If we look at the Six Nations and each nation’s respective unions, I would say the Welsh Rugby Union (WRU) have the hardest job with such problems in drawing fans to their ‘regions’. Many fans are turned away as after more than a decade of Pro rugby, many still don’t feel any affinity to a single region and the WRU have a job to keep peace.
However, with the revelation that the SRU want to move a War memorial to make way for a hotel on the BT Murrayfield site coming in the same week that they withdrew from a promising deal to develop youth players at London Scottish, the SRU has found itself under renewed scrutiny. Indeed, following the success of Glasgow Warrior’s, the U20’s in this years Six Nations and an improvement from the men’s’ and women’s’ XV in the Six Nations, topped off with a lucrative £20 million deal with BT signed in 2014, many felt that the SRU was finally getting into gear and moving Scottish Rugby forward. But how well does the SRU serve rugby union in Scotland?
THE BT DEAL
So I thought it’s best to start with the positives. One of the biggest steps forward in my opinion in recent years was the deal with telecommunication giants, BT, estimated to be worth around the £20 million mark. This has seen further investment in academies across Scotland and into the amateur leagues, helping to develop Scottish Rugby from the grass-roots and up. It also significantly cut (if not wrote off, I read somewhere) the SRU’s debt, meaning that if they can create an effective business plan, they may just be able to create another Pro side at some point in the future. This relies on either renewal by BT or a new investor in Scottish Rugby, as BT’s deal runs out in 2018. Nonetheless, as is all too obvious in professional sport, money and success are often proportionate, so this was a big step up.
The next big thing is the steadily improving results across the board. Despite not winning any games, the Scotland Woman’s side made improvements this year and a huge factor of this has to be the SRU appointing Shade Munro as head coach. Having Scotland caps himself and years of coaching experience at Glasgow Warriors has really helped the Woman’s side to step up this year.
The U20’s also put in an impressive shift, defeating their English counterparts and then, with stars missing at Bath and Edinburgh, Italy, whilst also recording a narrow defeat to eventual Champions Wales, leaving them in fourth position.
When you throw in Scotland’s senior side achieving their first win over the French in ten years and a win over Italy, Glasgow Warriors becoming the first ever Scottish Pro12 champions last season and Edinburgh rugby reaching the Challenge Cup final last year, results have been on the up. Of course, neither Edinburgh or Glasgow reached such heights this year, but with so much international disruption, it’s understandable.
Oh, and I think the Scotland 7s (who the SRU tried to disband last year) won something down at Twickenham a few weeks back? Probably just a misprint.
Now this is something that is often directly proportionate to results and it comes as no surprise that after winning the Pro12 title, Glasgow Warriors season passes once again increased last season (it will be interesting to see what happens this year)
Following a successful Rugby World Cup campaign there was a lot more positivity in the Scottish crowd, which saw BT Murrayfield sell out in a record time for the Six Nations this year.
If we add on top the record Guinness Pro12 final attendance of 34,550 (despite two Irish sides battling it out) and a record 1872 cup attendance (31,642 over two legs) it has been a good year for Scottish Rugby ticket sales.
Many Edinburgh rugby fans will also be glad to see that the SRU are attempting to permanently move Edinburgh to Myreside to try and improve the atmosphere for fans and to help drive the players forwards. It’s fair to say that three thousand people in a sixty-six thousand seat stadium is uninspiring at the best of times (hence why Edinburgh beat Glasgow twice there this season for the 1872 cup……) Edinburgh will play at Myreside for the second half of next season as a trial.
Of course, these are positives, but inevitably there are some negatives, some of which shouldn’t be too hard to address, others which are perhaps a bit more complex.
The first thing is perhaps a smaller issue and that is the Scottish Rugby store. If you look at most Rugby Clubs and Unions they have a plethora of merchandise for fans to enjoy, from mugs, key rings, baby clothing, pyjamas and the full ranges of training and playing kits. The SRU offer a novelty foam hand, mugs, hats, scarves and rugby kit, but not much beyond the basic. It is the same with the union owned Glasgow Warriors and Edinburgh rugby. To top it all off, prices are very high. A Glasgow Warriors jersey at Murrayfield on the weekend of the Pro12 final was £80- I’m a fan but with kits changing so regularly, that price is simply too high. The SRU should be looking to get the brand out there, lower the prices, widen the range, there’s certainly a demand for it. How can ‘The Pen’ prepare ‘Josh the Bosh’ for his international debut without all of the gear whilst he’s young?!
This one is a little harder to address. Glasgow Warriors had multiple games at Scotstoun called off this season due to poor weather, causing fixtures to be moved. The main issue came for season ticket holders who couldn’t afford the extra expense of travel and who had already paid a full season price to see their boys play at Scotstoun. With the athletic club also using the venue and arguments over what should be done to accommodate both teams, replacing the surface is looking difficult, although there are discussions happening. The main error the SRU has made is with communication- moving Glasgow’s home leg of the 1872 cup to Edinburgh was communicated poorly and despite promising early signs, there has been little further news on an artificial pitch at Scotstoun. This leads onto my next and potentially biggest qualm with the SRU.
Anyone who knows rugby, knows that it is a game in which communication is vital. (See Dad, you weren’t an ENTIRELY useless coach) Therefore, you would probably expect the Union which manages rugby union in Scotland to be good at talking to its supporters but alas, you are wrong. Before I mentioned some examples of poor communication and it’s something people talk about a lot. When preparing this article, many wanted to know more about the future of Scotland 7s, if they will bid to bring the World Series back to Scotland, a reaction to key events like how the Pro sides went this year, the sevens win and the Six Nations. How about this promised third professional side? There have been many rumours over the years of a third professional side, but how close is it to reality? What are the SRU doing to get closer to that goal? Is there still a defect and if so, how big and how will they reduce it?
Even ex-Scotland player Andy Nicol is fed up.
I’m sure I’ve missed some headlines to answer those questions, but if there’s one recurring theme from fans, it’s that they want real and meaningful communication with their Union.
A THIRD PRO SIDE
This is another one linked to communication. There has long been talks of a new Scottish pro side, perhaps reviving the Border Reivers or the Caledonian Reds. Yet the SRU seem to be entirely silent on the matter. In 2014 there looked to be hope, but that was soon dashed. Why don’t they tell people how close/likely it is to happen? Even the Italian Rugby Federation (FIR) are making it publicly known they want to make a new side a reality in Italy. If the SRU are interested they should make it known, speak to investors and fans and try and get something sorted. The United States now have more professional teams than Scotland and it looks like Italy have plans to overtake on that front too.
In addition, for those who are currently season pass holders, either for Scotland or a club, where are the ‘perks’? As I understand there’s no real reward for loyalty, even for fans who have been behind sides for years. Glasgow Warriors did offer dinner vouchers to fans following the pitch flooding issues, but many felt that was insufficient.
The next big issue that many people have is where the SRU is investing money. About a year ago after the news that Glasgow would be dropped from the 7s circuit, the SRU planned to pull the 7s team altogether as it wasn’t worth the price. One year on and the Scottish 7s side, in their first ever final, won the London 7s. Many people want to know though, what are the SRU’s plans for the 7s? Will they be trying to bring a leg of the event back to Scotland once more and how long will they maintain the side for?
Another issue arises with ‘project’ players. Now players such as John Hardie and WP Nel have brought undoubted value to the ever improving Scotland team. However, with new World Rugby president Bill Beaumont vowing to tighten up laws on ‘project players’, shouldn’t the SRU be looking to invest more money into young Scottish talent? The table below shows that at present, any restrictions could hit Scotland hard as it’s clear that money is going on scouting foreign talents and bringing them into the national set up through residency.
It is worth considering that some players are Scots, who were born abroad such as John Barclay in Hong Kong, Tommy Seymour in the USA and Ryan Wilson in England.
MOVING A WAR MEMORIAL FOR A HOTEL
The following is open to debate. It has emerged this week that the SRU want to move a War memorial to make space for a Murrayfield Hotel. Of course, something like this always has a strong emotional draw for many people that has to be dealt with- indeed some people understandably aren’t happy with the idea. Many are also saying that this is a negative move as the money should be invested into the game, not a hotel. It also means that after nearly one-hundred years as tenants, Murrayfield Wanderers will have to move on when their lease is up. As much as I agree on those points in theory, the commercial value of a hotel would look to secure the financial viability of BT Murrayfield and the SRU in the coming years. It would also make events there easier for travelling fans and help prevent accommodation crisis’ when large scale events clash in the Scottish Capital.
THE LONDON SCOTTISH DEBACLE
I suspect this is why many of you are reading this article. This week it was announced that just four months into the deal, the SRU pulled out of a youth development link with English second tier side, London Scottish. In the original agreement the SRU would provide fourteen youth/senior players and some coaches to gain experience with the London Scottish (LS) senior players. The deal was later adapted, reducing the number to ten youth players and no senior players. Finally, the deal has fallen through and LS are left without any young Scots for next season nor coaches, causing them to postpone pre-season due to a lack of players. For a club like Scottish, it will be a very tough job trying to fill those spots to a good level for next season.
LS have released an angry statement condemning the SRU and piling the blame onto them. The SRU responded with a weak statement that, in essence was a cocktail of absolutely nothing, the faeces of a bull, finished off with slice of avoiding responsibility. Shaken, not stirred.
After reading all of that, you probably feel, like me, quite confused as to what exactly happened. I think the best information we have so far is from Alex Grove– who says that although the SRU have to take some blame for what happened, LS let a number of experienced players go and wanted to change facilities, something which was not in the deal agreed with the SRU. They also claimed that their ambition was not to get promoted to the premiership- perhaps why the SRU pulled its senior players out. Either way, London Scottish come out of this far the worse, having to delay pre-season due to lack of players and for that the SRU should truly be embarrassed. One thing is for certain though, this relationship had potential to be mutually beneficial. Instead, we are left with a situation in which both parties have lost out financially, in rugby terms and on dignity, too.
SCOTTISH RUGBY CHANGE
There is already a movement for Scottish Rugby Change, so I thought I’d get in touch to see what they had to say:
“We would like to see a change in personnel at the top and/or a change where the business side of the SRU is run by a completely separate board to the rugby and development side. Also we want to stop the project player policy and divert all funds to youth projects. Obviously we would also like a 3rd and then 4th pro team which should be achievable if Glasgow and Edinburgh are close to self sufficient. There must be a queue of people willing to run Glasgow at least and if they aren’t self sufficient by now then the SRU aren’t as business savvy as they think. Additionally districts or Pro A teams in the B&I cup is a no brainer and should happen. The list goes on but that is the gist of it. Change at the top so we get people who are experienced in sports development and leave the businessmen to business. Currently they are completely naïve in their views of growing the sport and are too arrogant to realise they are not succeeding”
Strong words, but it’s true that there’s a lot that can be done better than at present. Scotland Rugby Change are on Twitter, so if you like what they’re about, give them a follow!
Whilst a lot of good steps have been made, the SRU still makes some questionable decisions. One thing that is clear, communication needs to improve. Fans need to feel involved and appreciated. One basic way they could do this is by setting out a public set of goals like Connacht have recently for example. How is the SRU performing financially? What are their goals for the year and for further ahead and how realistic are they? How will they inspire the next generation and grow the sport?
If there are any issues you feel have been left out or anything you disagree with, feel free to comment or tweet me- I’m up for discussion, I just want to see the SRU moving the sport forwards.
The Scribbler, June 4th, 2016