SHEILA Begbie, the SRU’s director of rugby development, gave a media briefing at Murrayfield this morning, accompanied by Ken Muir, the governing body’s head of business operations, and Tavish Scott, head of external affairs.
Begbie spoke for around 20 minutes to outline the union’s new 2019-2023 Strategy Development Strategy, which includes a number of initiatives for encouraging participation in all areas of the game. The key revelation, however, was the number of people who have registered as players with the SRU: 36,207.
That number will appear implausibly high to many who have seen player and volunteer numbers decline at their club, and so far it has not been fleshed out with additional detail such as the average number of games played by those players. But Begbie and her colleagues believe it is a sound starting point for them to work with, certainly when compared with previous models, as she explained to The Offside Line after her presentation.
The Offside Line: You’re confident that your new system for data collection – Scottish Rugby Management System or SCRUMS – is superior to previous systems you used. What are the crucial differences?
Sheila Begbie: “We used to get the data from clubs and schools, who in-putted what their player numbers were. On SCRUMS, the big difference is it’s the individual player who registers themselves on to the system, and that’s why we’re saying that the data we’ve got now is cleansed data, because it’s individual registrations. There’s a profile created for each of the players registered on SCRUMS. If a player is under 18, it’s a parent or guardian or carer that will register them on the system.”
TOL: And players cannot register more than once, which apparently used to happen on the old system?
SB: “We did look for whether it was a Doug or a Douglas, so that was why we took a little bit of time just to make sure that there were no duplicates. And there were no duplicates in the system. We’re quite safe. It is working.”
TOL: When you say 36,207 are playing the game, do you know how many people are playing, say, at least ten games a season? Can you glean an average number of games played from the system?
SB: “Yes. We will be able to provide average number of games and how many games an individual player has played. SCRUMS also gives us the opportunity of identifying dropout stages, so if we see that we’re losing numbers at specific stages within the game, it will mean that we can work with clubs and schools to deliver interventions to try and keep those players.
“It will also give us the number of games played by teams, plus the fulfilled-fixture rate. It will actually give us a lot more intel on the game than we’ve ever had before, and later on this year we’re adding coaches as well. That will make it so much easier for the coach coordinators and clubs, who will be able to access that information. And later we’ll also add information about match officials.
“We see it as a real tool that we can develop over the next few years, that can support the clubs in terms of their administration and hopefully take some of the burden off our volunteers who are working with spreadsheets etc.
“The clubs are the heart of the game. We want to support our volunteers as much as we can, and if we can make our IT systems work better for our clubs and volunteers, then that’s absolutely what we’ll do.”
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TOL: The figure of 11,000 adult males looks very large. If you consider the number of games played over a weekend, perhaps we have something like 3,000-4,000 very regular players. So Is 11,000 a soft maximum number?
SB: “As I said, we’ll be able to track the number of games [a player plays]. We probably will know, once we’ve had SCRUMS in for another season or two. That’s the kind of information we’ll be able to be quite strong and robust on and share it with our clubs.
“Some of our clubs are really challenged. On the consultation, we were looking at some clubs having to use 48-plus players to fulfil one fixture. That is huge pressure on the clubs. And it’s also about the societal demands and the other demands on players in terms of individual sports and family commitments. I think that we’re a much more family-oriented society than previously.
“So we understand it’s a changing environment and a changing society. There are big pulls on people’s time, and they’re free agents.”
TOL: Speaking of changing society, it might be misleading merely to assess what is happening within Scottish rugby. Have you been able to compare it with the change in participation levels in other sports within Scotland, and with rugby in other countries?
SB: “We’ve recently been looking at some of the issues in Wales and New Zealand. They are really strong traditional rugby countries, and there are declining populations of players and teams in both countries. They’re really challenged.
“We were also looking at the FA in England, and they were talking about over the last five or six years their numbers of teams and players have reduced dramatically too. So it’s not just a problem for Scottish rugby, it’s across sports and across the world. Individual sports are growing – Tough Mudders and things like that are where some of our players are going – so we’re saying to our clubs why don’t you do your own Tough Mudders? Or boot camps within clubs? Some of the clubs have got really good facility so they could look at diversifying what they do. So it is an issue.”
TOL: Is it fair to say that this survey notes a marked decline in player numbers?
SB: “I don’t think it is. I think it’s almost comparing apples and pears, because I think the reality is we’ve never really known what the numbers are in the game. When I’m talking about one person from our organisation being registered four times, and the number did come from clubs and schools previously.
“I wouldn’t say it’s a massive decline. I think there’s potentially a decline in the numbers that we’ve got playing the game, but I wouldn’t say it’s massive. We actually don’t know realistically what the numbers were before.
“We are where we are. We have to move on. This is our line in the sand of where the game is.
“We need the people that we’ve got in the game. Instead of looking to bring more people in, we need to keep the people that we’ve got playing the game just now.”
The SRU already knows the number of registered players at each club, but said it could only make such information public with the consent of the clubs. However, if and when the data is anonymised and permission given to share it, Begbie and her colleagues said they would be willing to share and discuss it.