going to require a level of respect and trust between all interested parties which has not always been evident during the professional era, but if the issues which have historically divided Scottish Rugby are not left in the past, and a consensus cannot be reached which will allow the game to move forward together, then there might not be too many more opportunities to get it right.