Why does the SRU have a lawyer instead of a Director of Rugby on its Board?

Keith Russell, the former Director of Domestic Rugby, says endless reviews are delaying meaningful change in Scottish Rugby

SRU General Counsel Robert Howat has sat on the Board since 2015. Image: ©Fotosport/David Gibson

THERE has not been a Director of Rugby on the Board of Scottish Rugby Union since Graham Lowe quit the organisation in November 2012, meaning a serious lack of transparency and accountability in rugby strategy at the key decision-making level during a period of significant upheaval for the game both globally and locally.

The Dunlop Report, which provided the basis for the current constitution of the SRU in 2005, was very clear. A new unitary Board was to be established which would be given the authority to run the business of the SRU subject only to four critical constraints of accountability, participation, responsiveness and transparency to the major stakeholders in the Scottish game. The stakeholders were identified as ‘principally clubs’ but also ‘other interested groups’.

This new Board was to have 12 members, consisting of four ‘executive directors’, four ‘non-executive directors’ and four members of the council. “The four executives should be the chief executive, the chief financial officer, the director of commercial and marketing and the director of rugby,” stated Sheriff Bill Dunlop.


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However, after Lowe’s departure, Australian Scott Johnson was employed as Director of Rugby between May 2013 and March 2019, and he was not added to the Board.

Instead, for the last four years, Robert Howat – the SRU’s General Counsel (in-house lawyer) – has occupied the seat which had previously been reserved for the Director of Rugby, in a clear contravention of Dunlop’s recommendations.

It was never very clear what, specifically, Johnson’s role in the organisation entailed. He seemed to take great pride in his elusiveness, generally eschewing media duties or any other sort of public/stakeholder briefings. It was hard to escape the impression that he resented criticism or the suggestion that he might be accountable to anyone other than Chief Executive Mark Dodson.

The invisible man

Informally, Murrayfield insiders would praise Johnson as an expert ‘problem solver’, ‘negotiator’ and ‘talent scout’ – but precious little evidence was made available during his six-year tenure of a coherent strategy to develop rugby at all levels throughout Scotland.

There has been a scatter-gun approach to dealing with the various challenges facing the sport as it navigates its way through the professional era, including flirtations with buying into Premiership sides Worcester Warriors and Newcastle Falcons, actual investment into French third tier outfit Stade Niçois and American start-up Old Glory DC, and the Agenda 3/Super 6 project. The list goes on.

It was not clear at any stage how engaged Johnson was with any of these schemes. He certainly never fronted up to make the rugby case for them. If anyone did then it tended to be Dodson or Chief Operating Officer Dominic McKay, which raises questions about whether commercial rather than sporting considerations have been the primary driving force.

The situation is exacerbated by the lack of rugby pedigree amongst the other executive and non-executive directors on the Board. When Dodson was appointed in September 2011, two of the four non-execs were former Scotland caps in the shape of Gordon Bulloch and Jock Millican. Both were gone within two years, being replaced by Colin Grassie (a banking executive) and Lesley Thomson QC (a lawyer).

Another Scotland cap, Ian McLauchlan, was heavily involved as President when Gordon McKie was pushed out of the Chief Executive job to be replaced by Dodson. He became a non-executive director after his Presidency was up in 2013, serving six more years in total before stepping down earlier this year to be replaced by Julia Bracewell (an English solicitor who fenced internationally for Scotland and GB).

That leaves an alarming lack of hands-on experience of rugby in general, and insight into Scottish rugby in particular, amongst the eight executive and non-executive directors on the Board. Finance Director Andrew Healey is by far the most qualified in that respect, having played over 100 games for GHA before refereeing for a further nine years.

Endless reviews

Johnson has not yet been replaced as Director of Rugby after his departure at the end of last season’s Six Nations. It has been reported that no appointment will be made until Ben Ryan concludes his review of the SRU performance department.

Ryan appears to be an independent voice and, having led the Fijian 7s team to Olympic Gold in 2016, he brings serious rugby credibility, so it is interesting that the SRU have yet to even acknowledge that he has been commissioned.

His review is being carried out at the same time but not, it seems, in conjunction with Sir Bill Gammell’s investigation of the SRU’s governance and management structures – so we wonder how easy it will be to marry the two outcomes in order fundamentally change (improve) the operational capacity of the organisation.

These are the latest in a long list of reviews and major initiatives launched during the last five years, which includes but is not limited to –

That’s five years of continual upheaval in governance and rugby development pointing to a serious lack of coherent strategy. There is sparse evidence of these reviews and initiatives being fully shared, evaluated and monitored before the next big idea is launched.

“Repeated reviews over the past five years gives the impression that the Board are not addressing organisational problems. This fragmented approach is simply applying a sticking plaster over much greater problems,” says Keith Russell, the former Director of Domestic Rugby for the SRU, who won an unfair dismissal tribunal against the organisation last summer. “If there is a genuine interest in resolving the problems in the SRU then why not bring in a completely independent panel, with sport administration experience, to carry out the review, like British Cycling did in 2017.”

Adopting best practice

The British Cycling review is an interesting case study. Initially directed at the culture of the high-performance team, the outcome was a change of Chair and CEO, plus a 39-point action plan that covered much more than the original focus of the review.

“Since becoming Chair in February, we have quickly steered through widespread changes to British Cycling’s leadership and governance, some of which still require final approval at our EGM on 22 July,” said Jonathan Browning, the new Chair of British Cycling. “Our proposals to alter the Board and the recruitment of new senior executives, demonstrates our commitment to professionalise and significantly improve the governance, transparency and strength of our sport – for the good of all involved.

“The Action Plan I announced in March goes beyond the recommendations in the CIR. In the Action Plan we identified 39 areas for immediate action in the areas of governance; leadership and management; culture; athlete whole-life development and welfare; and best practice in operational delivery and performance management. We are determined to learn the lessons and move forward, ensuring effective and accountable leadership that fosters a transparent and inclusive culture at British Cycling. UK Sport has confirmed that our Action Plan satisfies the recommendations in the CIR. The delivery of this plan demonstrates that change is going right to the heart of the organisation.

Russell believes something similar needs to happen in Scottish Rugby, meaning a truly independent root and branch review of the organisation conducted by experts in sport administration, which will give a definitive vision for the game in this country at all levels to move forward with.

“The primary purpose of the SRU is to develop rugby in Scotland through its member organisations, the clubs,” he concludes. “Without an independent review similar to British Cycling’s, the Board will continue to delay genuine change and obscure the real problems with a governing body more focused on commercial development and professional rugby than on the development of the sport.”


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David Barnes
About David Barnes 1413 Articles
David has worked as a freelance rugby journalist since 2004 covering every level of the game in Scotland for publications including The Sunday Times, The Telegraph, The Scotsman/Scotland on Sunday/Evening News, The Herald/Sunday Herald, The Daily Mail/Mail on Sunday and The Sun.

9 Comments

  1. All well said; no discernible change than when I served on my club over ten years ago and the SRU reneged on an agreement that almost closed our club.
    They are focusing on earnings now, but not very good at it. Using my Murrayfield debentures I took advantage of buying tickets for self and son for the recent Liverpool game. The service I received when phoning for a simple enquiry from rhei switchboard was appalling, and on match day their was barely 10% of the usual catering vans as we’d have for our rig by matches. Most fans I presume did without, but one poor mother in our row missed 30 minutes of the second half queuing to feed her three lads their promised chips. The SRU are really just a bunch of amateurs who happen to have some excellent assets

  2. In answer to the headline question when an organisation is run by individuals who are dangerously incompetent it is important to have a lawyer on hand to attempt to mitigate the damage they do.

  3. David
    Another fine article.
    Some might say there are multiple choice answers to your title question along the lines of:
    A. To justify his eye watering salary, which is understood to be of the order of all of this years profits
    B. Because every controller needs a henchman
    C. Because he knows chapter and verse on all governance failures
    D. Because the Chair, Non-Execs and Council are asleep at the wheel.
    E. Because the S in SRU stands for shameless
    F. All of the above.

    I leave your readers to choose/provide others.

  4. I’m sure Mr Gammell will bear all this in mind in his review. Or will this fall into some other review bucket?

  5. It appears to me and others, that the SRU Board/Council/Senior Executives are like the present coterie of the Conservative party (I have no affiliation to any political party). They are on a path to somewhere (or should that be nowhere?) that matches their own views. They are supposed to act in our interest but in reality we are considered expendable!. In rugby terms the SRU coterie treat the grassroots of the sport in exactly the same way.

    Another excellent and informative article from the Offside Line!

  6. I may be well wide of the mark, but has the SRU become a dictatorship?
    There is a whiff of a Putinesque regime.

    • Even a whiff of Putin will bring success. The problem with democracy is that it involves other people.

  7. A big problem with the governance is the years of vested interest.

    We have a recent past president who looked after the governance group for many years, who when challenged on the issues of governance, would tell us that the governance of the Union is the envy of the sports administration world with plenty of other governing bodies looking to Edinburgh to see how things should be set up.

    Well now we’re being told that not only is it not the envy of the world, it is in actual fact, not fit for purpose.

    Clubs are responsible for this position. Far too many act like sheep and do what they are told by the employees and their elected representatives – time to grow a pair and accept their responsibility as stakeholders.

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