THE postponement of this weekend’s Six Nations clash between France and Scotland was a big disappointment for Gregor Townsend’s team and rugby fans of all hues, but it was really bad news for the Murrayfield bean counters.
A combination of government support, bank refinancing and a deal last May to sell a 28 percent slice of the PRO14 to CVC Partners private equity house for over £20m has allowed Scottish Rugby to weather the Covid-induced financial storm of the last year, but the situation remains precarious and now Murrayfield won’t receive vital participation payments and broadcast revenue from the Six Nations until the national team has played the game at a date yet to be confirmed.
That’s why the suggestion which has been floated across social media in recent days that Scotland should be given a 28-0 walkover is a non-starter. Too much money is at stake. The favoured option for re-arranging the game appears to be the weekend March 26th-28th but nothing has been fully agreed yet.
The situation is serious, but not hopeless, and things could well turn full circle in the next few weeks if the long-awaited deal between CVC and the Six Nations – believed to be worth just shy of £40m to Scottish Rugby – finally gets finalised.
“Would I call it transformational? I would say so,” said Scottish Rugby Chief Executive Mark Dodson. “The deal we did with PRO14, and if the deal with Six Nations comes through, they will be absolutely transformational for the union. That’s why we have to be very careful about how the money is spent. It has to be spent on things that will future proof the game.”
Dodson knows that how he handles any such windfall will be under the microscope. There is a suspicion that he isn’t as committed to growing the base as polishing the pinnacle of Scottish rugby, but he agreed that unlike the PRO14 deal, he is duty bound to share this collection across the whole congregation.
“The Six Nations is part of rugby folklore,” he acknowledged. “It’s something that has been there, and part of the Scottish game, for over a hundred years. That’s the fabric … legacy money.
“The money we’ve generated from PRO14 is entirely from a construct where we’ve created that value. It can be seen as something that needs to be spent in a slightly different way.
“That will be a Board decision, and something we need to speak to our Council colleagues about, but broadly speaking, there are two different sets of money there – one for the game as a whole and one that’s been generated from a professional context. There’s no guarantee we’ll spend it that way, but I do take the point you’re making.”
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In terms of the Six Nations deal, there is no shortage of deserving causes, but the stakes are high because all the other nations in the tournament are cashing in too, so if the money is not spent wisely then Scotland – who are already the poor relations of this group in many respects – run the risk of falling even further behind.
“It will be [spent] across the whole business: the community game, the facilities of the community game, BT Murrayfield itself – it is a massive stadium, costs a lot of money and always needs to be renewed and improved,” continued Dodson.
“If you look at the comparator stadia, Twickenham, the Principality, the Aviva, the Stade de France, these are terrific stadiums. And some of the football stadiums that have been built as well. We’ve got some catching up to do.
“There’s also a look at what we need to do to restart [grassroots] rugby, how we make sure the pro teams stay competitive … there will be a lot of mouths to feed, but it will be a nice problem to have. It will be great for our Council, our Board and our stakeholders. It will be something we speak to a large range of people about.
“How we spend this money will define the Union’s future, to some extent. If you spend it badly, it’s frittered away, or there are no outcomes to the expenditure, then more fool us.
“We’ve got to make sure we spend it in the most appropriate way and in a way that takes Scottish rugby forward as a whole, not just one part.”
Fans have expressed concern that the deal will lead to the Six Nations going behind a television paywall as CVC look to recoup their investment, but Dodson stressed that this is not a foregone conclusion.
“If you look at the tender that will go out, I think we’ll be really, really happy,” he said. “We’ve got interest from everybody: terrestrial, traditional pay TV, and a wider new group of broadcasters. People from right across the spectrum are interested and we’re in a very good place.
“I’m optimistic and I don’t necessarily think that going behind a paywall is the likely favoured option. We have to wait and see what happens, look at how not only the money comes through but also what the coverage looks like and how accessible it is.
“Terrestrial TV gives us an incredible reach that is hard to achieve elsewhere. But, equally, we’ve now got people who are prepared to pay material amounts of money for what is the best rugby tournament in the world.
“Despite Covid, despite all the issues we’ve had, we’ve got huge amounts of interest in our game.”
Dodson also delivered a vote of confidence to Scotland’s two pro team coaches – Richard Cockerill at Edinburgh and Danny Wilson at Glasgow Warriors – after disappointing seasons so far in which both sides have failed to be serious challengers in the PRO14, and now look certain to miss out on the Champions Cup next year.
“This is not a season to be judging any of our coaches, in my view,” he said. “It’s really tough. But what we’ll look at is how we get through this period, how strong and balanced our squads are for the upcoming season.
“I speak to the coaches every other day and they know it’s not good enough, and that our performances this year have to improve. But they’re learning a lot about their squads. They’re getting squads together that are more theirs, that are more coherent, and we’ll come out of this period stronger.
“We’re going to work really hard with PRO14 to make sure there’s not as much overlap in international periods, because that’s what kills us,” he added. “The less overlap we have in the autumn and during the Six Nations, the better and stronger our teams will be.”
Finally, he poured cold water on the suggestion that the Jaguares – Argentina’s professional ‘franchise’ – could join the PR014 and locate themselves in Bilboa, Spain.
“It’s been around for a long while that Jaguares may look at going to Bilbao or Madrid, but there’s nothing come to me as CEO of Scottish Rugby about that,” he said. “I think we’ve got plenty on all our plates thinking about a PRO16.”