THE SRU President, Board and Council may feel like they won a battle at Friday night’s SGM, but it was a Pyrrhic victory gained at considerable cost to their credibility as an organisation which is supposed to act for and on behalf of its member clubs.
This was a watershed moment in which the elected representatives finally gave up the ghost and made it absolutely clear where their loyalty lies – which is with the paid executives at Murrayfield rather than with the clubs up and down the country who voted them into office.
The back story
This SGM was the latest instalment in a process brought about by two motions which were voted through with overwhelming majorities at last August’s AGM, aimed at giving clubs greater control over how the national league structure should be organised, following the constitutionally suspect imposition of SRU Chief Executive Mark Dodson’s controversial Super 6 league which will launch next season.
As a consequence, a consultation process – which included a debate at the AGM, a club questionnaire and further discussions at various forum meetings – was conducted by Gavin MacColl QC, as the Independent Chair of the SRU Council’s Standing Committee on Governance.
He then made his recommendations to the Council, who adopted them as the motion to be voted on at Friday’s meeting.
Rather conveniently, the motion mirrored the initial vision for Super 6 laid out by Dodson in 2017: that the ‘Club XVs’ should be removed from the Premiership and placed in National League One, with promotion back into the top flight permitted at a rate of one club per season.
Four amendments to this motion were submitted by clubs, one of which was rejected by SRU General Counsel Robert Howat four days before the SGM on the grounds of relevancy.
That amendment, which was proposed by GHA, called for clarification on the movement of players between club rugby and Super 6, requesting that it be kept in line with the guidance provided in the ‘Super 6 Tournament FranchiseInformation’ pack published in November 2017, meaning that there would be no ‘playing down’ (into the club game) of players who are awarded Super 6 contracts and that any ‘playing up’ into Super 6 would be managed through an emergency and short-term injury protocol.
The rationale for the amendment had stated –
“The uncertainty is caused by recent representations made with a view to altering the understood arrangements on player movement between Super 6 and Club Rugby as previously defined by the Scottish Rugby Union. Any alterations to these restrictions will have a material effect on the club rugby competitions therefore it is imperative that the control measures regarding player movement between Super 6 and club rugby are clearly established as part of the motion.”
A subsequent request from GHA for clarification on the current position with regard to the sharing of players between Super 6 and club rugby was refused.
A related request for sight of the report on player safety by SRU chief medical officer Dr James Robson which was used as part of the rationale for the motion was also refused.
SRU President Dee Bradbury opened the meeting at 6pm with a reminder to delegates of where they sit in the priority ladder. “We’re aiming to finish for about 7pm if possible because, obviously, there is an important match to be played outside,” she told them.
Given that the Edinburgh v Leinster match was not going to kick-off until 7.35pm, you would have hoped that she might have been a bit more generous with the top table’s precious time, especially as amateur club officials had travelled the length and breadth of Scotland at their own cost to take part in a meeting which many of them believed was going to be absolutely crucial to the future health of the club game in this country.
Bradbury then turned her attention to the issue at hand and delivered a stern warning that any deviation away from the path laid out by her motion would have dire consequences –
“I would like to make it absolutely clear at this stage that it is open to those proposing an amendment to withdraw that amendment at any time before the vote on that amendment, and, similarly, if the underlying motion is amended materially and therefore becomes something significantly different from the motion the Council approved when requisitioning the meeting, it is also open to the Council to withdraw its own motion, acting through me as President, Chair of Council and Chair of the Meeting. I should add that Council has considered this possibility and is prepared to withdraw its motion should the need arise.”
Since the status quo was the equivalent of a ‘No Deal’ Brexit for most of the non-Super 6 clubs in the National Leagues, Bradbury was offering them a stark choice between toeing the line or being properly shafted.
Item No 1 on the agenda was the Currie Chieftains amendment, which was split into two parts. The first part was looking to retain the ‘Premiership’ brand for the top tier of what remains of the club game, and the second was clarifying that the four Premiership clubs not involved in Super 6 are guaranteed to retain their place in the ‘Premiership’ next season.
Chieftains President Phil Thomas explained the rationale –
“It’s very important for clubs to have a clear view that the pinnacle is of the national league structure is ‘The Premiership’. It is a product which is recognised in the market, it is a product which is well supported, and it is a product which sponsors in particular recognise. It is important for us all to maintain that position as things around us change. To put it simply, I was uneasy about the reference in the motion to successor leagues, because the Premiership is there, it is not going anywhere … so my proposition is to remove that reference to successor league.
“The second element is – really – a technical issue and relates to the fact that in the original drafting it refers to clubs coming up from National One to top up the Premiership number to ten, but it wasn’t clear – at least it wasn’t clear to me – that this was recognising that four clubs are already I the Premiership and must remain there. Therefore, the change is simply to rationalise and correct what I think was probably a drafting error.”
MacColl at the top table – who spent much of the night tutting and rolling his eyes at any club delegate who showed anything other than unrestrained enthusiasm for his motion – was clearly unhappy that his handiwork might be regarded as anything other than tip-top, insisting that the change in wording was unnecessary but adding that he had no concerns about the implications of the amendment.
Chieftains are one of the big losers from this whole process, and it is hard to fathom any reason why anyone would wish to deprive them of what little crumb of comfort they might draw from this minor affirmation of status. But Bradbury made it clear when calling the vote that no ground was going to be conceded by the SRU, no matter how genteel the uprising –
“For completeness, and for the reasons outlined by Gavin McColl, and on the basis that the amendment is unnecessary, Council encourages you to maintain the wording of the motion circulated and vote against the amendment.”
Both parts of the motion were approved with sizeable majorities.
Next up was an amendment which called for the ‘Club XVs’ of Super 6 teams to be withdrawn from the national league set-up altogether and placed into a reserve league. It was proposed by Falkirk President Bill Faulds –
“This amendment is not about stopping Super 6. It is about mitigating some of the impact that these new entities will have on both local clubs and on the wider national leagues. Had an impact assessment been done on S6, and had we had clarity on the idle S6 players, then maybe everyone would be considerably more at ease.”
Faulds then discussed concerns relating to a number of issues, including (i) a lack of precedent and consultation on Super 6, (ii) MacColl’s interpretation of the club survey feedback, (ii) the mysterious issue of player safety and the SRU’s refusal to divulge the Chief Medical Officer’s report, (iv) the need for ‘fair competition’, and (v) the potential impact on player numbers in the National League and at local clubs of the proposed structure.
He concluded –
“Motion One, as it stands, I think is demonstrably unprecedented; the motion completely disregards the consultation; the motion, I think, is potentially anti-competitive; the motion, in my opinion, is bad for Scottish club rugby.”
The amendment was supported by Preston Lodge, whose President Simon Fairbairn spoke for it. He stressed that his club support Super 6 as a concept but believe it needed tweaked to deal with some unintended consequences. He visited the issue of player safety and then moved onto ‘fair competition’ –
“If you have a Super 6 franchise, you’re going to try to create a really professional side. You are going to try to do the best you can with the resources you’ve got – the best coaching staff, the best training facilities, the best opportunities to develop that squad. Having your 2ndXV sitting in National One is going to benefit massively from that same infrastructure, that’s going to create an unfair advantage [and] we’re going to end up with ‘super-hubs’ – not just Super 6 but a larger conglomeration of capability centred around those clubs. And in some respects that’s a good thing, [but] in other respects it’s not when it starts to dilute fair competition. If you haven’t got the resources – and we all struggle from month to month to make sure we can pay the bills to support the things we do in order to get …
At this point, Bradbury had heard enough (it was now just an hour before the Edinburgh game was due to kick off) –
“Can we go back to the wordings. They do have to be relevant to the amendment proposed and I think we are straying into different territory, if you don’t mind.”
Fairbairn politely wrapped up his presentation, promising to be brief. Then Bradbury reminded the clubs that they were playing with fire. “This amendment, if passed, would lead to a materially different motion to that determined by Council,” she stated, before asking MacColl once again for his tuppence worth –
“On my reading then next year there would be a six-team National One league – that would be the effect of this motion. Now, it’s not clear to me that that is the intention of Falkirk or of Preston Lodge, but that would be the effect of the amendment as I read it.”
Faulds called from the floor for that statement to be explained and MacColl obliged –
“What seeks to be amended here is to take six teams and place them into the reserve team leagues. There would then be a population back up into the Premiership from National One teams, but there was no provision in the amendment for a population of National One, nor indeed, any indication in the amendment as to where teams that would populate up into the National League would come from.”
Faulds once again spoke from the floor, arguing that teams would simply shift upwards from the leagues below to fill the gaps, as has happened in the past when clubs have dropped out of the league set-up for various reasons.
MacColl countered –
“Well, I’m afraid that that is not what the amendment proposes, and it is important to bear in mind that what – as I understand matters here – it is necessary to do, is consider this amendment and not another amendment that has not been brought before this Special General Meeting.
“We heard from the President of Falkirk that he is an engineer, no doubt to indicate that he deals with numbers on a regular basis. Well, as you now, I’m a QC and I regularly act for engineers in court and I have to look at their numbers. That, indeed, is what I have been doing this very day in the Court of Session.”
It went to the floor, and Faulds was first to his feet, but he’d forgotten that it was now just 45 minutes until the Edinburgh game was due to kick-off –
Faulds: “League structure is not for Falkirk to decide, but there’s obviously two or three options, starting with simply cascading what we are doing with National One and the Premiership down. But there are other options too and I’d really like a discussion about it, an open discussion about where …”
Bradbury: ‘Bill, Bill, I’m sorry but we really have to have some relevance to the …”
Faulds: ‘Gavin asked how we would be filling …”
Bradbury [interrupting]: “But we’re not open for debate.”
Faulds: “… how we would be filling National Two and Three, so there’s clearly two or three options.”
Bradbury: “I don’t think that’s what we are here to discuss at the moment.”
Faulds: “Okay, well I certainly don’t believe that is insurmountable.”
MacColl: “Can I just make this observation for the avoidance of doubt, what I was saying is that this amendment is the amendment which is before this meeting to vote upon. The effect of this amendment, as I read it, is that there would be a six-team National One league next year, that is the observation.”
Faulds: “Unless there is further consultation and agreement on how we would structure Nationals Two and Three?”
Faulds: “That’s fair comment, yeah?”
Faulds: “That’s fair comment?”
Bradbury: “It is a fair comment, perhaps at another juncture.”
Faulds: “So, it is fair comment. Thank you.”
Bradbury: “However, it is not in the amendment.”
Faulds: “No, it is not currently in the amendment, it is deliberately not in the amendment because there are a variety of options which should be consulted on.”
There were a few more contributions from the floor, including from Keith Wallace of Haddington –
“Surely there is plenty of real precedent of clubs leaving a league for any number of reasons, and our Championship Committees have means of dealing with that, so it doesn’t have to be explicit in this motion.”
A few minutes later, Lorne Boswell, President of Super 6 club Stirling County, got up to speak against the amendment. Bradbury was less inclined to close this one down –
“Can I just say that if you vote for this amendment then you will be voting for the status quo, and the status quo means promotion, relegation and even a play-off for some people, and I wouldn’t wish that on anybody at this stage of the season. The reason I say that is that motion is restricting what we can do as a club. That’s saying that all our senior teams – and actually doesn’t limit itself to senior teams, I wonder if it is meant to mean our Under-18s and Women as well – will have to play in a reserve league and that is restriction of trade, and that will almost certainly end with lawyers, and if it goes to lawyers then I think there is very little prospect of that being resolved before next season starts, so we will be looking at the status quo for next season, and in order for that to happen we’ll have to have the play-offs, we’ll have to have relegation, and we’ll have to have promotion, and the Super 6 clubs will stay in the Premiership – so if that is what you want then vote for this amendment.
“The second reason that I think that this amendment will lead to a status quo is that I don’t believe that the SRU could allow it to pass. The SRU have followed the instructions from the AGM, they’ve created a governance working party, they’ve found Gavin MacColl to chair it, and they’ve come up with a set of recommendations – and this amendment just says to the whole working party that we are not having it and we want something different. I think if the SRU has any credibility they can’t allow this amendment to stand, and therefore the motion would fall and we’re back to the status quo. So, I’m going to formally ask Falkirk if they will withdraw this amendment?
That went down like a lead balloon with Faulds –
“I really don’t appreciate the threat of trying to throw the National League structure into disarray and: No, Falkirk are not prepared to withdraw this amendment.”
Bradbury then called the vote, reminding everyone that failure to comply with the Council recommendation would result in the motion being withdrawn.
She got her way.
The final motion came from Haddington, calling for the ‘Club XVs’ of Super 6 license holders to be placed in National One as stipulated in the motion, but for promotion for those teams back into the Premiership to be prohibited for three years.
Haddington President Keith Wallace presented this as a compromise agreement between the motion and the Falkirk amendment –
“This amendment is creating a balance – a slightly different balance, but not massively different from the motion. Just allowing a period of three years when there will be no promotion for those team from National One, to give time for the player migration to settle down. In doing so, it will give the non-Super 6 player at a Super 6 club somewhere to play, but it will prevent the rapid movement of players to Super 6, which will be to the detriment of everyone.
“I think you’ll all agree that would be a minor change rather than a material change – although I’m not quite sure what this suggestion of material change is – given Mr MacColl, himself, has said that this was a small restriction they didn’t put through in the motion.”
Bradbury again asked MacColl to respond. He said –
“At the end of the day, it was not thought wise by the Governance Standing Committee that there could be a potential situation where a team finishing seventh in a league could be promoted into the top tier of the game. That was a situation that was thought to be generally unfair and inequitable, and also not to reflect the sporting nature of the competition.”
Bradbury then rejected the suggestion that this amendment would be a minor, as opposed to a material, change in the league structure, and gave a fairly garbled argument as to why the amendment should be rejected –
“This amendment would also lead to a significantly different outcome to that recommended by the Standing Committee and determined by Council. It means the sporting merit aspect of relegation would apply, but not the sporting merit aspect of promotion. In what is a competitive league structure, that is not a balance approach and is unfair to those actually playing the game.
“The wording also has an ambiguity, it is capable of being interpreted so as to prevent a Super 6 ‘Club XV’ which is relegated to National Two from then being promoted back into National One.
“The rationale is conflicting, it states that after three season this restriction can be lifted if deemed appropriate by the clubs, but the wording of the amendment itself seeks to apply a restriction only for the three seasons mentioned.
“The Council has taken the view that there is a need to allow competitions to operate effectively with sporting fairness and merit – assuming no disciplinary penalties have been applied – determining outcome. If there is to be the jeopardy of potential relegation, then an equitable and balanced approach should provide the potential of promotion.
“The Council does not, and cannot, support this amendment. It would make a material change to the motion and would be a material departure from the Standing Committees recommendations, and the Council’s decision to accept those recommendations. Council urges you to vote against this amendment.”
Wallace managed to get a word in before the vote, to correctly point out that his amendment referenced promotion and relegation to and from the Premiership specifically, and that it did not seek to change ‘Clause E’ of the original motion which states: “Promotion and relegation will take place from National 2 and all lower leagues in accordance with the presently operating competition rules.”
Wallace added: “In terms of sporting fairness, this is the same ‘no promotion but relegation’ that applies for 2nd XVs playing within the regional leagues in Caledonia, so it is not without precedent.”
“I think we’ll just have to agree to disagree,” was Bradbury’s dismissive response, before calling the vote.
The amendment failed. The motion was then voted on and passed. And everything was done and dusted by 7.15pm, meaning Bradbury even had time for a quick chat in the bar before heading upstairs to watch the game.
A new low
There is a long history of governance failure in Scottish rugby, but this was surely a new depth.
It is crystal clear that, as far as the SRU are concerned, this whole consultation process was never about listening to the clubs, but about keeping them distracted for long enough to prevent them having a real say.
As delegates shuffled out of the President’s Suite at Murrayfield at the end of the meeting, one senior club official stopped in front of the press table and shook his head. “Appalling,” he eventually said. “But entirely predictable,” he added as he moved off again towards the door. He’ll be back for the AGM in August. His club and this sport mean too much to him to walk away at this stage. But he deserves better than this.
Mark Dodson was the architect of Super 6, but he sat quietly at the end of the top table on Friday night and let the SRU President do his bidding on behalf of a compliant (or complicit) Council. The success of the motion isn’t the problem, it is the manner it was railroaded through – the naked hostility and ruthless suppression of any sort of opposition – which should be giving rugby people in Scotland sleepless nights.
A democracy gets the representatives it deserves. The ball is now in the clubs’ court.