Exclusive: Sheriff Bill Dunlop questions SRU review of governance structures

Eminent former Judge, who drew up the current SRU constitution, has broken silence to express serious concerns about how the game is currently being run

Sheriff Bill Dunlop, who headed the Working Party which drew up the current SRU constitution, wants to know what the recently announced review of the organisation's governance structure hopes to achieve. Image: ©Craig Watson - www.craigwatson.co.uk

SHERIFF BILL DUNLOP is puzzled. He can’t for the life of him understand why the SRU has ordered a review of its own governance structures, to be carried out by Chief Executive Mark Dodson’s long-standing collaborator Sir Bill Gammell.

Having spearheaded the Working Party which recommended the existing governance structure, the eminent former judge – who has a long and distinguished rugby pedigree as a player and administrator – is uniquely placed to assess how the organisation is performing constitutionally.

And while he isn’t in the least bit impressed by Murrayfield’s recent machinations, he is also certain that the problem is with people not doing their jobs properly, rather than any structural failing in the division of power and responsibility.

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“Where is this concern for governance coming from?” he asks. “I struggle to understand it. Never in my mind has the old aphorism that ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it’ been more appropriate. Somebody is yet to explain to me what needs fixed.

“Power-grab is exactly the phrase I had at the back of my mind,” he replies, when asked for his own gut-feeling on what might be behind this latest development.

“Who is asking for this review? Because there is a suspicion in the general rugby world, among whom I still move, that this is a device by certain executive officers to detract attention from other matters for which they bear some responsibility,” he adds.

“We go back to the Keith Russell affair, which was at about the same time as they first started talking about this review, so did that spark it?  If it did, then I must say that fiasco – because that is indeed what it was – had nothing whatsoever to do with any failing in the system of governance. It had everything to do with the failure of certain executive officers to observe the law in relation to employment.

“When I introduced the recommendations by my committee to a Special General Meeting of the SRU in April 2005, we started off by saying that the problem we had been asked to address is the perception that the structure has come to be seen as antediluvian in relation to the way representatives are elected, and we said this is how we see that issue being resolved – but what we recommended has not been followed.

“I stated at that time that there remained a lot to do, and I stressed that it doesn’t matter what system you have in place, if you don’t have the right people operating it, and operating it in good faith, it isn’t going to work.

Iain Morrison, the journalist, summed it up very succinctly when he said: ‘The Dunlop Report does not need to be reviewed, it needs to be implemented’. David Johnston (former Scotland internationalist who sat on the Dunlop panel) and Keith Wallace (Haddington RFC President) were of the same view in their articles last week.”


Back in 2005, the SRU was caught in the horns of a constitutional crisis, which was a by-product of the tortuous process through which the global game was transforming from amateur to professional.

The old SRU General Committee of elected club representatives had delivered a vote of no confidence in reforming chairman David Mackay and three non-executive directors. Chief Executive Phil Anderton quit in solidarity and at a hastily convened press conference in a hotel near Murrayfield he called upon clubs to revolt against their own governing body. Within hours, there was talk amongst leading club officials of a counter-motion of no confidence in the General Committee being tabled at an imminent Special General Meeting (which had been called to discuss the future strategy for rugby in Scotland). In the end, a motion was unanimously supported at that SGM which called for a full review of the organisation’s governance.

Dunlop – whose rugby background includes playing centre and wing for Glasgow High FP and Glasgow District, a stint as President of Glasgow High Kelvinside, being a founding member of Glasgow Hawks, a secretary for the Co-optimists, a match commissioner in the Six Nations, and until recently the Chairman of both the SRU’s Championship and its Disciplinary Appeals Committees – was asked to chair the review panel.

The nub of the issue was whether ultimate responsibility for running the organisation sat with the elected President or with the paid Chief Executive. After eight weeks of deliberation and five meetings, Dunlop and his Working Party recommended that a newly constituted SRU Board be given the ‘autonomy and discretion’ to run the affairs of the SRU, so long as it remains ‘accountable’, ‘responsive’ and ‘transparent’ to the stakeholders (principally the clubs). Dunlop stressed that ‘all stakeholders should be represented when decisions are taken’, which was facilitated through the election of four Council members (elected stakeholders) to the Board.

Dunlop’s recommendations were adopted with an overwhelming majority at a second SGM and until recently the structure created was held up as a template for good corporate governance of a national sporting body.

“It isn’t complicated,” says Dunlop. “The purpose of the Board is to run the SRU as a commercial company. The purpose of the Council is to monitor and oversee how the SRU runs all its functions, including the rugby side of it. The way in which the rugby is run should be distinct from the commercial, and they [the Council] should be getting involved in that, but they’re not.

“I fear the real problem is that the commercial side of things at the SRU – which has undoubtedly improved under Mark Dodson [Chief Executive] and Dominic McKay [Chief Operating Officer] – is overrunning the Council, which is made up of unpaid volunteers. I think they’re scared to interfere with what is a successful commercial operation.

“While it is clear from an examination of the recommendations by my committee that the people running the commercial side should be given a free rein, it seems to me that they have taken over everything.”

A rugby business

One of Dunlop’s recommendations was that the four Executive Directors on the Board should be the Chief Executive, the Chief Financial Officer, the Director of Commercial and Marketing, and the Director of Rugby. However, we are now in the situation where that fourth slot is taken up by a lawyer in the shape of General Counsel Robert Howat.

“I certainly think it would be preferable to have a director of rugby there because that’s what the whole thing is about” shrugs Dunlop.

Similarly, there is no players’ representative on the Council, contrary to the recommendations of Dunlop, chiefly because the SRU have so far resisted any attempt to get a players’ association off the ground.

The Dunlop report was pulled together by a 10-person Working Party consisting of individuals representing all the major constituencies in Scottish rugby. The group relied heavily on two documents – ‘The Review of the Role and Effectiveness of Non-Executive Directors’ conducted by Sir David Higgs (Higgs) and ‘Good Governance: A guide for National Governing Bodies of Sport’ produced for UK Sport – because “if you don’t adhere to the general principles laid down there then you won’t get grants, and you cut yourself off from all sorts of sources of finance”.

In contrast, the SRU statement earlier this month announcing this new governance review makes no mention of any persons or groups who will assist Gammell, or of how relevant stakeholders will be consulted. A number of requests from The Offside Line to the SRU for clarification and/or more detail on what this review entails have been declined or ignored.

“It won’t just be Bill Gammell’s thoughts on it, it will be the thoughts of Mark Dodson and the coterie around him,” says Dunlop, echoing the scepticism which has reverberated across the club game in Scotland since the announcement.

“In 2005, we had reached a point where there was a well-recognised problem that we needed to address. So, we canvassed a very broad view that was available from the 10 members, and through having an open-door policy to anyone in the game who had a point of view they wanted us to consider. It was a pretty intense eight weeks, but the attitude we took was that it had to be as open a process as possible because otherwise people just wouldn’t have accepted it.”

Transparency breeds legitimacy

There is no doubt that the world, and the sport, has changed almost beyond recognition over the last 14 years, and the widely anticipated arrival of big money investment from private equity firms looking to broker giant TV and sponsorship deals is a potential game-changer. But the fundamentals of good governance remain pretty consistent whether you are talking about having £500 or £100m in the bank.

It is about managing risk, so it is absolutely right that the robustness of the governance structure should be examined and adjusted where appropriate, but does it require the baby to be thrown out with the bath water?

“There is no reason why they shouldn’t be looking at it, but I’m wondering why they are taking this approach. What are they wanting to achieve?” repeats Dunlop.

Meanwhile, Scottish club rugby has often been its own worst enemy, with its in-built resistance to change and inability to build consensus known to be major bugbears for the famously impetuous Dodson.

“That’s the nature of the beast – but that is the amateur side of it,” rationalises Dunlop. “They [the clubs] should still be treated with respect and afforded the right to transparency.

“There’s this business with people asking for information and being refused on commercial grounds. Well, maybe that’s fair enough at a public meeting, but not when a request is made by a member of the Council because one of his constituents has asked for that. The SRU is, after all, a member organisation, so the ultimate accountability is to its members.

“There are all sorts of conspiracy theories circulating at the moment and if you had transparency that wouldn’t be happening. Never mind the business, we are talking about a sport, and we are entitled to know what is happening and to be able to say whether we agree or disagree with the direction of travel.

“It is absolutely not acceptable that we are being kept in the dark by a body like the SRU. We keep talking about the stakeholders – well, what are we holding if we don’t get told what’s happening? Information is so important in every walk of life.

“Mark Dodson has been a very successful commercial businessman, but he just doesn’t seem to give due respect and place to people who are entitled to contribute and have their side heard.”

Analysis: Review of SRU governance structures must be truly independent


About David Barnes 4012 Articles
David has worked as a freelance rugby journalist since 2004 covering every level of the game in Scotland for publications including The 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.


  1. A big thank you to Sheriff Dunlop for his words of wisdom, expert knowledge, and his skills in such matters!
    I and others have made numerous comments on matters regarding the workings and decisions of the SRU in recent times. I have no doubt that these have either been ignored by the SRU or deposited in the big round filing cabinet inside Murrayfield. Obviously, I can only speak for myself here. My comments have been made purely because of my concern for the game in general and that of individuals who have been treated appallingly by the Union.(ex:Keith Russell affair)
    My concerns have been expressed previously in similar situations. With hindsight, I can imagine the destructive impact that could result without the input of a truly independent expert.
    When such disquiet arises the only way to resolve matters is to be completely transparent. The SRU have failed miserably in their attempts at what they consider transparency. The latest initiative looks likely to continue along the same bumpy road. I was of the understanding that there had already been a review since Russellgate? I fear the time is coming ever closer to when the wheels are likely to come off! There is a great deal of uncertainty both on and off the pitch in the coming months!
    I have not played Rugby since my school days. I became heavily involved in an other sport, eventually coaching at the top level. However I still enjoyed working on the basics with children. There are rewards at both ends of the spectrum. However, I have come back to rugby as a part of my retirement. Not to sit at home and watch it on the TV, but to contribute something to the sport. Without volunteers and conscripts sport as we know it would not survive! Success at the top is probably the vision -at some point- for the majority who are involved in sport? However, as we all know that is not always feasible or even probable? Do we become disgruntled and walk away, or do we make the best of what we know and have at times enjoyed a great deal of pleasure?
    So, who or what is going to influence change to what most of us think is best for all of rugby? I don’t have all the skills and knowledge to tackle such a task. How many readers can honestly say they have the tools required to take on the task? However, the club members with the support of Sheriff Dunlop, supportive past international players, the journalists at the Offside Line, and the combined efforts of all those who have been administrators in the club game over many years you can! You can at least have a really good try! That combination is a sizeable force when they all pull in the same direction! There is of course the obvious caveat. You won’t be successful unless you come together under the guidance of a suitable leader!
    I urge the readers to find the strength to come together for the benefit of all involved in Scottish rugby!

  2. The clubs have to take control. There needs to be a degree of planning and tangible strategies, policies and processes on the absolute key issues tabled. Time is running out before the AGM if the clubs want to demonstrate leadership. Someone has to grab the bulls by the horn and stop dickie dancing around.

  3. Splendid Article.

    Great to hear from someone well respected, truly independent, and with no axe to grind.

    Spot on the money.

    Would you put a penny of your money with Paddy Power on any response coming from a Chairman (and indeed CEO and President) who are “doing a Boris” and simply not engaging with the media?

    We need more and more Clubs, the members of the organisation, to wake up to the fact that we are being badly let down by the people in positions of power, particularly those elected to look after our interests.

  4. To quote Lord Acton:
    “Power tends to corrupt: absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

  5. Well said Sheriff Dunlop.

    Lots of points for Council and Board members to ponder there. The question is – will they?

  6. The problem is with people not doing their job properly. Sheriff Bill Dunlop hits the nail on the head, they should be replaced so what are the club’s going to do about it?

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