THE 2021 SRU AGM will take place in the President’s and Thistle Suites under the West Stand at Murrayfield this Sunday morning. The meeting was originally convened in its usual slot back in early August via video conference, then immediately adjourned to a time when the presentations, debates and votes could happen in person. The Scottish Rugby Council, Board members, delegates drawn from the 142 full-member clubs and 138 associate member clubs around Scotland, and past-Presidents, will all be in attendance – but the chances of this being a convivial reunion after a year and half of Covid are slim.
The big business of the day will be three motions which have been proposed by GHA, Glasgow Hawks and Haddington to address three fundamental concerns which Scottish Rugby’s owners – the clubs – have about the way the game is currently being run: Super6, funding, and the role of Scottish Rugby’s legal and secretarial department.
Murrayfield’s anxiety was made clear on Wednesday of this week when the ‘Club Communication’ email list was used to issue an “update” on behalf of the President and Chairman. Rather than the usual housekeeping issues which are generally sent out via this channel, club committee members were treated to a brusque riposte of the motions featuring some emotive language and dire warnings of stark legal ramifications.
The GHA motion calls for the reinstatement of a modernised version of the Inter-District Championship to be funded using cash freed-up from discontinuing Super6 at the end of the current licence period in 2024.
The Scottish Rugby Council and Board have tabled an amendment which proposes a consultation with clubs on the prospect of running such a competition below Super6 level, but not as a direct replacement for that tournament.
In fairness, Mark Dodson should be congratulated for proving with Super6 something that ought to have been blindingly obvious in the first place: that if you properly invest in the top end of the domestic game through direct contributions to clubs and strategic support of the league in general then you will end up with a better product which has an enhanced profile.
He says he is already looking forward to increasing the league to eight then 10 teams, perhaps even progressing to two leagues of six, which is presumably a demonstration of unwavering commitment to his pet project.
All he needs to do after that is create a fair system for promotion into the league based on on-field performance and meeting specific off-field standards in terms of facilities, infrastructure and business-plan (some clubs may decide they don’t want to take on the extra costs and responsibilities). Then, so long as investment continues at the current level, we might end up with something that all clubs can buy into – or at least tolerate – whilst continuing to serve the purpose of bridging the gap between the amateur and professional game.
The battlelines have been drawn over this deeply divisive issue since Super6 was first presented at the 2017 AGM. The real shame about the undemocratic and heavy-handed way the concept was imposed without proper consultation is that whatever the outcome of Sunday’s vote, at least one important section of the sport will be left feeling deeply aggrieved and concerned about their own future.
Everybody wanted to find a way to reinvigorate and improve the club game, and the failure over many years to reach a workable consensus was hugely frustrating, with the fault lying on both sides of the club-union divide. However, using a sledgehammer to crack this nut has caused painful and unnecessary collateral damage. The important thing now is to find a way forward which can build bridges and start to repair some of the harm done, whilst continuing to drive standards at the top end of the club game. That doesn’t necessarily entail throwing the baby out with the bathwater. It really shouldn’t be too difficult to fix.
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The Glasgow Hawks motion aims to ensure that distribution of the £20m Scottish Government Covid bail-out – £15m grant and £5m low-interest loan – is reported in the proper manner. It requires a schedule of all payments from these two funds to be published and made available to the Scottish Rugby Council, or successor organisation, on a quarterly basis, and for assurances to be given that none of the cash will be used to support the recruitment of non-Scottish qualified players either directly or indirectly.
While the Board and Council are on record as fully supportive of regular reporting, they have put forward an amendment which claims that the part of the motion relating to government money being spent on overseas players is unlawful under “sections 13 and/or 19 of the Equality Act 2010”.
In response, an email distributed during the last week on behalf of the proposers of the three motions, which went to as many member clubs as they have up-to-date contact information for, argued that: “The Amendment proposed by the Board and Council is a puzzle since Hawks, and others, cannot see how this falls foul of the Equalities Act. There are numerous cases of governing bodies having restriction by qualification. There is also reference to legal opinion without sight of such opinion or indeed on what question the opinion is based. Further byelaw 18 already gives protection to Board and Council on any instruction from clubs seeking them to act unlawfully.”
Not for the first time in recent years, the legal advice being used to shape Scottish Rugby governance has left many member clubs scratching their heads, which leads neatly on to the third motion, proposed by Haddington RFC.
This motion calls for the Scottish Rugby Council to convene a review of the Scottish Rugby Union and the Scottish Rugby Union Limited’s legal and secretarial function, which “shall include consideration of the relative advantages and disadvantages of continuing such functions in-house when compared with outsourcing to a third party or third parties, in part or in whole”.
You would think that this would be the least contentious of the motions. What negative consequence can possibly come from the Council looking into how an important segment of the organisation works? They will conclude that either everything is as it should be and we can carry on as before, or that there is room for improvement which will benefit the whole organisation. No change is being mandated at this stage, so we are purely talking about a review, which is surely a healthy process in any progressive business.
It is therefore interesting and perhaps illuminating that this is the motion which seems to have provoked the most resolute response from Murrayfield.
The Board minutes from 6th June tell us that the Board was “of the unanimous and firm view that it [the motion] represented an unwarranted attack on legal personnel, who had worked tirelessly to support all facets of the organisation – never more so than during the Covid-19 pandemic – and should be resisted.”
Then, Wednesday’s ‘Club Communication’ told members that: “Scottish Rugby’s employees are hard-working, professional and unfailingly conscientious. They take their duty to work in tandem with and support member clubs very seriously. Within the rebuild phase of our plan to recover from the pandemic, the importance of unity and working collaboratively to enhance the sport and its values has never been greater. We ask you to join your Council and Board and oppose this motion.”
Strong stuff, except there is not so much as a hint anywhere in the motion that Scottish Rugby’s employees are anything other than “hard-working, professional and unfailingly conscientious”. The motion addresses the performance of the legal and secretarial function as a department, and specifically highlights areas where conflicts of interest may put staff in the department in an impossible situation. It is spurious and cynical to try to cloud the issue by presenting a legitimate request – whether you agree with it or not – as a personal attack.
The motion points out a series of major failings linked to the legal and secretarial department which have never been satisfactorily addressed, leading to this sorry impasse. That has been completely ignored in the Board and Council’s various responses, with the motion being presented as an unprovoked and vicious witch-hunt instead.
You can’t help but wonder why the scrutiny of an independent review is such a threat? What is there to hide? Is this response the most compelling evidence yet that the matter needs properly investigated?