Opinion: Colin Renton’s 2020 vision for Scottish rugby

Regular TOL contrbutor sets out his three big hopes for the next 12 months in Scottish rugby

Edinburgh pro Mesulame Kunavula scores for Watsonians against Boroughmuir Bears earlier this month. Image: Fotosport/David Gibson
Edinburgh pro Mesulame Kunavula scores for Watsonians against Boroughmuir Bears earlier this month. Image: Fotosport/David Gibson

IT has been a difficult year for Scottish rugby, pockmarked by disappointments on the field and a further decline in the credibility of Murrayfield executives off it. While performance levels will hopefully improve in the coming months, rebuilding respect for those who run the game will take a bit longer. For the good of the game, they must act now and do something constructive.

Stakeholder is a broad-brush term that covers a diverse group of people, including kids, parents, players, coaches, club officials, volunteers, medical specialists, groundsmen, club stalwarts, casual supporters and the communities in which clubs are immersed. The game can’t afford to lose any of them.

The patience of many, particularly the unheralded volunteers who are the spine of grassroots rugby, is admirable but surely wearing thin at the apparent lack of support from those who reside at Murrayfield. The aloof and dismissive behaviour of executives reeks of a lack of empathy for committed individuals performing all manner of thankless tasks. A difficult situation is made worse by the fact that the money clubs need to create structures to attract fresh blood and halt dwindling player numbers is being directed towards performance rugby.

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The impression of executives being out of touch also exists further up the pyramid. Has Mark Dodson yet seen a match in the Super6 competition that was railroaded into existence at the expense of the club game he so widely denigrated yet never watched? He is paid handsomely because he is a CEO of a big business. Others in that role spend time visiting their outlets, whether factories, shops, restaurants or bars, in order to remain abreast of what’s happening at ground level. His absence simply fuels the criticism. He could easily fix that – come on Mark, it would be good to see you at a game, perhaps presenting the man-of-the-match award.

Of course, the main issue is money. There is no bottomless pit of cash. The revenue is poured over the top of the pyramid and trickles down, becoming increasingly scarce at each stage. A few dribbles may reach the parched base, but that’s not enough. The most marketable areas are not fully exploited – external investment or proper central promotion of the professional and Super6 teams could help them to become more self-sufficient. The price of that would be surrendering an element of control – a price worth paying.

As employees of the governing body, the marketing department’s remit should be to promote every level of the game that is centrally controlled, not simply to milk the international cash cow which can only ever have a limited output, albeit currently a fairly lucrative one. The effort at the moment is too passive, waiting for existing customers to buy rather than selling to new ones.

Under Richard Cockerill, Edinburgh’s fortunes have improved and the team is developing an attractive style. And yet, supporter numbers remain stubbornly low. The inference is that it’s down to a lack of marketing effort. There’s also a problem at the other end of the M8, where little is being done to stem the drift of Glasgow Warriors supporters. Many are becoming disillusioned by deteriorating results and frustration that high earning personnel are not being replaced on a like-for-like basis. Boost the supporter base and the income will rise, and in turn the professional sides will need a smaller slice of the funding cake, freeing up a bit more cash for the grassroots.

The attendance at the 1872 Cup matches underlines the latent demand. The second leg attracted around 10,000 more than the combined regular crowds at Scotstoun and Murrayfield. The task is getting some of them back for next week’s game against Southern Kings. One way to do that would be a ticket offer – let’s say everyone who was at the Edinburgh v Warriors game gets to bring a friend for £5. A 10% take-up rate would add around 3,000 to the gate – a reasonable return for little effort. Then offer an incentive to get them back for the European tie against Agen. Keep entertaining them and the support becomes embedded.

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Away from the finances, one of the most divisive issues is the widely-held view that SRU executives are arrogant and untrustworthy. The lack of credibility is hardly surprising when so much information is released only when the corporate machine is forced to trundle into action. The departure of Keith Russell from his post, the link up with Stade Nicois and the fraught subject of player numbers are examples of announcements made only when journalists became aware of them and forced the SRU’s hand. Are we expected to believe that the Gammell review would have happened without media pressure?

The word ‘transparency’ does not appear to have entered the Murrayfield lexicon. And yet embracing it would solve virtually all of the credibility issues, if not the fundamental problems that threaten the long-term future of rugby in Scotland. It’s little wonder that the overriding sentiment is suspicion that something is being hidden in Murrayfield’s ivory towers.

Over almost three decades as a freelance, I’ve seen the game undergo significant change, some of it enforced, some of it for the better, and some of it undoubtedly to the sport’s detriment. My optimistic hope would be that 2020 can see greater humility and honesty from those at Murrayfield. Many issues need to be addressed, but here are my three requests to Mark Dodson and his acolytes.

1. Be more open and transparent. Interact with your stakeholders. By all means trumpet your successes, but only if you are also prepared to acknowledge your failures. Spin is tiresome and simply makes your organisation look patronising and out of touch.

2. Actively market the product and invite external investment, even if it means surrendering some control. It might also provide creative solutions. While using SRU funds to plump up the retirement plan of waning international stars might be questionable, there could be merit in a high profile arrival if paid for by outside investors. Imagine the likes of Sonny Bill Williams signing for Glasgow Warriors, his wages covered by sponsors who, in return, have access to the player for corporate promotional activities (good for merchandise sales as well).

3. Get out and about. Send senior people more regularly to games – a schools match, a local derby in the Borders, maybe an early morning kick-off in the Caledonian League because Orkney have to play at 10am to catch their ferry home. Get yourself to a Super6 fixture so that you can see first hand whether it’s working. It will at least give the impression that you care. And you never know, you might enjoy it.

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About Colin Renton 294 Articles
Colin has been a freelance writer on various subjects for more than 20 years. He covers rugby at all levels but is particularly passionate about the game at grass roots. As a fluent French speaker, he has a keen interest in rugby in France and for many years has reported on the careers of Scots who have moved across the Channel. He appreciates high quality, engaging writing that is thought provoking, and hopes that some of his work fits that bill!


  1. Mr Dodson’s “not fit for purpose” comment has proven to be true time and time again. He isn’t fit for purpose and sadly until he disappears into he sunset with his carefully chosen sycophants nothing is likely to change.

    In all probability if the Gammell/Murray review is actioned things will get even worse.

    A tragic situation for Scottish rugby to find itself in as we enter a new decade.

  2. I have always thought that Mr.Dodsons not fit for purpose comment was a bit over the top and I certainly have never seen him at a game. The Premiership play off games at the end of last season produced some great rugby which Super 6 will do well to better. All we can do is wait and see what happens.

  3. C’est vrai, ces bons mots de notre Voltaire de rugby en Ecosse – quelques grands points, la dans cette excellente piece!

  4. What a great article. I have commented on many occasions that Mr Dodsons comment about not fit for purpose was alarming. The end of season play off games last season saw some great rugby and as the writer says, has anyone spotted him at a Super 6 game so far.

  5. What a splendid article that I hope is read by rugby club members who are struggling to support their local team at the amateur end of the SRU pyramid. Colin knows the club scene well, and talks to people when he’s covering a match; he’s correct, rugby club members are disillusioned, and those of us, who are on the wrong side of seventy, wonder who will be taking on their duties to sustain the community rugby club. The game does need more people playing, and more people watching it. Unfortunately very limited help comes from the coffers at Murrayfield. If the clubs are to continue supplying players for professional rugby, there must be more trust, and they must be guaranteed reasonable financial assistance for doing so; one big reason why the top clubs all clambered to jump on the semi-professional band wagon, but it was flawed before it started.

  6. A seriously concerning, hard hitting piece from a normally mild mannered journalist will hopefully help more clubs wake up and smell the coffee.

    The Gammell report proposes giving most of the power to those accused of lacking transparency and being untrustworthy and invisible.

    The clubs must retain their power or we will see much, much worse behaviours.

  7. Very good article, agree with more dynamic marketing of our 2 pro sided. Edinburgh should be attracting 10,000 + for home games. The Super 6 clubs run primarily by amateurs are doing a better job with their resources. I don’t agree that the Super 6 clubs have what they wanted but given what they have they are trying their best on and off the field.
    There are some very good parts within the SRU and there are also some major issues to be sorted. I believe the Gammell, Murray report goes part of the way to addressing some issues but instead of criticising it let’s get together and sort out what is in the best interests of everyone. Sheila Begbie and her team are trying their best to make changes in the club game to make it a viable product for the future however time after time she is met with resistance for change. Those who know me well will know that I am passionate about club rugby, getting more adult players playing, getting busy vibrant clubhouses once again. We must work together, learn to trust each other and realise ambition is not solely about winning and climbing up leagues. I remain an optimist and witness a huge amount of good being done. Sir Bill Gammell and Norman Murray may have their critics but they put together their report because they are passionate about rugby. By all means criticise but can I ask all these critics to also come up with workable solutions. Happy New Year. ?

  8. Another excellent article from The Offside Line!
    However, like many articles before it I doubt anyone at the top of the game -SRU officials- pays any particular interest in what journalist say? Except, how can we divert the bad press? Either by stealth -reviews that are never published (most probably because they are not in their favour) or by those which the membership appears to find a possible insider bias or influence? None of which are helping build confidence in the officials.
    What happens in 2020 is really down to the members. Will they come together and oppose the top down infulence over the game? I fear not because those at the top are ahead in the game. They have already managed to split the rugby community. The Super 6 clubs have already bought into what they consider to be in their best interests.There are other examples that readers will quickly realise has given those at the top an advantage.
    The Gammell and Murray report appears to be an attempt to split the community even more and give greater power to the top officials but leaves the base of the pyramid to be responsible for any failure. This report should be placed immediately into the bin!
    I would ask those who say they care about the game to act together now or face further splits to the detriment of rugby as a whole. The point of no return may not be too far away?

  9. Interesting piece Colin.

    I commend your comments around transparency. This has been sadly lacking. Add in disdain for the community club game and you create a very toxic situation.

    Here’s hoping we see some reproachment in 2020

  10. Good report again Offsiders.
    I doubt that anyone in the scottish professional game ( outside of hoggy, darcy ,rory or pietro) even knows where Hawick is.
    Mansfield park…is that not the name of a charles dickens novel ? they muse in murrayfield’s ivory clad, gold seated towers .
    A border derby? Oh that is a horserace at chepstow another purrs.
    Orkney? I thought they were in a scandinavian league !
    Funding for grassroots? Well our heat lamps are on 24/7 over the mud at hq so we do our bit .
    S6 is club rugby is it not? Nobody would want to watch anything on a municipal park that does not contain more professionals than a Bodie and Doyle episode.
    Have a happy New Year Offsiders, all i resolve for 2020 is to keep taking the realism pill every day and shout loud for those in the game who really need it.

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