STAGE 3 ACADEMY PLAYERS will start at least half the Super 6 games they are available for. A provision was included in the Super 6 ‘dual participation protocol’ which was issued earlier this month to allow academy players to be drafted down to Premiership clubs in order to get game time if required, but Sean Lineen – head of ‘on-field development’ for the new league – says he doesn’t expect that to be a regular occurrence.
“It has been agreed with the Super 6 coaches that the 30 stage three players will start a minimum of half the games they are available for,” stated Lineen at a media briefing this morning [Tuesday], before revealing that the allocation of the youngsters, who will be split evenly between the six competing franchises, is to be confirmed at a meeting of Super 6 coaches tomorrow [Wednesday].
Lineen was asked if there was a danger that the competitiveness of the league would be compromised by the creation of this quota system. “No, I’m confident that the balance of the squads will be right,” he replied.
“Given the number of injuries, I’d say we’ll need players, more than players needing game time, I would think,” he added, when asked about the possibility that some members of the 35-man squads might struggle to get competitive action.
Despite the decision by a number of leading Premiership figures such as Shawn Muir of Hawick and Tommy Spinks of Ayr to turn down the opportunity to play in the new league, Lineen insisted that Super 6 will not end up a de facto under-23 development tier.
“I don’t think so,” he stated. “Looking at the squads as they are coming together, there is quite a lot of players in that 23 to 28 bracket. In year one or two there will be players who are looking at it from the Premiership and feel they can’t make that commitment, but as things move forward and it develops – with other countries perhaps becoming involved, the finance going up and so on – that should change.
“They [the coaches] are competitive beasts and they want to win. We want to improve the standard collectively and consistently across the season – if you look at the Heriot’s and Ayr games [this season], they were outstanding matches and we want that week-in and week-out. It is really important that it is a spectacle that people want to come and watch.
“They [the players] are not going to be training full-time every day. You’re looking at two or three conditioning sessions, either early morning or in the evening; an extra skill session on a Monday night, which some of the clubs already do but this will be a little bit more focussed with some extra support from specialist skills staff; and the occasional Sunday to do a flush session or an analysis session.
“So, it is just about trying to bridge that gap between amateur and understanding what the environment looks like if you want to go towards professional.
“I’d like to think that it will be a high level more consistently, but there’s no doubt about it, it’s going to take time. It’s not going to be perfect. We’ll look back at year one and two and decide what we need to change and improve on, so that we get the product right.
“At the moment all six clubs are way down the track with their recruitment, looking at a mixture of youth and experience,” he added. “We understand that there are players in the Premiership who have decided and will decide that super 6 is not for them. That’s fine. The door stays open, but we understand.”
Reinforcements from the south
Lineen added that the calibre of playing resources in Super 6 has been bolstered by a significant number of Scottish qualified players currently based outside the country choosing to throw their lot in with the new league because they see it as a vehicle to earn a full-time contract with either Edinburgh and Glasgow Warriors.
“There are a fair number of SQ [Scottish qualified] players now looking to come back into Scotland,” he said. “I could name 10 now who are coming back in. I’m actually really excited about these players. They are doing it for the right reasons, maybe not the money at the moment but to put themselves in the shop window for the professional game in Scotland. These are guys who are in their mid-20s, playing in National One or the Championship [in England], and thinking they really fancy having a stab at it.”
Making your own rules
The creation of a brand-new league offers the Scottish Rugby Union the opportunity to do things differently in order to give the game in this country ‘an edge’, and with that in mind Lineen revealed that they are looking at trialling law variations and a major overhaul in season structure.
“The coaches are meeting the referees tomorrow about how we can shape the game – perhaps introducing an innovative law or two – to look at the Scottish angle,” he explained.
“The consistency of the games, playing the ‘Scottish way’, is really important. I’m also heading up the ‘technical blueprint’ and we want to have that ‘Scottish way’. Speed is a big part of that so we want to align these teams. Obviously, they are going to have their own little ways of coaching, as you would expect, but it is playing a way that gets the fans through the door.”
From April to November…
As for season structure, it has already been announced that, as this is a World Cup year, the first game in the domestic competition will not be until 9th November [after two friendlies] and this part of the season will run through to the play-off final on 28th March, with gaps over Christmas, New Year and Six Nations weekends. This section of the season will consist of home and away matches against every other team in the league, before first in the table play fourth and second play third in the play-off semi-finals, with the winner of those two matches meeting in the final. Meanwhile, the fifth and sixth placed teams in the league will play a double-header against each other to avoid bottom spot, which makes sure that each team plays the same number of matches.
It has now been confirmed that the cross-border element of the new tier, played against Welsh Premiership clubs, will run for six games over seven weeks from 18th April to 30th May in season one, with every Scottish team playing each of the Welsh participants once (either home or away) in a straight league format. From season two onwards, as fixture congestion eases post World Cup, play-off semi-finals and a final will be added to the schedule.
That means that ultimately each Super 6 team will play 20 competitive games – 10 in the regular domestic league season, two domestic play-offs, six cross-border league games and two cross-border play-offs.
The plan in season two is to bring the launch of the domestic Super 6 section forward to mid-August to run through to early November, with the cross-border games launching in mid-April running through to the end of May. Essentially, this heralds the creation of two mini seasons within the 12-month calendar, with a two-month break in the summer and a four-and-a-half month break in the winter.
Welsh club rugby is also in a state of flux at the moment, with the WRU imposing drastic cuts in support, and league/season structure the focus of a furious debate. Despite this, Lineen believes the strong relationship between the two countries makes this cross-border format an ideal fit.
“I think it’s the right one,” he said. “We have a good relationship with the Welsh Rugby Union through the national age-grade teams – we do a lot of work with them now. Our [Under-16] academy sides went down and played their four academies during the Easter break which was fantastic. Our Under-18s and Under-19s are now playing them every year in December, and the Under-20s usually have a warm-up game before the World Cup. So, I think there is a real affinity with Welsh rugby. We speak to each other a lot about how we can improve things. So, we are delighted to be involved with the Welsh at Super 6 level.
“I think they are at a higher level than us at the moment, but that’s not a bad thing, it is an opportunity for us to improve.
“It is really important that the standard of rugby is improved right across the board. I’ve watched quite a few Welsh club games now and it is a pretty good standard – the Merthyr versus Cardiff game was exceptional – so that’s going to be a step up and we are going to have to make sure we are ready for that.”
Lineen was unable to shed any light on the prospect of a TV deal being secured by the SRU to help promote the new league. “I know they’re working really hard on that – I can’t comment 100 per cent on what’s happening, but they are working really hard on it,” he said.