What is club rugby for? – asks Glasgow Hawks driving force Kenny Hamilton

Chairman of Scotland's biggest city's only remaining Premiership club fears for the future

Kenny Hamilton worries that the marginalisation of club rugby in Scotland could have damaging long-term consequences. Image: © Craig Watson - www.craigwatson.co.uk
Kenny Hamilton worries that the marginalisation of club rugby in Scotland could have damaging long-term consequences. Image: © Craig Watson - www.craigwatson.co.uk

CLUBS are run by committee and boards, at least in theory, but most clubs, especially the successful ones, almost inevitably have one strong-minded character with the reins in hand, driving the agenda. In the case of Glasgow Hawks, that character is Kenny Hamilton, who has become synonymous with the West End outfit and for good reason.

To call Hamilton rugby daft doesn’t begin to cover his connection to the oval ball game in general and Glasgow Hawks in particular. He only gave up playing competitive rugby at the age of 62 when he last turned out for Hawks 2nd XV, a one-time flanker turned prop, a well-trodden path for those unwilling to walk away just because they have lost a little pace.

Hamilton was there at the birth of Hawks, back in the early days of the professional era, in which the club was originally expected to compete. As a representative of GHK, Hamilton actually proposed the motion which formed Hawks in 1997, with Glasgow Accies the other founding member.


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He has done pretty much everything at the club, chef and bottle washer included. In addition to playing for them he has been director of rugby, a board member and president (twice) … a role he currently holds but he is hoping to relinquish in the summer. He left the club, briefly, to become DOR at GHK but three or four years later he was back in Hawks’ corner where he has remained ever since.

Playing devil’s advocate, I ask the question if Hawks are still viable in the modern rugby landscape only to discover that Hamilton has beaten me to the draw?

“To be honest,” he replies, “that is a question that we at the club ask ourselves on a very regular basis. ‘What are we for?’

“We started with lofty ambitions of playing as a professional club but when that route was closed to us, [but] not before beating Toulouse one Friday evening in Glasgow. Then we were very happy to become a feeder club for the professionals. Advancing ambitious young talent into the professional ranks, something we were bloody good at!”

They still are. Hawks currently have 11 players in the Glasgow U20 squad, and 10 in the extended Scotland U20 squad of which four  have seen action in the current Six Nations.

Hamilton admits that Hawks can’t lay claim to ‘manufacturing’ many of these players who invariably come from other clubs. Rather they join Hawks to experience Premiership rugby when attending university/college or working in Glasgow, they stay a few years and move on. This role is all the more important now after Hawks’ Glasgow rivals GHA have been relegated.

The club has a high turnover of players and Hamilton uses the expression “passport”. The club “passports” players into the pro ranks and it’s a neat enough explanation of what Hawks do; they offer a vital step up the ladder.

When he put this to one Murrayfield official the response Hamilton got … “no one asked you to” … understandably raised his hackles.

 

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Hawks have their problems, especially after being overlooked for a spot in the original Super6, despite assurances from Murrayfield that no more than two franchises would exist in any one city … Edinburgh has three.

They are tenants at Balgray, Kelvinside Academy’s neat little ground, but the prospect of a national U20 side competing in next year’s Super7 competition means that Hawks will necessarily lose at least some of those young players that the club has come to rely upon. Coach Andy Hill is noted for his Kitchener-like recruitment abilities but even he may struggle to fill his quota of foot-soldiers next season.

Hamilton, you won’t be surprised to hear, is not an advocate of “the failed Super6 experiment” as he refers to it in one set of programme notes. He argues strongly that instead of tearing the house down and starting again, Murrayfield should have built onto the existing foundation of club rugby which already has a place in the wider community. Hamilton insists that he doubts Hawks would join Super6 as is, in the unlikely event that someone at Murrayfield picked up the phone and asked the question?

For every successful Super6 side like the Ayrshire Bulls who have captured the old Ayr supporters and more besides, there is the Southern Knights who seem in more or less constant conflict with host club Melrose. Hamilton uses the image of a cuckoo in another bird’s nest and wonders out loud how the Boroughmuir supporters feel about the Bears, as the old club is in danger of dropping down into National Three. We may find out soon enough?

In a few weeks’ time the current Super6 clubs will be formally asked if they want to continue to participate in the competition next season. Does Hamilton think that at least one club will say “no” to Murrayfield?

“Yes, I do,” he replies. “The financial drain is significant and investing in Super6 is a strain on a good few of them. But on a broader basis I think we need to ask the question; what is club rugby for?

“I think it should be part of the elite game where young players can play and gain experience alongside older ones, learning the game as they go. I think the current Super6 proposal is a knee-jerk reaction to a problem of age-grade rugby (he means the U20s’ recently ended long losing streak) when it simply doesn’t make sense to me. The major success of Super6 to date is that it has offered coaches a pathway into the professional game.

“The original plan was to have a Super8 or a Super10 … so have it and base it on existing clubs. Professionalise the existing system. We need a domestic competition that we can (through Scottish Rugby) have control over

“The problem is that there are now so many vested interests involved in continuing Super6 that it is impossible to get an objective assessment of its impact. But we see the impact of the annual Viking raid on clubs to shore up Super6 sides. It further destabilises the foundations of Scottish rugby, the club game.”

Part of the problem is that if Super6 is the answer to an undercooked national 20’s squad, few teams have consistently given much game time to their youngest players, with the notable exception of Graham Shiel at the Bears, and even that might have come from necessity rather than choice.

The Scotland 20’s will only improve markedly when the U18s play competitive rugby week-in and week-out because, as things stand, those players, whether representing club or school, only get a few high intensity clashes per season and are manifestly incapable of competing at the next level when they get there. So what exactly is Super6 for?

“No other tier one nation is attempting to develop their U20 players in a separate silo. They recognise the value of training and playing alongside older and more experienced players,” argues Hamilton.

He has an itch he can’t help but scratch, returning to his favourite topic time and again throughout our conversation; what is the function of club rugby in Scotland?

“I fear for the future,” he says. “There are huge problems trying to plan for your season when you can lose a raft of players to Super6. Define a role for the clubs as part of the elite pathway or people will simply give up.”

With the exception, you suspect, of one diehard Hawk.


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About Iain Morrison 148 Articles
Iain was capped 15 times for Scotland at openside flanker between his debut against Ireland during the 1993 Six Nations and his final match against New Zealand at the 1995 World Cup in South Africa. He was twice a Cambridge ‘Blue’ and played his entire club career with London Scottish (being inducted into the club’s Hall of Fame in 2016). Iain is a lifelong member of Linlithgow Rugby Club. After hanging up his boots, he became rugby correspondent for The Sunday Herald, before moving to The Scotland on Sunday for 16 years, and he has also guest written for various other publications.

22 Comments

  1. Is this still ongoing, seems to me it has been asked for the past 20 years.
    I remember Hawks raiding local Clubs to form Glasgow Hawks and wondered at the time why?
    I have always been an advocate of U18 playing in a Scot/Irish league and improve our level of rugby.
    Can’t comment on S6 been away to long but I do know many Clubs are on their knees after Covid and rising utility prices

  2. I was actively involved in the Premiership when Super 6 eventually arrived. A couple of points I’d like to make. The Premiership clubs at the time received funding from the SRU to allow the clubs among other things to improve coaches, play pro players when required, improve medical support and improve the overall standard of the rugby. In some instances this did not happen and in particular there was a gulf happening between the top and bottom of the Premiership. The SRU asked the Premiership clubs to move from 10-8 to improve overall standards and allow increase funding to these 8, no franchises, done by relegation and promotion and relegation to continue. The clubs after a considerable time ( over a year) rejected this, came up with no ideas or any attempts to improve the Premiership as it was. My own personal preference would have been this.
    The SRU quite rightly lost patience with the total inactivity of the clubs involved.
    Super 6 then came about, proposed by the SRU but though not involved I suspect there was input from 2/3 clubs who wanted to move the Premiership on!
    I was always a fan of the 8 team league and withdrew any involvement from the forming of the Super 6 at all levels including my own club.
    However now we have it I support it as in many ways it is doing what the game needed and what the clubs could have had if they had taken positive action when it was needed. Yes there are thing I would like to happen, a bit of a more conventional season, cross border ( a must),more players released for game time from the 2 pro clubs and the addition of another 1/2 clubs. However even in its current form it is doing so much to increase standards on and off the pitch it is doing a important role in Scottish rugby.
    Maybe a 3rd pro team would the answer but given the current financial situation of the professional game this is a long way off.
    My last word on this subject, I know many people would like to scrap it and return to its “ aye bein” but success is not achieved by standing still and the Super 6 is only a small part of what needed / needs to be done to club rugby. Let’s improve Super 6 but more importantly let’s improve our club game structure to make it meaningful for the current young players of today.

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    • Iain, Super 6 is a dead duck. The past is the past, it’s time to move on. Nothing justifies the way Super 6 was implemented. If the equivalent amount that has been invested in Super 6 was instead invested in clubs, that would have made a significant difference, far more than S6 ever will. However, Murrayfield wants control and so the pseudo-franchise con was conceived and at great cost to the clubs who were awarded a place and have underwritten this mess with their time, money and resources. Utterly appalling, as history will tell. The sooner those responsible for it are shown the door, the better.

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    • Iain – in that dissertation (primarily in defence of S6 together with your views on a national elite “development” structure) you appear to forget that the majority of people play or become involved in rugby for enjoyment and pleasure!

      Quite frankly and with the greatest of respect, all you have done here is highlight your inability to understand Kenny’s question, i.e. about the purpose of Club rugby, far less provide a coherent, compelling answer.

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  3. The irony of Glasgow Hawks complaining about losing young players to super 6 U20s team wont be lost on many of us.

    As with most clubs self interest always prevails whether or not it is for the good of the game as a whole, that is just a fact of life.

    I suspect not a peep would be forthcoming regarding the shortcomings of the super 6 set up from the environs of Anniesland Cross had a super 6 franchise been allocated there.

    Even though I am not a fan of our Friends in Alloway its good that both them and Marr are continuing to uphold the tradition of the real powerbase of rugby in the West of Scotland being in Ayrshire as it has always been.

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    • Frankie – the prevailing wisdom is that an opportunity, far less an invitation, to dine at the top table of S6 is best avoided in favour of an altogether healthier and pleasant (lifestyle) diet elsewhere in the traditional ranks of Scottish domestic club rugby.

      Most people who know the score on all of this, including the hard-working great & the good at Hawks now recognise that the uniquely-structured Balgray-based outfit actually dodged a nasty big destructive bullet when the SRU (Bill Gammell, who was theoretically calling the franchise shots….?) overlooked the club’s application for a S6 slot.

      The financial, administrative and personnel pressures would clearly have been too much for Hawks resources and operational capacity – as it has been at several of the so-called “successful” bidders who have found the whole experiment challenging and corrosive, to say the least.

      More widely, Kenny’s “big fundamental question” is deserving of a proper, formal answer (not simply a “response”) from EH12.

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      • Not sure what will happen with the super6 model going forward and I am far from being a fan but if we have learned anything in recent times about the high heid yins at Murrayfield it is that once they have set off on a particular course they are stubborn buggers and the chances of them deviating let alone performing a volte face are highly unlikely.

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  4. Great article. We need to hear more from the clubs about what is working and where structural changes in Scottish Rugby need to be made so that they can grow the game.

  5. Kenny is a great advocate for rugby never mind clubs – which he also excels at. He is also a reasonable guy up to the point where he is being deceived when he becomes a very righteous ball of energy.

    If I may take his “what is club rugby for?” Question. This is a category error from Scottish Rugby. They didn’t even consider it a relevant question. As has been said many times “fewer but stronger” has been a desire from Murrayfield for many years.

    Flipping the question about – if Super 6 is the answer what is the problem it’s intended to address? Because it doesn’t appear to be doing much of anything. Any moves into pro rugby would probably have happened anyway. It’s just fortuitous that they move during S6 phase.

    Financially it’s a bust for some of those clubs so will be interesting to see what emerges over the next few weeks.

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  6. Excellent article, agree with pretty much everything Kenny Hamilton has to say. One thing that really strikes me as being entirely wrong, is the idea of an u20 side joining a ‘Super 7’ set-up. Having played various sports, having the opportunity to train and play with older/more experienced players is crucial in the development of young talent. Purposely taking that learning experience away from Scotland’s promising u20 players sounds like madness to me.

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    • Seems really important that however we structure the club game, amateur rugby is exactly that. Creeping payment of players isn’t sustainable and undermines focus on club’s building a loyal player base with good coaching and strong youth sections.

      • That will never happen, Pandora is out of the box, also there is no Pro or Amateur rugby the game is open. If ambitious clubs want to raise funds in order to fund playing players then that is entirely their decision, I am not saying its right or wrong just saying its a decision for each individual club to make.

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      • Prior to S6 every club in top tier was semi pro and it was perfectly sustainable. If clubs choose to pay coaches or players it should up up to them to make that work. That will drive up standards. SRU seeking to stop clubs being semi pro was about trying to ensure that club rugby did not outshine S6 pure and simple. The scouting in NZ proves that S6 is not about providing game time for young Scottish players. S6 itself is unsustainable with tiny crowds (even when tickets are literally being given away free) compared to community based clubs like Biggar or Highland. No promotion or relegation and players turning out for multiple franchises will never attract the public at large. Retaining the previous structure but increasing funding to top two tiers would have yielded better results. Even more so if allied to a district championship played perhaps in summer months for the elite club players. S6 was never really about developing Scottish rugby players it was about precious egos.

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  7. Correct and the fact that there are agencies scouting for S6 in NZ shows that S6 simply isn’t about developing Scottish players. It’s actively excluding them.

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  8. This article speaks for many many people in the club game. In National 1 we lose players we have coached and nurtured since the minis without them ever playing for the senior side – they leave to sit on the bench for S6. Academy players being told they can’t play for their senior clubs because they are starting a weights program the following week. Watch this space, pro players will be allowed to play down in S6 thus completely going against the original Agenda ethos – players playing at the correct level for safety.
    Great article Mr Hamilton.

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  9. just to clear – did Glasgow Hawks actually submit an application for the Super 6? if so and they weren’t successful, i’m sure the SRU gave constructive feedback?

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    • As I understand it Hawks did submit an application. The “feedback” was anything but constructive. Of course those making the selection decisions then moved the goalposts of having max 2 teams in one region. And have continued to shift the posts as each predicted problem then arose.

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  10. A fair comment indeed, maybe it is time for a review. on the effectiveness of the Super6 structure. There are clubs out there who have the collateral and ambition to take the next step, why not let them.

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    • Could the U20s have annual friendlies against counties that are not too far away? Such as Cumbria, Northumberland and Durham.

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