Premiership strugglers Aberdeen Grammar forced to walk their own path

Scottish rugby needs a strong presence in the North-East so travails of Rubislaw side should be a big concern to us all

Aberdeen Grammar's journey through this Premiership campaign has been tough going so far. Image: Howard Moles
Aberdeen Grammar's journey through this Premiership campaign has been tough going so far. Image: Howard Moles

ABERDEEN GRAMMAR’s clash against Edinburgh Accies at lunchtime tomorrow [Saturday] is the first in a run of four home games on consecutive weekends which won’t necessarily make their season if results are positive – but will break it if things don’t improve. 

Having lost all eight games played so far in this Premiership campaign, Ali O’Connor’s side are 11 points adrift of second bottom Jed-Forest at the foot of the Premiership table, so even if this next month (which will also see GHA, Glasgow Hawks and Marr visit Rubislaw) goes well, Grammar will still be deeply embedded in the relegation quagmire.

“But at least we’d be back in the fight,” counters club Chairman Gordon Thomson. “If we can pick up 10 points, then I’ll be pretty pleased with that.”


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Fifth in the table when Covid led to the 2019-20 Premiership season being declared null-and-void, Grammar’s recent travails can be linked to a perfect storm of self-created and external factors.

The retirement during lockdown of some senior players, including the talismanic Robin Cessford, has been compounded by a long injury list at the start of this season.

“We’ve got eight 1st XV players out at the moment although we’re hoping to get one or two back this Saturday, and maybe another one back next week,” says Thomson. “On top that, there is another 10 long-term injured who would be fringe 1st XV and solid 2nd XV players. So, we’re slowly getting the numbers back and I think we are going to be a better team by the end of November than we are now, but it is going to be a real hard shift regaining that ground we have already conceded.”

Bringing in suitable replacements is practically impossible. Geography means there is a dearth of Premiership level talent on the club’s doorstep, and the decision made three years ago to stop paying players and invest that money into developing long-term sustainability instead means the current squad is much smaller – and therefore vulnerable to an injury crisis – than it has been in the past.

“We’re rebuilding our youth section because we used to run five teams but when they changed the rules it destroyed our midi section because it meant kids can’t play twice on a weekend,” Thomson continues. “We’ll be back to running an under-15s team by next season, and we’ve also put a lot of money towards getting back into schools. We’re coaching two university teams because Aberdeen doesn’t really fund their rugby in the same way as St Andrews, Edinburgh or Glasgow so we’ve had to bite the bullet with that. And we’re about to start a women’s team, which we’re funding with a small donation from the SRU.

“The long-term plan is to develop a pipeline of players from the schools and universities, but none of that is going to help us this season, and probably not next season either. We’re talking three years down the line here.”

Grammar’s prospects have not been helped by the controversial Super6 player draft. “One of the three guys we have been allocated has been out injured for months so we’re not going to see him before Christmas, and one of the others is away playing for Edinburgh A against Glasgow A on Tuesday so he’s not with us this weekend, meaning we’ve got one player out of that for this Saturday, which will be the least of any team in the Premiership I would suggest,” says Thomson.

“If Covid hadn’t been here, we would have been tempted to go back to doing what we used to do, which was pick up the phone to New Zealand to bring in three or four quality players, and we would have coped quite easily in the Premiership,” he concedes.

Challenges mount up

One of the blows the club has sustained which is way beyond their own control has been the downturn in the oil and gas industry, meaning fewer potential players are moving to the city.

Meanwhile, the decision by Aberdeen Grammar School’s Former Pupil Executive to sell the Rubislaw clubhouse from under the rugby section’s feet was a major setback, with Thomson confident that the club could have met the purchase price if given a fair crack of the whip. As it is, Grammar are delighted to have partnered with an accommodating nearby hotel, but it doesn’t help the general club environment.

Perhaps most significant of all has been the quiet mothballing of Scottish Rugby’s Caledonia Academy base in Aberdeen, opened to great fanfare in October 2014 and never officially closed, but now wholly relocated to Dundee.

“There is no longer any rugby incentive for young, talented players from elsewhere to move to Aberdeen for university,” says Thomson. “I understand why they [Scottish Rugby] have done it – Dundee is closer to the schools which feed into the academy system – but I don’t think anyone at Murrayfield really understands the issues up here.”

Facilities are key

There are no easy solutions to the problems faced by our friends in the North-East, but it is not a completely hopeless situation. Thomson is certain that with some strategic thinking and meaningful investment, a better future for rugby in the area can be secured.

“The SRU plan to start a nationwide facilities review next year and Aberdeen is screaming out for help there,” he says, speaking as a club official and not in his capacity as an SRU Council member.

“And I’m not talking about for just one club, I’m talking about rugby in the city and surrounding areas generally,” he adds. “I’d even be happy if there was an Aberdeen rugby entity that the existing clubs, including Grammar, all feed into.

“There has been nothing built for rugby in Aberdeen for decades. There is not an all-weather rugby pitch, there is not a proper facility in the city, or indeed the North-East. When we played Highland in the National Cup Final just over two years ago, the only place we could go to was Stirling – because there is nothing in the north – and that is just not appropriate.

“Everyone knows about Scotstoun, and in Edinburgh you could name five or six grounds off the top of your head which would all be better than anything that is north of Stirling. Unfortunately, the SRU are going to have to find a bit of money, along with the local authority, to get this off the ground.

“I’ve had discussions with people who would be in a position to put investment into an Aberdeen project, but it needs to have a plan and a structure and a location that they can see how it all fits together, and we’re a long way from that at the moment.

“You need to have a rugby-identified facility which is the core place for an academy-type structure and a focus point for clubs in the area. That would pull the whole thing together. Now I’m not saying I’m the man to do that, I’ve banged the drum for 20 years and failed miserably, but somebody has got to do it and Murrayfield has plenty staff.”

Friendly relations

One issue which can be solved at local level, and at no financial cost, is improving relationships and increasing co-operation between clubs in the area, with Grammar far from blameless in some of the bad blood which has stalled progress.

Jack Nixon, the highly respected rugby correspondent for the Press & Journal, says: “Aberdeen Grammar’s current position in the Premiership is one I view with great dismay. In the event of them being relegated it would be major blow for rugby in the North-East, which needs a club representing them in the top amateur league in Scotland.

“And while it may be too late to save Grammar this season, I would strongly urge all clubs in the area to meet and to pave a way forward for the game in the Aberdeen area, something I have been advocating for years. Working together has never been a strength among Aberdeen clubs, but now facing crisis it is time to talk about partnerships.”

Thomson agrees that this is a situation which needs to be addressed. “Looking five years down the line, if we want to be involved in whatever Super6 becomes, then we need some of the clubs in the area – not all of them because some will never be interested – to put the old grievances behind us and to look at how we make this work,” he says.

“If we can get something out of the facilities review, I think that would be the precursor for knocking heads together up here to get a more structured pyramid system, rather than the various silos which currently operate in the north of Scotland.”

Super8 solution?

It does, indeed, sound like just the sort of challenge which Super6 – soon to be extended to Super8, it seems – was apparently designed to tackle, but Thomson warns that it is a ‘chicken-and-egg’ scenario.

“The aim should be to get to a position where we have a performance team, and the players in the squad who are not in the team that week go back to play 1st XV rugby with their feeder club,” he says. “However, at the moment, there is just absolutely no way that Aberdeen would be in a position to properly contemplate Super8.

“There is nobody up here with the resources or facilities – or the will to probably sacrifice their own club because if you take all the volunteers required for a Super6 team, there is nobody left to run whatever it is you’ve got beneath that.

“I did the numbers the last time around and it was going to cost us, once absolutely everything had been accounted for, a minimum-spend of £414k per annum for season one – so that’s about £250,000 we’d need to find after the SRU contribution – then you probably add on 10 percent in subsequent seasons for inflation, wage rises or whatever,” he adds.

“Then you ask, where is this team going to play? Because Rubislaw is not the sort of facility that Super6 is looking for.

“We spoke to the university, but they didn’t have the facilities and were expecting us to build a whole structure around their pitch, which would have been a seven-figure sum of money, and there was no way we could have got all that done inside the window the bids had to be in by.

“Aberdeen Football Cub were interested in us going to Kingsford [the new stadium being built on the outskirts of the city] on an enjoining pitch area, but all that has fallen through because they don’t have the money to build the facility and I don’t think the SRU will be interested in spending that sort of cash on a football venue.

“The other big issue is that if you are going to align Super6, Super8, Super10 or whatever we end up with to the pro teams, you can’t ask guys to train two or three times per week up here and then also train two or three time per week at Glasgow or Edinburgh. It’s just not feasible.”

Clearly, Scottish Rugby, the clubs in the North-East and potentially the local authority have got to decide what sort of future they want for the sport in the area. Throwing money blindly at the problem would be madness, but there also has to be a recognition that simply papering over the cracks is a waste of time and energy.

“We were quoted £1.25m to build an all-weather pitch, stand, floodlights clubhouse and gym, with Cove Rangers as the template, then you need to buy the land, so you are probably talking about spending £2-3m, so it is serious money,” says Thomson.

“My argument would be that if you borrow £2-3m over 10 years, then by the end of that period you would have a vibrant rugby scene in this part of the world.

“People say we are miles away from anywhere, but there is 500,000 live roundabout Aberdeen, and you can’t write-off 10 percent of the population because it is geographically awkward for Edinburgh and Glasgow.

“We’ve had repeated discussions with senior management [at Murrayfield], going right back to before the current Chief Executive, about this problem and the stock answer is that ‘we can’t change the geography of this weird-shaped country’. But to me, that’s not a good enough excuse. There is a million of us live north of the M8 and resource-wise we are given practically zero.”


Tennent’s Premiership preview – runners, riders and verdict for 12th & 13th November

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About David Barnes 2756 Articles
David has worked as a freelance rugby journalist since 2004 covering every level of the game in Scotland for publications including he Herald/Sunday Herald, The Sunday Times, The Telegraph, The Scotsman/Scotland on Sunday/Evening News, The Daily Record, The Daily Mail/Mail on Sunday and The Sun.

9 Comments

  1. Did the Edinburgh A v Glasgow A game referred to in this article take place on Tuesday? Or was it another behind closed doors, don’t let on it ever happened, SRU event?

  2. we all feel for Aberdeen and all clubs in the north and elsewhere.
    But its as if some folk have not read the Super 6 expansion article, or choose to ignore it. It was explained by David Barnes and others that neither Aberdeen nor Dundee, for their own reasons, were able to bid for a super 6 franchise; not that big bad SRU stopped them or did not select them.
    Aberdeen is an excellent base to have one of these teams based, but it does need as suggested in the article people to work together towards that.

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    • It’s almost as if Scottish Rugby can’t do anything to help here? I’m mean if they can cobble together some sort of Glasgow team perhaps they could do something up North?

      You are right septic that neither Aberdeen or Dundee are able or willing to do it right now. But some foresight would be helpful here

  3. Shame we can contemplate a team in London but Aberdeen is too far away from Edinburgh.
    Until we get rugby working in; eg Aberdeen, Dundee and Kirkcaldy we are never going to spread interest in the game in Scotland.A task seemingly beyond the interest of the SRU.
    Perhaps a super 8 team FROM South Africa is the answer as most of our players seem to come from there now ?
    I keep saying it but look at the exciting scores in the premiership this season and come and feel the partisan support each week. Only thing missing is a Hawick v Gala or Melrose fixture to spice up a Saturday.

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  4. SRU are not interested in North of Scotland or for that matter Scottish Borders .
    Only central belt matters to Mr Dodson .
    Common sense is not his forte.

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  5. Thanks Gordon. A very thoughtful contribution. I do hope Grammar can stay up in the Premiership.

    Shocking to discover that the Aberdeen academy base has closed. That was kept very quiet.

    Agree we need to find solutions to support rugby in the North. Aberdeen and Dundee should be able to compete at the highest levels of the game. That they can’t is rather damning of the vision for the game in Scotland

    • Interesting read Gordon, needs some forward thinking people in the North East. The game has changed.
      An Aberdeen team supported by all others feeding into it is the only way.
      This should be from u15 level up in the highest youth leagues.
      Everyone fishing in a small pond just dilutes the definite talent that is present in the area but all ends up in the central belt.
      I for one would be happy to be part of any future discussions on NE rugby as it has weakened over the last 5 years. Where will it be in the next 5.

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