LEAGUE rugby returns in Scotland this Saturday after a three week break while the Autumn Test series played out, and in the BT Premiership all five games are of massive significance to each of the teams involved. We are now at round twelve in the campaign and while there is always room for improvement in terms of standard, there can be no complaints about the amount of drama which has been served up so far. There has been a couple of hopelessly one-side encounters, but it is apparent that no team in this division is invincible and no club is beyond redemption. Every game really matters.
The BT Premiership is often talked down by critics viewing the competition at arm’s length. It is dismissed as merely an amateur league by those so wrapped up in what is happening at Murrayfield and Scotstoun that they cannot possibly appreciate the value of the club game as a driving force for recruiting and developing the next generation of top players and coaches.
In fact, the league is littered with ambitious young coaches who have experience of playing at the highest level. They are working at clubs which are embracing rugby’s latest innovations in an effort to push up standards. There is an army of dedicated players out there who believe they can make it as a full-time professional one day and see the league as the best vehicle for them to achieve that goal.
Scottish rugby needs more strength in depth. It needs young players to be involved in high-quality competitive rugby as often as possible. It needs a strong domestic league structure where ambition is rewarded and not stifled.
Almost half a century after the Beeching cuts ripped the main transport artery out of the Borders with catastrophic economic and social consequences to the region, the Waverley Line returned last September and has proven so far to be a resounding success with around one million passengers – some 350,000 more than predicted – using the route in its first year, providing significant and wide-ranging benefits to the surrounding areas.
Now, a section of rugby supporters in the region are hoping that the nostalgic appeal of another local institution from bygone days can help their sport escape from the severe slump it is currently battling through. The South of Scotland rugby team took on a Caledonia region select at Riverside Park at the start of November in front of an enthusiastic crowd of around 1200 supporters, and there is talk of trying to reconstruct the old inter-district championship.
But unlike the railway line which has opened up the Borders to the rest of Scotland, the reprisal of the South team – if not managed properly – runs the risk of further isolating one of world rugby’s most fertile outposts from the modern game, whilst simultaneously undermining the role of leading clubs throughout Scotland as a vital link in the supply chain towards a successful national team.
First things first, there are major questions still unanswered about how a district championship could be fitted into the current season structure. Fixture scheduling, which is ultimately controlled by the clubs, is a long-standing problem – and trying to accommodate three more matches seems like madness.
The clubs, as a majority, voted for the season to be kept inside the window from 1st September to 31st March, which allows for around 30 Saturdays per campaign. They have also dictated that, outside the Premiership, leagues should be made up of 12 teams to allow for 22 games per season, with matches not to be played on home international weekends. So, once you take into account Christmas and New Year, plus a six round cup competition, the maths is already looking pretty flaky, and that’s before you take into account bad weather.
In the South, the situation is further complicated by the existence of the Border League, another emotive issue given that competition’s proud history as the oldest official league in the world. It has suffered in recent years through teams being unable or unwilling to fulfil all fixtures, leading to a restructuring this season which saw the teams split into two pools so that less games need to be played – but even then it soon fell behind schedule when Jed-Forest asked to postpone their game against Melrose on 11th November, just three days after the South game, because of concerns about asking players to turn out three times in six days.
This seemed to be accepted as unfortunate but unavoidable, which was in stark contrast to the barrage of criticism directed towards Melrose a few weeks earlier when they announced that they would not be releasing their players to the district match because of similar concerns over player welfare.
Throw into the mix the Borders Sevens circuit, plus two club international weekends per season, and we are looking at a scheduling nightmare. It is a problem which could be overcome if there was any credible evidence to suggest that overall standards will be lifted as a consequence of creating a district championship in competition to the Premiership but, really, it is hard to see how that can possibly be the case.
Pulling together a team of players from several different clubs, some playing in lower divisions, with minimal preparation time, and asking them to play midweek between club matches, is not in line with how the modern game operates.
The Saturday before the South match, Glasgow Hawks had visited the Greenyards for a high octane top-of-the-table clash. This had been their twelfth game in as many weeks, and Rob Chrystie was not the only Premiership coach to comment after the game that his players were long overdue a break during the international window. Are we really supposed to believe that playing at Riverside Park three days later was a good move for player welfare?
In that match between Melrose and Hawks, the home side had two full-time professionals in their line-up, six players with pro experience and four members of the BT Sport Academy; while the visitors had one full-time pro, three former pro players, two more who have trained with Glasgow Warriors as injury cover this year and four Academy members. It was a spellbinding encounter between two sides intent on playing an adventurous brand of rugby. No quarter was asked or given. Are we really supposed to believe that the South game was going to be a step up in standard for the Melrose players?
Not everybody agrees with professionals being released into the Premiership, but the reality is that so long as individual safety is protected, the leading clubs are duty bound to help provide game time to as many players with professional and international aspirations as possible.
Scottish Rugby chief executive Mark Dodson was asked at last month’s SGM whether there was any plans to create a development team for Edinburgh and Glasgow Warriors. His answer gave a strong indication of the way the wind is blowing.
“If money is generated over and beyond the amounts we need for our pro teams, it is our vision to make club rugby in Scotland as strong as it possibly can be,” he said. “And one of the things that we are talking about at council and board level is the strength of the BT Premiership here in Scotland. I think we have to find out just exactly what that can look like at the top of our amateur game? What does it look like as a semi-pro game? Because I, like you, believe that we need a stronger second tier to our professional teams – how you achieve that is something that the council and board are going to take away and work on in the next twelve months.”
“I am concerned that there is an increasing gap between our professional teams and the next layer down, and if we’re absolutely honest there is an increasing gap between the Premiership and National One – and we need to be very clear about what we can do about that,” he added.
The alternative is the club game choosing to isolate itself completely from the professional game and the inevitable consequence of that is that the drip-drip-drip effect of ambitious youngsters heading south to try their hand in the second tier English Championship (and even the third tier English National One) will soon become a steady stream and ultimately a raging river of our own making. Ambitious young players are not going to stay in Scottish club rugby if there is no prospect of bridging the gap into the professional game.
Scottish Rugby will be left with little choice but to expand their programme of farming out youngsters to London Scottish and perhaps other Championship clubs, in order to ensure they are playing rugby at a standard which gives them a realistic chance of stepping up to the big time.
And there will be less and less opportunities for native players to emulate the likes Rory Sutherland, Fraser Brown and Nick Beavon, who for one reason or another missed out on the professional game the first time round, but were given another bite at the cherry through the exposure they had in the BT Premiership.
What we are talking about is setting a dangerous precedent of dumbing down of the Premiership to assuage those clubs who feel they cannot compete at that level. This is contrary to every basic principle of competitive sport. As soon as you remove the incentive to push forward, you are going to fall backwards. The tail must not be allowed to wag the dog.
By all means let’s have a district championship, but let’s be realistic about where it should fit into the bigger picture. If it gives players at lower level clubs something to aspire to then that is great, but it should not be allowed to interfere with the drive to push up standards at clubs with loftier ambitions.