by STUART RUTHERFORD
WHEN Mark Dodson rolled out his ambitious plan to launch a new semi-professional league, entitled the ‘Super Six’, you could be forgiven for thinking the SRU’s chief executive had confused the competition with Sky Sports’ current betting promotion – well, you would be half-right. Scottish Rugby’s latest venture is a gamble and an overdue one at that.
The SRU are often accused of sitting on their hands when it comes to club rugby’s burning issues, so its decision to overhaul the structure of the domestic game in Scotland is a refreshing throw of the dice. Speaking at the governing body’s AGM at Murrayfield a week past Saturday, Dodson outlined his blueprint for the revamped league during a 30-minute presentation, and whilst some of the competition’s finer details will need to be ironed out before it comes into full effect for the 2019-20 season, there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic. Not only will the club game see a significant investment of £3.6million over the next five years, but the six new franchises should (eventually) provide a bridge between Scotland’s professional and amateur clubs, which in theory will allow fewer talented players to slip through the cracks.
The ‘Super Six’ is undoubtedly an intriguing development – and one which will attract more than a dollop of scepticism – but perhaps the most significant change will occur in the remaining national leagues, where Dodson is promising to enforce a strict level of amateurism. Will this reform see a return to the golden age of amateur rugby or will clubs simply maintain the status quo?
Dodson says he won’t “chase clubs, playing cops and robbers” but is willing to use the threat of HMRC involvement to put an end to the murky business of rewarding players financially. Failure to comply with these payment rules could invoke fines, deduction of league points or even automatic relegation – and, in truth, it’s been a long time coming. Regardless of which side you stand on the contentious issue, it’s time to face up to the facts: Scottish club rugby has been stuck in a perpetual false economy for the better part of two decades and it was only going to get worse over time. During the 2016-17 season, numerous clubs below the BT Premiership had a player budget of over £65,000-per-year, so it would not be ridiculous to say that in ten years’ time this figure could reach £100,000-per-year? You don’t have to be a chartered accountant to understand such a model is completely unsustainable in the long run.
Of course, rewarding players financially isn’t anything new within amateur rugby, but it is far past the point of being slipped a £20 note in the clubrooms after a well-earned win. Although the subject is still seen as a taboo, and rarely discussed within a club, some players earn as much as £300-a-match. With this amount of money floating around Scotland’s supposedly amateur leagues, it is no wonder players move so freely to the next payday.
Dodson described this deadlock perfectly at the AGM: “We have a situation where clubs involve themselves in the payment of players simply because other clubs are. They don’t want to do it, they don’t feel it is the right thing, and they can’t afford to, either. But, because other clubs were doing it they felt compelled because otherwise, they will lose players.”
This is where the newly formed ‘Super Six’ acts as a natural divide. The clubs who agree with the prospect of paying players are free to apply to become a franchise and thus gain their semi-pro status, allowing them to financially compensate their playing squad. On the other hand, the clubs who feel obliged to pay their players in order to stave off rivals will be completely amateur and independent from the financial strains of the ‘Super Six’. On paper, the deal makes a lot of sense, but naturally, there will be complications.
The biggest struggle Dodson will face is convincing BT Premiership sides who are not convinced that they want to apply for ‘Super Six’ status that they are receiving a fair deal, given the likelihood of their best players jumping ship come 2019. Can they buy into the bigger picture? Dodson isn’t offering a promised land, but the positive effects of such a move to amateurism should outweigh the negative connotations of each club losing three or four of its better players. Finances – which would have otherwise been spent on recruitment – can then be redirected towards facilities, infrastructure and the youth section; the mercenary culture of players moving to the highest bidder would be brought to an end and clubs could operate on a level playing field once again.
Perhaps the most noticeable repercussion would be felt in young player development, where clubs would be able to play their stars of tomorrow, rather than feel pressured to select a journeyman who is perhaps more of a proven entity. Club rugby idealists have long imagined watching their local side turn out with 15 home-grown lads, and with amateur rugby back in place, the idea is no longer a pipe dream.
By all means, teams may feel the strain of a player exodus and in some cases, they may even drop a league, but for the greater good of club rugby sacrifices will have to be made. Whether Dodson is serious about finally putting an end to the concept of clubs buying success remains to be seen, but perhaps the bigger question is if clubs are willing to come to terms with the new regulations of amateurism, or will they simply find a new way to pay their recruits?
The ‘Super Six’ may be grabbing all the headlines, but there is no reason Scotland’s revamped national league system can’t be just as exciting. Fifteen players giving it their all for nothing more than the love of the jersey – in the end, isn’t that what we all want?