SCOTTISH RUGBY UNION chief executive Mark Dodson gave an exclusive interview to The Offside Line last week in which he explained his views on the BT Premiership, club rugby in Scotland generally and why he believes in the need to reform through the governing body’s Agenda 3 programme.
His forthright opinions caused some consternation within certain sections of the club community, who fear he is set to railroad through a programme of change which doesn’t give proper credence to the on-going significance of that tier of the game as the bedrock of the sport in this country.
Dodson said that he has been advised by his high-performance department at Murrayfield that the BT Premiership is not “fit for purpose as a place to develop the next generation of Scottish talent”, which prompted a number of key figures in the league to point out that the SRU’s record on managing their own clubs, and specifically Edinburgh during the last four years, is hardly beyond reproach.
While every club in the country would dearly love to contribute directly to the success of the national team, that is not their sole, or even their primary, purpose. They have a much wider value: to progress on and off the field, and to play a positive role within their community.
Dodson has had surprisingly little input on Super 6 from the club game, happily stating that the advice he has taken on-board has come almost exclusively from within Murrayfield’s corridors of power, provided by people with minimal hands-on experience of what it is really like out there battling to make the league viable in an increasingly fraught commercial landscape.
He is absolutely right to state that there is room for improvement, and that is acknowledged within the league, but he does the Premiership and the people who work tirelessly at the pit-face a huge disservice when exaggerating its failings in order to push his own agenda.
The chief executive doesn’t like it when people praise the role of the Premiership in helping Jamie Bhatti become a full Scotland internationalist during the last month.
He points out that Bhatti was on the SRU radar from his teenage years and was part of the Scotland Under-20 squad at the 2012 and 2013 Junior World Cups. He doesn’t mention that the prop then dropped out the system and was one failed interview away from hanging up his boots altogether to join the police. It was Stirling County and Melrose who kept him engaged in the game.
Bhatti is not the only leading player in Scotland to be given a second chance – or even a first chance – by the Premiership after slipping through the SRU net.
The clubs feel like a sledgehammer is being used to crack a nut.
Dodson says that he is confident he will get more than enough Super 6 applications, and if he doesn’t then the SRU will syndicate a few themselves. He is relying on fear of being left out in the cold to drive clubs towards gambling their own identity and long-term sustainability on a scheme they are far from comfortable about.
Money, as always, is a huge concern. The current plan for Super 6 states that each franchise is to have 35 players signing nine-month contracts which will bar them from playing rugby anywhere else. The cost of paying these players will come from a £62,500 contribution to each team from the governing body, with the franchisees making up the rest. It is now clear that the investment required is going to be significantly more than simply matching the SRU’s input – as was originally suggested – to reach a total player budget of £125,000 per franchise.
If we assume that each player will be contracted to be paid minimum wage (say £8 per hour including NI) for a 15-hour week over the course of a 39-week season, that comes out at £4,680 per player per year. That must then be multiplied by 35 to take into account each squad member, to reach £163,800 per squad per season.
Senior players will inevitably expect significantly more than minimum wage (up to the threshold of £12,000 per annum which has been set by the Union) leading to informed estimates that the full player payment budget will be in the region of £200,000 per season. In which case the franchises will have to raise in excess of £130,000 off their own bat.
This is before factoring in travel costs, gym membership and so on.
Payment of coaching and support staff is equally problematic, with the £75,000 pledged by the SRU for that expected to fall some way short of the cost of employing a full-time head coach, two or three part-time assistant coaches, a strength and conditioning coach, an analyst, appropriate physiotherapist cover, a marketing manager and a club doctor.
All in, any club which takes a franchise is looking at having to approximately double their current expenditure on player and support staff.
Then there are other costs related to medical insurance, kit and equipment supply, developing an all-weather playing surface by the end of the initial franchise period, and so on.
Dodson says he expects Super 6 to prompt a spike in interest which can be realised into extra commercial revenue for the franchises, but he is going to have his work cut out persuading club committee members who know just how hard it is to attract inward investment that this is something they can rely on. Personal connections are vital for most clubs when it comes to attracting advertising and sponsorship, but that link will be eroded by the creation of brand new franchises. Bear in mind that each franchise will also have at least one amateur team to sustain as well.
There are also big concerns about the threat to the general fabric of the club game.
For all its faults, the domestic structure remains a meritocracy which helps drive ambition and as a consequence raise standards. The creation of another artificial layer buffeting the elite game from the grassroots runs the risk of de-motivating ambitious clubs. Where will the incentive be to emulate the achievements of Stirling County and Currie during the late 1970s and early 1980s, and more recently Marr since the turn of the century, in climbing up through the leagues and developing into important focal points for the sport within their community? The best any of these clubs left behind can hope for would be to reach the top of the third tier of Scottish club rugby.
Former Scotland centre and current Watsonians stalwart Euan Kennedy is troubled by the stipulation that Super 6 players not getting game time with their franchise are barred from playing in the league below.
“In a squad of 35 with usual 25 per cent injury rate, there will be three or four fringe players in each franchise, totalling 18 to 24 players, not playing every week,” he points out.
“When pro players come down this will displace even more Super 6 fringe players. Taking pro player numbers currently coming down to Premiership at anywhere between eight to 15 each week, this means that 26 to 39 Super 6 players, at the top of club rugby, will not play on match weeks. This cannot be good for Scottish rugby.”
The ring-fencing of 210 players into six new teams is going to put a strain on limited human resources further down the food chain and inevitably mean that the current flow of ambitious players from ‘junior’ towards ‘senior’ clubs will increase significantly in volume. Nobody wants to stand in the way of anyone looking to play at the highest level they can manage, but what happens to the clubs and the individuals left behind?
The SRU will take the credit for their role in helping the likes of Finn Russell and Stuart Hogg to reach their full potential, but we are in big trouble if we lose our current network of clubs from up and down the country which work tirelessly to uncover the rough diamonds who will become the glittering stars of Scotland’s future.
When Dodson says the BT Premiership is not fit for purpose he is looking at the situation through the narrow prism of his own desire to feed the leviathans of Edinburgh and Glasgow Warriors. The club game is about so much more than that. It would be a mistake for anyone who really cares about the future of rugby in this country to dismiss this issue as nothing but a spot of local difficulty, which only concerns the clubs directly involved.
None of the issues raised above are reasons in themselves to oppose Agenda 3/Super 6 – but until they are properly discussed and sensibly resolved then the widespread scepticism which does exist about the plan will persist.
And despite Dodson’s bold words, he has a big problem if none of the leading clubs jump on board. That is a very real possibility.