HOW did we get to the stage where the chief executive of the Scottish Rugby Union thinks it is okay in an interview with the BBC to dismiss the top league of the domestic game in this country as the “weakest amateur tier of rugby in the UK” and state that it is “falling further and further behind” – without producing a shred of evidence to support his claim?
If you take a step back and think about it, this is astonishing behaviour from the man who is supposed to be protecting and promoting Scottish rugby at all levels. It demonstrates a complete lack of respect for the players, coaches, committee members and ordinary supporters of the clubs involved, who work tirelessly – some might say heroically – to operate a league which has done an invaluable job as the bedrock for the game in this country for the last 35 years, and continues to do so today.
Is there room for improvement in the BT Premiership? Absolutely. Does Mark Dodson have any right or authority to pass this sort of judgement on the league? Absolutely not.
Unless he was hiding behind a tree, Dodson was not at either the Greenyards or Malleny Park yesterday, when the top four clubs in the Premiership battled tooth and nail for a place in the league’s Grand Final on 7th April. He prefers to throw his grenades from a safe distance. But that’s not really the point.
The big issue here is that Dodson could not have produced credible evidence to back up his statement, because it is a hypothesis which is impossible to prove. In the crazy, mixed-up world of modern rugby during the ‘open’ era, there is no way of saying where the line in the sand is between professional and amateur. There is money changing hands at all levels. There are different set-ups, league structures, priorities and funding models in every different country.
So, was he equating the BT Premiership (which was designated a professional league for tax purposes by the SRU several years ago) with the English Championship? Or National League One? Or National League Two (South and/or North)? Because there is fluctuating amounts of cash swirling around all of those competitions, and goodness know what the backers of these teams are motivated by.
Not that it really matters anyway from a player pathway point of view because England have their own 12-team fully-privatised elite professional league with an established ‘A-team’ competition sitting just below it – so, really, it is a comparison between apples and pears.
Was Dodson drawing a parallel with Wales’ Principality Premiership? Because that seems a bit rich given that the WRU currently direct £106,000 per year each towards 16 clubs in their top domestic league (£1.7million overall), while the SRU direct £40-50,000 per year to their ten leading clubs (£400,000-500,00 overall). Again … apples and pears.
Perhaps Dodson was comparing the BT Premiership with the All-Ireland Ulster Bank League? If so, then presumably he has forgotten that the Ireland Club XV lost 13-19 at home to the Scotland Club XV in March 2016, and then lost again over two-legs to the Scottish Club XV this year (having not played in 2017).
Or, more plausibly, Dodson has a narrative to create and a point to prove, whether the facts back him up or not. Super 6 is coming because the big man is determined to get what he wants. The BT Premiership is standing in his way, so he will use all the influence he has to knock it down, and to hell with the consequences.
With BT stepping aside as league sponsors next year, there is no commercial imperative on him to protect the Premiership’s credibility. It’s not his problem if his comments make life a bit harder for the saps on the shop floor as they try to keep things going for one last season before the rug is whipped away from under them.
In his interview with the BBC last week, Dodson railed against the suggestion that the potential franchisees he is dealing with on Super 6 might be motivated by any factor other than unbridled enthusiasm for the offer on the table.
“Nobody is being coerced into this, nobody is being forced to apply,” he stated.
Yet, from day one, Dodson has insisted that Super 6 is happening – without ever being voted through by an AGM – and he has consistently vowed that if he doesn’t get enough applications then he will set up the franchises himself. At meeting after meeting with clubs around the country he has reinforced this point, and he has challenged them to decide whether they want to be part of it or left behind.
Simultaneously, we have seen him make it very clear that he and his executive chums do not have any respect or desire to support the BT Premiership if it were to carry on its current guise. “It is not fit for purpose,” he said back in November.
So, potential franchise applicants are left with a decision to make on whether to throw their lot in with the new enterprise which is clearly designated by the governing body as the only way for ambitious clubs to stay relevant; or give up on all the hard work and money they have invested over the years and accept being stuck in a league well below the level they currently reside at – with no realistic prospect of a return to the top of the pile.
There is no ambiguity here, being left behind means being consigned to a rugby backwater.
“They’ve got us over the barrel,” said one key decision-maker at a leading club as he pondered an uncertain future.
It’s the classic schoolyard bully tactic of: It’s my ball and I’ll take it home if I don’t get what I want. In this case, Dodson is demanding his new league, and he’ll use all the influence he has to make sure the alternative is so toxic that nobody wants to countenance it.
No coercion here – but if you are not in Super 6 then you are screwed.
We all seem to have forgotten that it is not Dodson’s ball. The ball belongs to the Scottish Rugby Union – which is the clubs, not the executive.
Dodson is probably right when he says: “We have more than enough people who are going to apply for this. My problem will be dealing with the clubs that don’t actually win. It’s dealing with the disappointment of those not part of the Super 6 that is going to be the challenge.”
But is it fear of the alternative rather than enthusiasm for the proposal which is driving this process?
Dodson told the BBC: “If you listen to the people who bleat the loudest, they are the people who least understand it and who don’t want anything to change. Change is great when it’s not happening to you, I find. People who are still banging on about it are either ill-informed or will never change anyway.”
No coercion here – just the most powerful figure in Scottish rugby calling out anybody who dares to question him as an ignorant bleater, with no understanding of what is going on and an inbuilt hostility to progress.
You are either on-side with Dodson or you are the enemy of the game.
But it definitely isn’t coercion.
For the record, several key figures at some of the clubs most likely to become Super 6 franchises have privately expressed their concerns on a number of occasions about various key aspects of the proposal, including funding and season structure (there is now a vague suggestion that Welsh under-23 regional teams might provide cross-border competition). While these same individuals have been encouraged recently by the mood music from Murrayfield, and the suggestion that deals can be cut and compromises can be brokered, it is really pushing it to categorise this as unbridled enthusiasm.
Essentially, they would rather remain in the process at this stage than be completely ostracised, which is the alternative.
Dodson also said to the BBC that: “We have been mandated to reform club rugby. The clubs have mandated us to do it and Super 6 is the solution.”
This is a refrain he has been repeating since last August’s AGM when he first unveiled his grand plan. It has never been clear where this ‘mandate’ comes from, although the logic seems to be along the lines of: There was a general dissatisfaction with various issues in the club game so the chief executive can do whatever the hell he wants.
Dodson’s frustration at the clubs’ long-standing inability to bang their heads together and find some sensible solutions to their various gripes is understandable – but it is no justification for the contempt he shows towards the club game.