MARK DODSON has warned that nothing is off limits in Scottish Rugby – including permanent pay cuts and redundancies – as the business looks to cut its cloth in order to survive the significant financial squeeze caused by the Covid-19 lockdown.
“We are looking at all of those options because we have to,” he said. “We have to look at every single option to reduce our costs and get us through this issue.
“It [redundancies] is not something we want to rush at. These are people who have worked with us for a long time and they are highly skilled individuals. There is a cost both in terms of people and families, and also in making redundancies. There is also a cost to the Union in its ability to bounce back from wherever we are.
“All those things are being taken into consideration. You would expect us to look at every possible tool that we have to deal with the crisis.”
While several other Unions across the globe have already announced workforce cutbacks, Dodson rejected the suggestion that a similar course of action is inevitable in Scotland – although he couldn’t make any guarantees about protecting jobs either. According to the most recent accounts, Scottish Rugby employs 401 individuals (which includes players, coaches and office staff at Edinburgh and Glasgow) and has a wage bill of £31.5m, which is more than half of turnover.
“Nothing is inevitable until you have to make the decision,” he stressed. “My view would be that we would try to keep as many jobs as we can and keep as many families safe as we can. These are colleagues, people who are passionate about Scottish rugby and they won’t be our first port of call.
“But eventually there may be a scenario where we have to look at redundancies as an option. We will cost those and do it in the most scientific way possible.
“Everything is under review,” he reiterated, when asked if there is any areas of investment such as grassroots, Super6 and the academies which are ring-fenced. “Obviously, there will be gradients because we don’t want to move away from our academies as we feel they are the lifeblood of the next generation of players for the pro teams, but nothing has escaped the gaze of our people looking at things.
“Scottish Rugby’s money will definitely run out and it’s about how we refinance ourselves to get across the bridge from where we are now to when the virus abates. The key is making sure that we make the right decisions about our financial position at the right moment.
“As we stand currently, there are so many variables. Every time the variables move the revenue opportunities for the PRO14 or the autumn internationals, the easier it is on our finances and the less we have to refinance, so that’s going to be key.
“We haven’t got our arms exactly round that. As you’ve seen over the past two or three weeks, things are changing very rapidly. Hopefully, on 18th June we will get the Scottish government to take us into Phase 2 [in the relaxation of lockdown restrictions]. If that doesn’t happen then all our plans move backwards.”
Glasgow Warriors fans have expressed concern in recent weeks at their club’s lack of activity in the recruitment market so far this summer, but Dodson insisted that while the team will come under the same financial scrutiny as every other part of the business, it is not the case that the Scotstoun outfit will take a disproportionate hit compared to their Edinburgh rivals.
“Don’t confuse us looking at the finances with any disparity between Edinburgh and Glasgow,” he said. “That’s just coincidental. Edinburgh have done their business and are announcing the changes they are making. At Glasgow, Danny [Wilson] has taken over from Dave [Rennie] and will want to make his own decisions and take his own view on changes being made there. But the pro teams are under review, just like every other department.”
Six Nations is key
Speaking during a wide-ranging conference call with the Scottish rugby press corps earlier today [Thursday] – which was only his second media briefing since the crisis turned every aspect of life on its head 12 weeks ago – the Chief Executive of the game’s governing body in this country said he was optimistic about the prospect of professional rugby returning by late August or early September and some form of Autumn Tests going ahead (even if it is behind closed doors), which could involve the completion of the games still outstanding from the 2020 Six Nations.
“I’m very hopeful that we’ll be able to finish this year’s Six Nations in the Autumn,” said Dodson. “It’s important to everyone, and to the tournament itself.
“The issue around the Autumn Tests is crucial to us. From where we stand at the moment, our presumption is that those Tests will go ahead behind closed doors until we’re told different from government.
“We’re working really closely with the Scottish Government, and we’re hopeful that we’ll be able to play with crowds for the Autumn schedule. But we’re not convinced, and we’ve budgeted for the worst-case scenario.
“We’ve looked at a whole raft of different options, from small competitions to competitions with other nations. We’re still trying to fathom what will be the most likely, and which will be the ones that we can get away most early to give ourselves a chance of selling tickets and to make sure the broadcasters are happy.
“We’re looking at what’s easiest to develop, and that may mean playing against the home nations given their proximity and the certainty around playing those games. It’s under consideration – it wouldn’t be a Six Nations, but it would be a competition with the home nations and potentially Six Nations countries.
“The reason everyone is talking about social distancing from two-metres to one-and-a-half-metres to one-metre to zero is that it has a significant impact on how many tickets we can sell, how many people can come through the door to enjoy whatever Test schedule we can put forward.
“It’s not an exact science but two metres makes it very difficult to get more than 10,000 people into BT Murrayfield but you could probably get up to 30,000 into the stadium with social distancing being relaxed [to one or one-and-a-half metres].”
“We’re very hopeful we can have crowds at the  Six Nations and have a more normal Six Nations, because the idea of having it behind closed doors, or not at all, then we’re in a different world and a different level of fragility in terms of the finances.”
Players to stay in furlough
Dodson had already revealed that professional players from Edinburgh and Glasgow players are being “invited” to train at Murrayfield from 22nd June onwards (assuming the Scottish Government move to Phase 2 of their lockdown relaxation programme). He then confirmed that the “voluntary” aspect of that proposal is aimed at ensuring that players do not have to come out of furlough.
“The first thing to understand is this is an invitation to players to come back,” he said. “We’re basically getting the players back to effectively work to get themselves rugby fit before they can start what we would class as normal training.
“As far as we’re concerned, the guys are coming back to do some running and gym work: this is not normal training as you would know it. Effectively this is the first stage back to getting them into the normal training environment.
“We’ve taken soundings from HMRC and they’re very comfortable with this approach of voluntary training … an invitation to train. Probably not all of our players will come in one group into BT Murrayfield at this stage.
“The fact of the matter is this is our first step on the way to getting our players fit, because as James Robson [has] said, this is the longest period of deconditioning ever for some of these players, so we’re going to have to get them back aerobically fit and take our time to get them back into condition.”
Club Hardship Fund now allocated
Dodson also revealed that the allocation of awards from the £500k Club Hardship Fund which was set up back in mid-March to help soothe some of the sting caused by the 2019-20 season being cut short is now complete, although he wasn’t prepared to give too much more detail at this stage.
“82 clubs have received awards and we have written to them to inform them what they are getting,” he said. “The response has been excellent. People are generally delighted with the responses they’ve got. We will be making an announcement next week about what goes where and what the values were. You will get that all next week from Sheila [Begbie – the SRU’s Director of Rugby Development].”
Dodson would not be drawn on whether further support will be made available to clubs if the non-professional season continues in lockdown into the autumn and beyond.
“That’s something we can’t predict at the moment,” he replied. “The biggest problem we’ve got is that there is no time axis on this graph. This could last two months, three months, four months, five months. We don’t know how hardship will grow through that process.
“Most of the clubs have taken the view of trying to mothball themselves until they’ve actually got more information. Other clubs feel they want to get started as soon as possible. As it stands at the moment, there is no provision within the advice from Scottish rugby regarding when we can start to resume rugby.
“Our intention is to do whatever we can as soon as we can and as safely as we can. The clubs have the same problem as us: they have expenditure, but no income. We have tried to help them with expenditure through accelerated payments and the Club Hardship Fund so they can keep the lights on and maintain the fabric of the clubs involved. We all have the same problem and we all share the pain so we will be working very hard to try to resume as soon as it is practical and safe to do so.”
Having said that, Dodson did acknowledge that the two branches of the sport are on different war footings as they battle to get back into full flow.
“On the professional side of our sport we have a lot more control of the players, there are a lot fewer players, we’ll have medical back-up, we’ll have testing, we’ll get them in a safe environment. We’ll make sure that everything we can possibly do is put on to make sure that they can get back playing.
“The domestic clubs, the community clubs, won’t have that option. They don’t have the same amount of control of the players or the same level of resources – and also probably not the same space that we have.
“So, it is a difficulty for them and I sympathise. But until we get the advice from government that you are able to do training, full-contact training, safely in a club environment, there’s not much we can do other than to get the government to realise that sport is hugely important.
“We’re working very closely with Jason Leitch [National Clinical Director of the Scottish Government]: we’re working hand in glove. So, I would assure you that we’re working hard to get the domestic game [up and running].”
Making the most of Murrayfield
Scottish Rugby has already raised the prospect of Edinburgh’s two professional football clubs, Hearts and Hibs, playing at Murrayfield as they look to get their sport back up and running. Dodson was cautiously optimistic about this and stressed that the hybrid playing surface at the national stadium would be up to the challenge.
“The pitch is designed to take multiple games so our view is that it could do games on Saturday and Sunday, or Friday and Saturday, so it would easily be able to withstand that” he said. “We know the pitch is in outstanding condition and we think it could cope with pretty much anything you throw at it.
“There are further talks to be had on it soon because we have to thrash out the best way of doing this. Because we’ve all got guidelines now, and football is slightly earlier than us.
“In our discussions with the government we’ve been saying if we can help sport get established again in Scotland as quickly and safely as we can, [then] we’re happy to have a conversation with anybody and every sport because there’s few places that have the tram-stop, that have the car parking and the space that we have, being the biggest stadium in Scotland. We can probably deal with social distancing better than anywhere else. So, our view is this is something we want to talk about and would be happy to be part of the discussion.”