SHEILA BEGBIE, Scottish Rugby’s Director of Rugby Development, says that she can give no solid guarantees about overall investment in the grassroots game being ring-fenced during the inevitable period of retrenchment caused by the Covid-19 crisis – but she also insists that the governing body recognises that the importance of this tier means that a second hardship fund for stricken clubs could be instituted if the lockdown continues much beyond that start of next season.
Begbie was speaking soon after it was announced that just short of £400,000 from an initial £500,000 ‘Club Hardship Fund’ set up in March has now been paid out to 82 of the Scottish Rugby Union’s 141 full-member clubs. Every club that applied received something, with payments ranging from £333 to £11,000. There were 36 applications submitted for over £5,000 initially outlined as the maximum per club, of which 27 were approved on the basis of ‘exceptional circumstances’. Only nine of the 36 were awarded the full amount they requested.
“I would say at the moment we have managed to avoid that [clubs teetering on the brink of financial ruin] but if this goes on for a much longer period of time then I think we absolutely have to be open to looking at creating a new hardship fund in terms of further support for clubs down the line, and we are absolutely alive to doing that,” she said.
“What we all don’t want is for our clubs to go to the wall. So, certainly, if there is any [further] support we can look to give them then, absolutely, we’ll be open to discussions with clubs.
“It’s a really fluid situation,” Begbie replied, when asked if the club budget has been ring-fenced in the same way as it has reportedly been in Wales. “We can’t continue to go like this, because we’re going to end up running out of money. Like every other business, Scottish Rugby has been majorly impacted financially by Covid-19.
“At the moment there is no guarantee of anything, and it absolutely depends on how long this situation goes on for, if we have a second wave, etc. There’s a lot of uncertainty, which is really challenging for all of us.”
Route map on its way
As for getting the game back up and running, Begbie promised that a Scottish Rugby ‘route map’ will be issued within the next few weeks.
“We’re in discussion with the Scottish Government at the moment about what a restart to rugby might look like and when it might happen for us, but we’re under no illusion that our clubs are looking for certainty,” she said.
“We’re planning different scenarios for what things might look like. Once we’ve got that route map, we’ll come back to the clubs and give them some information.
“Our Threat Management Group is looking at two different key areas which will cover the club game, Super6 and the schools’ game as well,” she added. “One part is looking at facilities – clubhouses, pitches etc are all closed, so we’re looking at what kind of things the clubs can do when the lifting comes from the Scottish Government. The second part is looking at the return to training and playing, and that group will influence what we do around when we think the season might start and what we do with players.”
“Nicola Sturgeon does her update on the route map for Scotland tomorrow [Thursday], and on Friday we will deliver to the clubs what Phase Two actually means for them and what guidance and support they need around what they can and can’t do.
“After the three-week period that Nicola Sturgeon is working in, that evening we will have a webinar for our clubs where we talk about how the Scottish Government route map will impact on our own route map. So, the route map is very much a work in progress for us, and we would hope to communicate it to the clubs as soon as we possibly can.”
Staggered return and regionalisation
A staggered return has been mooted in Wales which would mean some clubs stuck in cold storage until January 2021, with regionalisation also looking increasingly likely. Begbie confirmed that both those approaches are being considered for Scotland.
“At the moment, we are looking at what travel looks like in the Scottish Rugby route map as we go forward, and we’re trying to make a lot of predictions on that and running it past Scottish Government,” she said. “So, once we’ve got a bit of a steer from the government in terms of what they think of our planning scenarios then we will come back to the clubs to share.”
Long term consequences
A major problem for rugby is that the close-contact nature of the sport means that it is going to be much harder to implement the social distancing measures required, and Begbie says she recognises that this could have a major impact on already dwindling player numbers beyond the period when the virus is an active threat.
“I think that’s a big risk for us,” she acknowledged. “Because of the nature and culture of rugby, in terms of the sweat and the saliva and stuff like that, maybe we are going to be one of the last sports to go. So, I guess there is a concern that if other sports are able to go before we are, then maybe young people will turn their head away and think: ‘If that sport is up and running then I am going to go and try that’.
“I know that some clubs have that same fear that people might be afraid to come back to the club, or not want to come back to the club, so from our perspective it is about working with clubs to develop a re-engagement programme – to try and captivate people to come back into club rugby – so it is something we are looking at, with maybe some marketing around how we get players back into the game.
“If Nicola Sturgeon talks tomorrow about some of what was on phase three in her route-map coming into phase two, and we continue to get the progress we are seeing at the moment in terms of the ‘R’ number coming down, and it means we can get some clarity on an earlier start, then that would be fantastic.
“It would mean we can start working with the clubs around setting their training plans, getting their players back in, speaking to sponsors, getting their suppliers back into the club, and starting to get some sort of normality for them – although the likelihood is that the rugby experience over the next wee while will be slightly different to what it has been previously.”