Opinion: ‘The faux contrition has been successful so they’ve been emboldened to try it again’

David Johnston is not impressed with the SRU's appointment of Sir Bill Gammell to head an governance review

Ex-Scotland international and Dunlop panel veteran David Johnston is exasperated by Murrayfield's machinations. Image: © Craig Watson - www.craigwatson.co.uk

DAVID JOHNSTON played 27 times in the centre for Scotland out of Watsonian FC, including all four matches during the 1984 Grand Slam season. He also coached the Myreside club, progressing through the ranks to Scotland A and ultimately the full national team between 1995 and 1998. He is a (now retired) lawyer and was an independent member of the Dunlop panel, which drew up the current SRU constitution after the previous governance structure imploded in 2005.

THERE has been a lot of head scratching in Scottish rugby following last Friday’s rather half-hearted announcement of a Governance review, which is to be carried out by Sir Bill Gammell, who will report  his findings to Gavin MacColl QC.

Why now? Why, in particular, on a random Friday afternoon? Why have a Governance Review at all, even if they announced the intention to have one in the aftermath of the Keith Russell affair at last year’s AGM? That’s so long ago everyone has forgotten, surely?

But the most pressing question is, why Gammell, who has been in with the bricks at Murrayfield for some time now? And if we have to have Gammell, why on earth is he reporting to MacColl, who chairs the Standing Committee on Governance, but who gave a highly partisan performance at the recent SGM?

Last year, another insider, SRU Board member Lesley Thomson QC, carried out a review following the Russell affair, where the former Director of Domestic rugby resoundingly won his unfair dismissal claim in a Tribunal Judgement which was scathing about Murrayfield practices. Thomson’s remit was a closely guarded secret, so we are not sure exactly what she investigated, but it was possibly just Russell, and some but not all of the Non Disclosure Agreements used rather too frequently by the Executive. She almost certainly did not investigate the circumstances surrounding Chief Executive Mark Dodson’s contract extension, awarded between the Russell hearing, which did not go too well for the Murrayfield suits, and the judgement which criticised him and his colleagues.

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‘Will they never learn?’ is one’s first reaction. But then there is the realisation that they have, and that they have learned very well. They got away with that totally subjective Thomson review, in which they controlled the remit and timescales, and released only the conclusions they wanted to, and so from their standpoint all the faux contrition at last year’s AGM – we will learn lessons blah blah – has been successful and they have been emboldened to try it again.

There has been bad practice within Murrayfield for some time now, as highlighted by Judge D’Inverno in his Tribunal Judgement in Russell’s case. Sadly, it looks as though they are still at it, as how else would we get the appointment of Sir Bill (or his friend Billy Gammell as Dodson referred to him when name checking supporters of super 6)?

Gammell, of course, chaired the Super 6 Star Chamber where all bar him – Dodson’s long standing contact – and Stewart Harris,  the CEO of sportscotland, worked for Dodson. Another interesting ‘independent’ exercise that was, and quite a result it threw up. Clearly those who inhabit Murrayfield have a different understanding of the word ‘independent’ than we normal souls have.

Echoes of the Thomson review

As with Thomson’s review we are not told the exact remit, whether or not Gammell will be assisted by any experts from in or out of Murrayfield, nor are we told a precise timescale. The timing is uncanny, however. Almost exactly a year on from the announcement of the Thomson review, which got them through last years AGM without having to answer detailed questions on Russell and NDAs. This year, with the clubs still seething at their treatment at the SGM in March, they appoint another review to head off any difficulties at the AGM on 10 August. Well, it worked once, why not try it again?

And let us look at the body to whom Gammell will report. The Standing Committee on Governance of Scottish Rugby’s Council, with its independent chair MacColl. Few who attended the SGM will have considered that MacColl performed impartially.

For the SGM, Dodson had useful shields in MacColl and his two Governance Committee members, long serving Murrayfield committeemen Peter Laverie and Colin Rigby – a trio who appeared to do his bidding on leagues and payments whilst he kept the difficult stuff, the content of what the super 6 had signed, the terms of any letters of comfort and so on, close to his chest. This is why the GHA motion seeking clarification on player movement was kept out of the SGM. It was an issue too difficult for the meeting to come to the right conclusion for Dodson and the ‘Six’ and so it was kept from MacColl and indeed the Council, and not allowed as an amendment.

MacColl’s conduct at the SGM was so extreme that it prompted The Times newspaper to deem Jacob Rees Mogg a council dustman by comparison. More concerning than his behaviour in appearing to prosecute the executive’s case, was his willingness to argue against himself when rubbishing the wording of the Currie Chieftains motion and defending his own very similar wording when it came to the Falkirk motion. Anything, it seemed, to get the Murrayfield stitch up through, underlined by the cunning subterfuge explicit in the threat to withdraw his motion altogether, all because the clubs had the temerity to challenge him and his colleagues for ignoring in part the survey of the clubs that he commissioned and coming up instead with his own ideas, which were remarkably similar to those promoted by the suits at Murrayfield.

And what gives MacColl and his colleagues the skill-set to determine where rugby teams should play and whether or not some  players should be paid and others not? Or indeed the skill-set required to determine on matters of governance structures? As noted, they ignored in part the surveys they commissioned and came up with their own recommendations on rugby matters, so they must be experts on rugby. If so, it is unlikely to be the case that they are the correct people to be deliberating on governance. Rather perversely, they might be better qualified on governance than rugby! What a shambles!

Given the conduct of that SGM, there is a very good case that a governance review should include a review of the operation of the Standing Committee on Governance and its make-up. But no. The Standing Committee is to receive and deliberate on Bill’s review.  You really could not make this up, but it is happening for real here in Scottish rugby.

Trust the dustman?

As was said when Thomson was appointed, a whitewash was the likely result and from what we know that has proved to be the case. We were not to know that MacColl and Co would nail their colours so firmly to the Murrayfield mast but that they did in spades based on accounts from the SGM. So, what right have we now to be comfortable that MacColl’s Standing Committee has the skill-set and the objectivity necessary for this crucial exercise of receiving and acting upon Gammell’s review?

Why crucial? How crucial? Well, how supine, how lickspittle, do you have to be as a Council to wave through this appointment of Dodson’s friend Sir Billy Gammell? Bill is a good guy and the sort one might expect to be on a review commission to deliberate on a matter such as this. But do it himself? Sorry, no. Far too close to the main actors. And this is much more than a one person task. Sheriff Bill’s son Roddy Dunlop QC would be a good chair. There are many others.

Come on members of the Council. YOU set the objectives for the Board and Executive, NOT the other way around. They operate at your pleasure. Look at the bylaws. You can take back the operation of the game should you so wish. Or you can let them walk all over you, insulting your and everyone’s intelligence with this ‘independent’ appointment. It’s your choice. Once it’s gone it’s gone for good.

It is way beyond time to call them out.

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About David Johnston 6 Articles
David Johnston played 27 times in the centre for Scotland out of Watsonians RFC, including all four matches during the 1984 Grand Slam season. He also coached the Myreside club, progressing through the ranks to Scotland A and ultimately the full national team between 1995 and 1998. He is a (now retired) lawyer and was an independent panellist on the Dunlop panel, which drew up the current SRU constitution after the previous governance structure imploded in 2005.


  1. Think the club official name is Watsonians F.C.,not R.F.C.-sorry for pedantry!.Excellent piece by D.J.

  2. Brilliant article David. I was wondering if you would be driven to comment and you nicely articulate the gaping holes in the whole edifice of this “review”

    The initiation and announcement of the review nicely illustrates the famous Latin phrase “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes” who guards the guards (or watches the watchman).

    The Council has turned into a complete irrelevance

  3. Excellent, well said but will it do any good? They seem to be a law unto themselves and one, despite actions classed as illegal seems to be above the law.

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