Well done, Mr Dodson, you got your six … but the hard work starts now

Serious concerns persist throughout the club game as to what the future holds

Mark Dodson at last summer's SRU AGM
Mark Dodson at last summer's SRU AGM ***Image: Fotosport/David Gibson***

WHEN Mark Dodson sets his mind to something he is like a dog with a bone – he never let’s go. And he seems to have the knack of getting what he wants. But in the case of Super 6, it is not yet a case of job-done. This is just the start of a long and complicated process.

Having been stung by a general apathy and a specific failure of the clubs to get on the same hymn sheet with his previous scheme to streamline the top end of the domestic game in Scotland with an eight team ‘Super League’ proposal unveiled in December 2013, Dodson went back to his stool in the corner and after a short break came out fighting, with not only a new proposal but also a tactic for turning it into reality which involved circumnavigating the need to build a consensus amongst his constituent clubs.

Dodson presented this scheme entitled Agenda 3 [with Super 6 as its flagship policy] as a fait accompli at last year’s SRU AGM, and his skills of persuasion seemed to win over an initially sceptical audience. However, as the details were digested in the weeks that followed, that early blast enthusiasm gave way to trepidation about the workability of the scheme in both a sporting and financial context.

So, Dodson got out on the road, visiting ambitious clubs across the country to explain – using a combination of the carrot and the stick – why they needed to be on board with what he had in mind.

Slowly but surely, enough clubs came around to his way of thinking to ensure that he didn’t need to follow through on his threat to plug any gaps in his Super 6 roster by creating SRU driven franchises.

Plenty anxiety remained. As one leading official at a club whose bid was turned down mused yesterday: ‘At least I can get back to sleeping at night’. But the general feeling amongst most of the clubs which threw their hat into the ring was that this could be a golden opportunity to develop their facilities, professionalise their infrastructure and consolidate their position as top dogs in the Scottish club game.

In the end, Dodson attracted 12 bids which validated his claim at the start of April that his big problem was going to be in dealing with the disappointment of clubs that are unsuccessful with their applications.

Yesterday lunchtime [Tuesday], the winning bids were unveiled. They are: Ayr, Boroughmuir, Heriot’s, Melrose, Stirling County and Watsonians.

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Successful Super 6 franchises announced

“The six successful applications will, I believe, enable Super 6 to achieve our ambition to raise the standard of rugby at the top of the club game in Scotland and also create strong, sustainable franchises in their own right,” declared Dodson.

“The bids from the successful six clubs clearly demonstrated a shared vision for what Super 6 can become and highlighted the ambitions of these clubs to grow. This is the start of our Super 6 journey together and I feel we are well-placed to make it a success,” he added.

Dodson’s enthusiasm does not seem to have been universally matched by those unconnected with successful bids.

‘An insult to the city of Glasgow’

The fact that there are going to be three franchises in Edinburgh (a town already over-saturated with rugby outlets) and none in either Glasgow, Dundee and Aberdeen, is a concern. And the absence of a franchise north of the Forth raises the galling possibility of a rugby wilderness developing beyond the central belt. It is certainly not clear at this stage how the geographic spread of Super 6 franchises can tally with Dodson’s earlier claim that these clubs can become focal points and hubs for amateur clubs in their vicinity.

It may not be intentional, but having two of the clubs located within two miles of Murrayfield [as the crow flies], a third within three-and-a-half miles, and two more within 40 miles, smells of parochialism. It can’t be healthy for any country to have so much of its resources concentrated so narrowly. The review panel were charged with assessing each bid on its merits, but, in this instance, geography surely did matter.

“It is insulting to the people of Glasgow and a slight on club rugby in the city,” said Kenny Hamilton, the usually mild-mannered President of unsuccessful applicants Glasgow Hawks. “Ambitious players in Scotland’s biggest city will now feel obliged to jump on a train to Edinburgh to give themselves a chance of realising their dream of playing professionally. I can’t see how that’s good for the development of the game.”

Hamilton believes that Hawks’ bid – which was in conjunction with GHK, Glasgow Accies and West of Scotland rugby clubs, plus Strathclyde and Glasgow Universities, and the Royal Navy – fell down principally on the basis that the main pitch at the franchise’s proposed base of Burnbrae is not 4G. Initial conversations had suggested that the SRU, sportscotland and World Rugby could help source the funds to remedy this situation, but it now seems to be up to the franchisees to find the cash themselves.

“Glasgow Hawks was set up in 1997 to provide a performance pathway for players in the city into the professional game and we’ve done that pretty effectively for 20 years, and I’m not really sure that it makes sense for us to now revert to being purely an amateur club competing against our founder clubs,” Hamilton added, suggesting that the Scottish champions of  2004, 2005 and 2006 may now cease to exist as a going concern. “That’s a decision for all our stakeholders, not just me, but it is difficult to see what our role would be outside of Super 6.”

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A deep sense of frustration and anger

There have been heavy hints dropped that six could become eight within the next two to three years, and Hamilton says that there is no reason why a reformed Hawks – or another similar entity started from scratch – could not step up to the plate if that was to happen. But you get the impression that he won’t be at the vanguard.

“Perhaps that would be an opportunity for a club like Cartha or GHA or another club in Glasgow to carry the beacon,” he said.

Yesterday’s press release was full of dignified platitudes from those clubs which failed in their bid about overcoming their own disappointment to wish the successful applicants the best of luck, but a quick call around of some of the clubs which were well fancied but missed out confirms that there is a deep sense of frustration and anger at the way this process has been handled.

Dodson is due to meet all the unsuccessful applicants during the next few weeks to compare notes on each other’s performance during this franchising process. It may be a cathartic experience for the clubs involved, but it is not going to change anything.

Money and cross-border

As for the successful applicants, they still have big questions which need to be answered, most significantly relating to those old chestnuts of finance and season structure.

Some of the wilder calculations in the early weeks of this process indicated that there was a six-figure gap between what the SRU believed the cost of running a franchise would be and what the bidding clubs were forecasting. That number has been worked down – with the SRU seeming to be open to compromise on issues like minimum squad sizes [initially set at 35] and sharing resources – but for the majority (if not all) of the franchising clubs, a significant shortfall in funding persists if players are to be paid minimum wage for training three times per week as per the SRU’s recommendation. This needs to be addressed.

From day one, cross-border competition has been a key facet of what Super 6 stands for, but we seem to be no closer to identifying what that is going to look like. There were murmurings that Scottish franchises would play against the Welsh Regional Under-23 sides which are about to take over the Principality Premiership’s role in the development pathway down there, but recent reports that the Guinness PRO14 are on the precipice of launching a shadow under-23 league means there is a big question mark hanging over that. Dodson needs to come up with some sort of vision on this soon, because the prospect of six franchises playing each other over and over again, without any change of scenery, doesn’t bear thinking about.

The level of SRU control and interference in the day-to-day running of the franchises is also worth keeping an eye on. An early indication of how that is going to pan out will be with the appointment of head coaches.

The threat of an SGM

Meanwhile, down in the National Leagues, there has been growing murmurs of protest about an unfair playing field being created between traditional clubs and the amateur wings of Super 6 franchises, who will be playing in the same leagues from 2019 onwards.

This, allied to a general frustration at a lack of consultation from Murrayfield, has prompted Keith Wallace, vice president of Haddington RFC, to start canvassing support for a Special General Meeting to demand a proper debate on the merits and drawbacks of the Agenda 3 programme.

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“The biggest problem facing the club game is lack of players to fulfil fixtures. These proposals can only make this worse as up to 210 players are [going to be] sucked out of the club game. This will impact on the pyramid structure of clubs, which needs a strong base,” said Wallace.

“Clubs are rightly concerned about losing players and having leagues de-stabilised by Super 6 applicants having their 2nd XV injected into National One, irrespective of merit. As it stands, the SRU is, in effect, funding ‘super-hoovers’, making it an uneven playing field. This is not the role of a governing body.”

“The fact that in a such a short space of time [since last Thursday night] over two thirds of those in the National Leagues who did not apply for Super 6 were exercised enough to take it to their committees, and over a third have to date sent letters of support, serves to show the seriousness of the concerns.

“Without clubs, where the majority of players are introduced, there will be no game,”

Wallace was particularly aggravated that SRU president and board member Rob Flockhart started last week’s forum meeting of National League 2 and 3 clubs by stating that the movement of players was “a fallacy”.

“The push for an SGM is a reaction to this – simply to pause the process to allow proper debate of these concerns,” he concluded.

Poaching will be rife

One unsuccessful Super 6 bidder reported yesterday afternoon that a nearby successful candidate had already been on the phone to a key player at his own club, dangling the prospect of making a Super 6 squad the season after next tantalisingly in front if him as a temptation to switch allegiances.

Rangi Jericevich, the director of rugby at GHA, is not surprised to hear this.

“We got the report on Monday morning from the last SRU council meeting and within it there was a whole bunch of answers to various concerns, one of which was about whether Super 6 clubs would attract players to their amateur/2ndXV team, and the belief from Murrayfield is that that won’t happen – which is delusional, to be perfectly honest,” he said.

“We’ve had a handful of our players, and one of our coaches, already approached by p a club before the announcement, and part of the sales pitch is: ‘If you get involved with us next season, you’ll have a chance to be involved with our Super 6 franchise the year after.’

“It’s natural that they would say this because that’s one of the advantages of being a Super 6 club – you’ve got this aspirational side and it is inevitable that your club team is looked upon as a development squad where you want all the next best players.

“Without player payments, there is no need for an ambitious youngster to play anywhere other than at a Super 6 club side, with half an eye on getting a contract. And I am really concerned that the problem will be even more acute at youth level, where parents of ambitious youngsters might feel compelled to align their child with a Super 6 club as early as possible in order  to give him the best chance of making it.”

It looks unlikely that Wallace will get the 24 letters of support he needs to requisition the SRU to call an SGM, but the governing body’s AGM later this summer could be lively.

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About David Barnes 3912 Articles
David has worked as a freelance rugby journalist since 2004 covering every level of the game in Scotland for publications including he Herald/Sunday Herald, The Sunday Times, The Telegraph, The Scotsman/Scotland on Sunday/Evening News, The Daily Record, The Daily Mail/Mail on Sunday and The Sun.

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