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Rangi Jericevich column: There is hope on the horizon for club rugby in Scotland

Jed-Forest v Kirkcaldy

Clubs such as Jed-Forest and Kirkcaldy must grasp the current upheaval in Scottish rugby as an opportunity to reconfigure what they stand for in the communities where they exist. Image: Bill McBurnie

IT has been a fractious 18 months in Scottish club rugby with, among other things, the implementation of Super 6, a new part-time professional competition to meet the requirements of Scottish Rugby’s High Performance Department, causing much consternation among clubs, particularly those directly affected. The manner in which this change has been implemented has, quite understandably, caused many to question the governance model and priorities of what is supposed to be our sport’s national governing body.

Whilst professionalism has brought many benefits to our sport, these largely exist at the elite end of the game. The community game has suffered from what I would term as the malign influence of professionalism in terms of how it has changed the way in which young people in particular engage with our sport.

It has been observed by many that the sport is gradually moving towards the model largely seen in American professional sport where beyond school age, participation is predominantly reserved for those who either play professionally or who are playing at College, often in exchange for benefits in kind such as athletic scholarships. We are a long way from this happening to rugby in Scotland, I would hope that this is not our destination, but there is no doubt that this is the trajectory that we are currently on.

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Announcements like the recent new SRU partnership with Old Glory DC, which may in isolation seem like a sensible and justifiable investment from the perspective of the elite game, are simply a further feeding of this narrative. Claims that there may be some commercial benefit for the club game at some indeterminate point in the future are disingenuous, the honest truth is that this has nothing to do with developing rugby domestically and will do nothing tangible for it. That’s fine, but let’s just have some honesty about this.

In the broader context, the reality is that the vast majority of players do not and will never play rugby professionally. It is hard to determine exactly what proportion of players have a realistic chance of making a career for themselves in our sport, but a back of a napkin calculation would suggest that this figure is certainly less than five percent. So what of the aspirations, ambitions and opportunities for those players for whom playing rugby as a career is not their focus?

For too long now the professional game has been the only game in town in this respect. The media obsession, driven by the short-term commercial priorities of national governing bodies everywhere has put the professional game on a pedestal and the other reasons for playing our sport have sadly become less important. That being said, one potential positive that could rise from the embers of this recent episode in Scottish Rugby is the opportunity for club rugby to re-emerge from the shadow of the professional game. I would say that not only is this a possibility, but it is crucial if we are to reverse the current haemorrhaging of playing numbers.

A fresh slate

Super 6 is, for now, the conduit between the club game and professional game. It is a professional rugby development competition which creates a clear division between those players who are on that development pathway and those who, for the moment, are not. I see that as potentially a good thing. The role of club rugby now needs to be rebuilt as something which runs in parallel to the professional game, rather than something which is directly feeding it.

Club rugby is not and should not be subservient to the excesses of professional rugby. Our club game needs to re-establish itself in its own right and seek to create an alternative pathway for players that motivates and encourages people to play our sport for the love of it and for the many other opportunities it provides. A healthy and vibrant community game benefits everyone in our sport, from top to bottom.

Put yourself in the boots of a 21-year-old who is deciding whether or not they should continue to play rugby beyond university and as they enter the workforce. Depending on the level you wish to play, rugby can demand an awful lot of your time as an amateur player. It is a fact that fewer and fewer players at this point in their lives see the value of continuing to play our sport and that is sad. There are, of course, other drop-off points as well, such as when players leave school, and it is only by first and foremost raising the profile and perceived importance of the club game that we can hope to reverse this in the long term.

Lessons from Down Under

There is anecdotal evidence in Australia, with the Sydney Shute Shield, of a group of clubs, under the leadership of a couple of club men, re-energising a club competition out-with the dead-hand influence of their governing body. The final of that competition is now played in front of five figure crowds with media coverage and interest comparable with what we see here for our professional clubs.  The difference is, that for the players involved in this competition, rugby is not their primary focus, rugby is a hobby and their clubs are community organisations. Historically, our club game enjoyed a similar status and profile before the professional era and I see no reason therefore why, taking the Sydney Shute Shield as an example, it can not get back to this with a properly focused SRU understanding the value of doing so, and driving change with the support of the clubs.

An example of an initiative that could form part of this strategy is to ensure the Scotland Club XV is maintained as a representative side for ‘club’ players, as it was intended. This team should play a far bigger and more important role in the rugby landscape in my opinion, with more games and perhaps with annual or bi-annual international tours which club players would aspire to be selected for. Outside of the full international team, the club international team should be our marquee side.

In addition, I believe there is a strong case for reintroducing a District Championship on the same basis. Providing opportunities for players to represent their District in front of big crowds. Such initiatives would help enhance the profile of club rugby and help drive interest in the community game as a whole.

The importance of working together

We now have a regionalised SRU support structure and creating alignment between this and a regional representative game would square an obvious circle in bringing clubs together to work on growing the game in their area. We should be taking proactive measures to grow the sport in every community in the country. This is not about deploying more Development Officers but understanding that community clubs and their volunteers will drive this, so we need to not only make them stronger but we need more of them, and we need them to be motivated.

The ‘Fewer but Stronger’ mantra that underpins much of the thought process of Super 6/Agenda 3 initiative is gravely concerning and it certainly causes me to question the wisdom and motivation of those in positions of influence. No one who cares for and understands the importance of our club game to the bigger picture would contemplate that as an objective.

The SRU is undergoing a governance review and recent events demonstrate that this is absolutely necessary. The club game needs a new lease of life and it is up to the clubs themselves to now help to drive this change, for the good of the game as a whole. It is time to make the positive case for club rugby loud and clear.

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