A UNION for Scotland’s professional rugby players has been set up in response to concerns related to the way their employer, the Scottish Rugby Union, has handled a number of issues over the last few years, including a previously unreported 10-month stand-off related to player bonus payments at Glasgow Warriors during the 2016-17 season, and the suspension of former Edinburgh flanker John Hardie for alleged cocaine use.
Glasgow Warriors and Scotland lock Tim Swinson will be the first Chair of the new organisation, which will be called: ‘Rugby Players Scotland’.
There has been a 100 per cent uptake from professional players across the Scottish game, including from Glasgow Warriors, Edinburgh, the national Sevens squad and the Women’s game.
“It is in response to about two years of background where we felt that the players may not necessarily have had their views voiced as well as they could have been. It is an important way to help Scottish rugby grow,” explained Swinson on BBC’s Sportsound Rugby Podcast.
“We are the last Tier One nation not to have an association: England’s has been going since, I think, 1994 [actually 1998]; Ireland’s since about 2001. So, we are a little bit behind,” he added.
“I moved up here just over six years ago after spending six years playing in the Premiership where we were supported by the RPA. Being a young guy, I basically got 20 percent off at Nando’s and didn’t really think much else about it, but I realised that if I needed help then they had certain things in place and you knew that they were impartial.
“When I moved up I was told that wasn’t an issue and I really believed that for the first few of years, everything was going well, but I think there was a couple of instances which highlighted to the players that, although the SRU do generally care about us, it would be useful to have an impartial and independent service for the players to help themselves.”
‘We felt the SRU were trying to do one over us’
Swinson then explained that a bonus payment dispute at Glasgow was the catalyst for this initiative.
“We were promised to be paid a certain amount if we got into Europe and that season we achieved getting to the quarter-finals for the first time, then a week later we were told the amount would be reduced,” he explained. “The SRU did have the power [to do that] but they did it out-with the time limit, and we disagreed that they had done it in the right manner. We believed we were right and it turns out we were.
“We had between five and ten meetings throughout the year with Nathan Bombrys, our Managing Director at Glasgow, where it went backwards and forwards, and it got to the point we had to hand in a letter to our line manager explaining that we wanted to go to a tribunal. It never got to a tribunal and, to be fair, the SRU resolved it and there are no hard feelings from it now.
“The SRU did resolve it in the end, but it was the 10-month period in between that I felt wasn’t really satisfactory. If we’d had someone independent able to negotiate for us then it would have been less of a stress on the players, and less of a stress on the relationship between the players and the Union.
When asked if the situation had “distracted the players as a group”, Swinson replied –
“Yes, I think its the only year in the last seven that Glasgow haven’t made the play-offs, which may just be coincidence, but the feeling within the squad was quite aggravated against the SRU at times, and think they really felt that the SRU were trying to do one over us, basically.
“It was a frustrating time for us as a player group. We wanted it to be resolved, we were very keen to get it resolved, we didn’t want to get to a point where we were doing something stupid like … you hear about teams who wear the wrong kit or don’t turn up to training … we didn’t want to do that because at the end of the day we just want to play rugby. It put great pressure on the players because its not really our job and not really our skill.
“It lingered in the back of your mind, especially for some of the younger guys because those bonuses were a huge part of what they would get that year, and I think it just highlighted that it could have been dealt with quickly by people who knew what they were doing.”
The John Hardie case
Swinson then indicated that there was some concern amongst the players about the way Scotland and former Edinburgh back-row John Hardie had been handled when he was given a three month suspension by the SRU between November 2017 and February 2018 for alleged cocaine use.
“An independent and impartial spokesperson for the players as a whole and in individual cases surrounding discipline would be important,” Swinson said.
“Particularly with John Hardie in the last 12-months, when the outcome may not have been any different, but it would have been seen to have been done appropriately and fairly. And it would have been obvious to everyone – the SRU and the players alike – that it had been done correctly.
Hardie’s contract was not renewed at the end of last season, and he was a free agent for several months before signing a short-term deal with Newcastle Falcons three weeks ago.
Making a start
“The England and New Zealand players’ associations have had a 20 year head start and we realise that we are not going to be there this year, next year and probably not in five or ten,” Swinson added. “But we’re starting small and changing the things we want to change, and hopefully that will build to bigger and bigger things.”
“We want to be taken seriously by the SRU, by our players and by the international rugby community and to achieve that, we need to be professional right from the start. That’s why, as a group of players, we realised that couldn’t set it up ourselves so that’s why we got a consultant who specialises in organisational set-up to help us.
Bill Mitchell, who is interim chief executive of Rugby Players Scotland, was asked about the scale of the challenge this new union is taking on –
“Its significant but its not in any way catastrophic. The fact that the Scotland players are the only players in Tier One rugby without representation is an indictment of the way that they’ve been considered, to be blunt. If you look at the other top nations, both New Zealand and England have had player associations now for over 20-years and they’re doing something right. There is a naiveté about the way they have structured things in players contracts. That being said, there is a willingness to get it right, and the players made it clear to me right from the beginning that they want to work hand-in-hand with the SRU to improve rugby across Scotland.”
Registration papers for the new organisation have been lodged at Companies House and it will be registered as a trade union. “We are literally hitting the ground running,” said Mitchell.
Scottish Rugby are known to have been cool to the idea of a players union being formed in the past, with a number of previous attempts to set something off the ground falling flat, and Swinson was asked if he feared a backlash from Murrayfield in response to his role in this initiative –
“As far as I’m concerned, it is not a confrontational situation, I want to work with the SRU. I want to make rugby better for Scotland, for the players that play it, and that in turn will be better for the rugby community in Scotland. Unfortunately, if the SRU don’t take it the way that I do, then I’ll have to deal with that, but I don’t see any issues with having this and being a successful rugby playing nation.
“We want to work in partnership with the SRU to help improve the things we know are working well. We want to improve and create things that we believe will help rugby and help rugby players in things like transferring from their rugby career into their career afterwards, and even transferring from their school life into their rugby career, which is happening more and more in Scotland.”
“There are a lot of things in the SRU that are going very well. There has been a lot of help with mental health awareness, particularly in the last 12-months, as a player you have really noticed how much extra they are trying to do. There is ‘Rugby for Life’ which has been set up by [former Edinburgh and New Zealand centre] Ben Atiga, and we’d like to work together with the Union on that. If in five years time you find that these things have grown because of the mutual respect and help from each side, it is a really good opportunity to get us on a level playing field with the other Tier One nations.”
SRU ‘welcome’ the initiative
A statement for Scottish Rugby said they “welcome” the plans and are “very happy” to meet with Rugby Players Scotland to learn how they can “work together going forward”.
It added: “We have never resisted any attempt to form an association in Scotland and have had regular meetings with the International Rugby Players Association over the past 18 months as part of a continuing dialogue around player welfare.”
Speaking at the launch event of Rugby for Life [an SRU run welfare programme for players] back in March, the governing body’s Chief Executive Mark Dodson played down the need to a player’s union in Scotland, stating that his organisation already provides all the benefits a link up with International Rugby Players’ Association (IRPA) can offer.
“We talk regularly to the players association. In fact, Omar [Hassanein – the chief executive of the IRPA] was here just before Christmas and I spoke to him again just a couple of weeks ago. He understands what we are doing this and I think he has been quoted in the press saying that what we are doing is comprehensive and really professional,” said Dodson.
“I think the issue for them is that they would always want to have a players’ union wherever in the world they are and we’re not opposed to that, but the fact of the matter is that we are providing everything that a players’ association would provide and we are doing it for free. We are funding it all ourselves. We are very proud that it is so comprehensive and so world-leading.
“We’ve always been at the forefront when it comes to player welfare and all this [Rugby for Life] does is show that we are still at the top table when it comes to looking after the people that work for us – the people the fans outside this building all relate to.”