SCOTTISH RUGBY Chief Executive Mark Dodson gave his now customary eve of Six Nations press briefing yesterday and here are the main points from his chat with the fourth estate.
1. It is time for Scotland to challenge for the Six Nations title.
“If you ask Gregor, and I think he said so at his press conference yesterday [Wednesday], he goes into these tournaments looking to win.
“The squad depth is the greatest in my time here, and I’ve heard other respected commentators and even some of you [journalists] say that this is the strongest squad in depth terms we’ve been able to put on the park in a generation, so our expectations are high.”
2. The pro teams are 12 to 18 months away from being at the level he wants.
“I think Edinburgh and Glasgow are pretty competitive. If you look at the URC, Edinburgh are top and Glasgow are fourth.
“Edinburgh are playing a fine brand of rugby now and going well in the Challenge Cup, and I think Glasgow had a very tough Champions Cup draw against La Rochelle, finalists in the Top 14 and Europe last year, and Exeter, who have been in the same position.
“So, we [Glasgow] didn’t have an easy group at all, but we came up short and we have to accept that we are not there yet. We are a season to 18 months away from being a side who can expect to reach the second round of the European Cup.
“That’s how I judge a competitive side – as a side who are competing in the URC play-offs every year and are also getting through to the second round of Europe. I think beyond the second round it becomes a bit of a lottery in terms of form and other teams playing well.
“We need to be regularly demonstrating like the Irish sides that we can reach the second round of Europe.”
3. The £15m grant and £5m loan received from the Scottish Government to support the game through the Covid crisis has been properly handled.
“It will be very clear in our reporting to government around the funding, which we have an obligation to do.
“It is very clear that the £15m as a grant was to go to repairing the balance sheet from the damage which was caused by not having any income from the  Six Nations beyond. The £5m, we have been very clear, is going at £1m per year to the clubs directly through the growth and participation fund, and I think in two or three weeks’ time we are going to be opening that process so clubs can apply for the £1m on offer this year. We’ve already directed unprecedented levels of investment into the grassroots game.
“And the £15m retained by the Union was never to be transferred into Glasgow and Edinburgh. Our policy with Glasgow and Edinburgh is to go from where we had to with our pro team budgets [during Covid] and get back to normal, with a focus of making sure that we have stronger and deeper squads and you can, hopefully, see that with some of our recruitment.
“All the best talent we have in Scotland is being tied down unto long-term contracts and continuing to be announced almost on a daily basis.”
4. Grassroots player numbers is a major concern – locally and globally.
“I think it is too early to say exactly where it sits at the moment.
“Playing numbers have been a problem for us since pre-Covid and they will be a problem for us post-Covid. When you look at the programmes that we’ve put in place like ‘Everyone’s Game’ you will notice that we are working really hard at schools and club level to attract people back to the game, and also to keep people in the game once they’ve retired in either a coaching capacity or from a volunteer perspective.
“Retention and participation is a huge part of the Rugby Development department’s world, especially in the post-Covid era. We are going to spend a lot of money and resource making sure that we actually retain our numbers.
“But it is a global problem for us and other nations. We are going to work extremely hard on it but I am not going to make any promises that ‘we will be fine, don’t worry’. I think we would be mistaken to think that player numbers have not been affected by corona.”
5. Next month’s World Cup qualifying match could be a pivotal moment for the women’s game in this country.
“It is important that we underpin the progress the squad has made. It would be a fantastic boost for the game across Scotland and the women’s game in particular to get to the World Cup. The team and the squad all understand the importance of this game and I think we should be quietly confident about our prospects.
“There are several stepping stones in the women’s game that don’t exist. We have to put those in place. One is a professional team where our players can play and another one is regional training centres and development of the leagues in more depth. Those are being addressed in the overall women’s strategy that Gemma Fay is leading on.
“We are already in conversation with the RFU about looking at another pro team in their professional setup. A new franchise round will take place in 2022-23 and we’ve already opened conversations and I’ve spoken with Bill Sweeney my opposite number at the RFU about getting involved.”
6. He quite fancies carrying on in the job after his current contract runs out at the end of the 2023 World Cup
“I haven’t really had any conversations with the Board about that. As far as those conversations will take place, there’s always a planned way through the nominations committee and through the Board and I’ll speak to people about that nearer the time. The same is applicable to our coaches in the usual cycle.
“This job is the greatest job in the world for 320 days of the year. For those other days, it’s a bit more difficult. I enjoy this job and while I continue to do it, I’ll do the very best I can. I don’t please everybody all the time as you probably realise, but I enjoy the job.”
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7. The national stadium is going to need big cash spent on it in the not-so-distant future.
“Murrayfield has a shelf life and we are going to have to address that at some point but you can imagine that is a big capital investment issue if taken singularly.”
8. He still wants to expand Super6 but that’s not going to happen before the league’s next block kicks off in late Spring.
“You won’t be surprised to hear that I’m still bullish about it. I think the tournament itself has proved itself to be a far higher standard of rugby than we had previously. The general acceptance of the quality of the product and the coverage we’ve been able to give in broadcast has been significant.
“As you know we’ve been talking to London Scottish about the potential of them coming into a Super8. They’re having conversations with the RFU which will take time and they probably won’t join the Super8 or Super7 in the short term. But when the Six Nations finishes we’ll be starting to focus on expanding the league to certainly a Super7 and we’ll be talking about that nearer the time. There are places in the country where there is a gap for having a Super7 team and we’ll be talking about that after the Six Nations.
9. The challenges facing rugby in the North East of Scotland need to be addressed as a matter of urgency.
“Aberdeen has been in trouble for a while in terms of an area, and we’ve talked long and hard with people like [Aberdeen Grammar Chairman] Gordon Thomson, who is on our Council, and to stakeholders in Aberdeen on what we can do there.
“I’m sure it’s an area that will come under discussion [with regard to Super6]. There’s also the Glasgow area, the Midlands around Dundee, we need to look at these things and regardless of where the next franchise is, we’re going to have to look at Aberdeen from a rugby development point of view. It’s a mixture of economics, playing numbers and facilities that causes the problems.”
10. A third pro team is still the vision but not any time soon.
“I think Jim Mallinder said this when he came in [as director of performance rugby] that to be competitive we do need a third pro team. But there is a lot of complexity to that around where we play, access into the URC and the finances over a multi-year period that would allow that third team to thrive.
“All those things at the moment, post-Covid, are problematic. But in principle, from a strategic point of view, it is something we would strive towards. I think we are creating enough players from our pipelines in Scotland and our SQ program that would allow that to take place.
“What we’ve got to do is make sure that our current pro teams are competitive and at the top of the game first before we move on to that third notion.
“I think it would be one for the next strategy after the one we have through until 2024. I would look at this as being something for between 2025 and 2030 to look at properly, unless an opportunity came up in the meantime.
“We have looked at the economics of the professional game in England and France. Everyone would welcome the ability to play a third pro team but I have to make sure we keep the game in Scotland safe and secure. We’ve done a huge amount of work to underpin the game for the next generation in Scotland in terms of where our cash position sits and overall how our finances are now very robust. I don’t want to put that into jeopardy.
“We’re in a situation where we’re really concentrating on those two [existing pro teams] and making sure economically, we’re in the right place. The Dam Health Stadium has been massive for Edinburgh and we’re going to try to improve our status at Scotstoun as well, improving that stadium in terms of capacity. I don’t wish to be drawn too much into a third franchise conversation because the focus, certainly until the end of this period, is the two teams.
“We looked at Worcester in the past, we looked at Newcastle. There’s two things in that; using the club as a vehicle where we could play our growing number of players, and second was the intelligence you can get about what the economics are. Our experience of French rugby in Nice, in America [with Old Glory], and our experience of working and talking to people we know in the English game have been invaluable in understanding the economics and applying them to our own position in Scotland.
“The ownership structures in England appear to be quite settled at the moment as they go through their own post-Covid environments. I imagine there might be opportunities in a couple of years’ time as they stabilise themselves post-Covid, but just now I don’t see an opportunity down there.”