Rangi Jericevich is Director of Rugby for Premiership club GHA. GHA have proposed a motion for this August’s AGM calling for a modernised version of the Inter-District Championship to be introduced from 2022-23 onwards, to replace of Super6 as the principal conduit between the club and professional game. Here he sets out his arguments in favour of the motion.
THE Motion tabled at the 2021 SRU AGM to reinstate a modernised version of the Inter-District Championship will, if supported, help forge a way forward for rugby in Scotland that puts the growth of our game at the heart of our domestic competition strategy.
There can be no question that participation levels within the adult male game in particular have been in decline for several years. Some clubs are faring better than others, but it is in all of our interest to ensure that the game thrives wherever it has a foothold and gains a foothold wherever it can thrive. In terms of rugby economics, the number of people playing the game is the bottom line figure that matters more than anything. It is therefore imperative that our governing body recognises its role in maintaining the correct market conditions for growth. What can not be ignored is the importance of our competition structures in facilitating this. We must ensure that the ecosystem within which we operate provides clubs with a fair opportunity to progress at all levels.
The creation of a closed domestic league featuring six centrally funded part-time professional teams at six of our member clubs causes a distorting and destructive monopoly effect. It is inevitable that these six clubs will become a focal point for attention and investment, indeed this was specified as being part of the strategy from the outset. Whilst in the short term it may seem logical to some to concentrate the top club players and SRU resources into a handful of clubs in order to improve playing standards, what are the wider, long term implications of this strategy?
In this extract from the autobiography of legendary French cyclist Lauren Fignon, he bemoans decisions made by the governing body of French Cycling under the tenure of Dennis Baal at the turn of the 21st century and it provides a useful insight. In his words:
“Baal wanted to restructure French Cycling to focus on major clubs that developed young riders. Big ‘centres’. That decision reduced the base of the pyramid to the part that corresponded to that idea, ignoring the fact that the clubs which are best at recruiting are the little provincial set-ups, in the villages and often supported by small local sponsors. Until then they had the chance to bring on champions of their own and hang on to them for a few years. Then, thanks to regional and national squads, those at the base gradually worked their way to the top, without the small clubs ever suffering. All this was wrecked, more or less. The young riders moved on from the small clubs too quickly, without having the chance to be toughened up and to nourish the spinal column of the sport as they develop. The outcome is that the base does not radiate out as widely as before. By cutting off growth at the lowest level, the top will automatically end up in a state of drought.”
Whilst cycling and rugby are not equivalent, there is an important lesson here that we should heed. What Fignon highlights are the consequences of moving away from a joined up, more fluid and meritocratic system, to one of elitism and top down control. In Scottish Rugby we are already well down this path, even before Super6 was launched.
The decision to establish Super6 was taken on a false premise that the Premiership was “not fit for purpose”. The question has to be asked – what purpose was it not fit for? Scotland have eight players selected in the British & Irish Lions, the pinnacle of our sport for a Scottish player, and six of the eight have played club rugby in the Premiership. Indeed, Finn Russell, one of the best stand-offs in the world, started his senior career at Falkirk in the third division. Perhaps their grounding in club rugby helped them develop a love and appreciation for the game that aided their journey? It certainly hasn’t held them back.
Without a representative system at senior level we have seen players moving, often at Scottish Rugby’s encouragement, to ‘bigger’ clubs only to struggle to get game time at first team level. Whilst it is only natural that players may look to move clubs in order to play at a higher level, what representative rugby undoubtedly does is mitigate against this by ensuring that players, wherever they play, have that opportunity to progress without the necessity to move clubs as at present. This is an important detail.
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If we want to increase the number of players graduating from our club game into professional rugby it is logical that we must first focus on increasing the talent pool. More players creates stronger competition both within our clubs and between our clubs, and standards will also go up as a consequence. The fact of the matter is, only a privileged few will ever play professional rugby but what representative rugby gives to players is something else to aspire to, as well as providing that stepping stone for those who have what it takes.
No one would argue that having the opportunity to be selected for Scotland does not motivate our top professional players. No one would argue that having the opportunity to be selected for the British & Irish Lions does not motivate our top international players. And the same goes for our club players and providing them with an opportunity to represent their District in a competition that is part of our heritage. It does not detract from club rugby, it complements it.
The Motion itself states that:
“A consultation on the format and criteria for participation in the Inter District Championship should be instigated by the SRU Council… The competition format and timing should take into consideration the needs of the player development pathway and the objectives of the role currently fulfilled by Super 6.”
Clearly, the format for an Inter-District Competition needs to be adjusted to work in the current era. It is not for us as the Motion proposers to decide what the outcome of that consultation should be and everyone, including the high performance department, should have an input into that.
It is already being planned that Super6 will be extended to Super10 by the end of the current license period. Why then can we not have a 10 team Premiership, with promotion and relegation into it, and then install a District competition at the end of the season? An 18 game league season followed by a six to eight game District Programme can work. This is one scenario, there are plenty of options.
Compare that to now, where we have a significant number of Super6 players not playing any rugby every week and even at that, many are getting very little game time. Let them play club rugby and then be selected, on merit, based on their club performances. We now have Super6 teams actively recruiting non-Scottish Qualified players as there are apparently not enough Scottish Qualified players of adequate standard to fill their rosters. Let’s move to a model that works, rather than persisting with one that doesn’t and which will cause long lasting damage to our sport.
A representative competition will generate interest and support across every club in each District. Sold-out hospitality, big crowds, the pressure this adds gives the competition an added edge. This is the environment in which to test our best players.
To have a player selected bestows an honour on the club(s) through which they have graduated. As for the players, not only do they benefit from their involvement but when that player then returns to his club he brings back that experience to his club team, which will aid and inspire others. There is also the opportunity for games to be shared around grounds in each District. Every game becomes a big event for the club and community that hosts it.
If the past year or more has taught us anything, it is that rugby clubs can, and do, play a vital role in the lives of the communities that they serve. Our influence extends far beyond the game itself and what is clear is that there is a solid foundation and kinship on which we can collectively build back stronger. As Fignon so eloquently points out, having the right structure in place is fundamental to this and in my view, reinstating District rugby will be a turning point in reinvigorating grassroots rugby to the benefit of the game at all levels.