THE OFFSIDE LINE spoke to a key figure from each of the clubs which have been awarded a Super 6 franchise to find out why they wanted involved, how they are preparing for the league’s launch in the autumn of 2019 and how they see this ambitious new tier of Scottish rugby operating when it finally gets going.
Here is what they had to say –
President – Ayr
Surely you guys were a ‘stick-on’ to get a franchise?
“I was fairly confident. You are never 100 percent, but I was probably 90 percent confident. I think Ayr’s background in the last few years helped: never being out of the top three, increased playing numbers, close links with the community and the local university. I think we have been ahead of the game to be honest with you.”
Any concern about being the only club from the west of Scotland?
“We are out on a limb, but by the same token hopefully we can pick up some new players.
“I am excited by our new coach, I think Pete Murchie is a breath of fresh air. I have found him to be positive and articulate. I think he is good and will be excellent. Pat MacArthur will be forwards along with Glen Tippett.”
What were the big issues you had to address to get to this stage?
“The challenge to start with was the man hours the players were being asked to put in – when we broke it down the hourly rate just didn’t add up. However, we have worked on that and with the squad numbers having gone down from 35 to 28 with a few floaters, that will help the club as well.
“Facilities are the biggest challenge for Ayr at the moment. I would say we are 90 percent along the way to a move, we have got a bid for Millbrae subject to the number of houses it can take, and the council have given us a price to acquire the Dam Park.
“So, we are a good bit down the line. I’d like to think that within two years we could move from Millbrae into the centre of town and that would be great because there are good road links and good rail links, which will broaden the Ayr fan base.
“Also, it is next to the university and hopefully we can build with them.”
What are you most excited about?
“The biggest thing I am looking forward to is cross-border competition. Ayr have always taken that seriously – we are the only Scottish club to have ever got to the quarter-final of the British and Irish Cup.
“I have assurances that it looks like being a Welsh top six against our top six. Ayr really are enthused about that, learning from other clubs about their background, their trainining facilities, how they run on a day-to-day basis, how they attract sponsors and so on.
“To me, that is the exciting part. I have always thought to be at the top you have to think outside the box.”
Who are the team to beat?
“Ayr and Melrose have set the bar and the other four clubs have to pull themselves up to our level.”
Chairman – Boroughmuir
You were the dark horses then?
“Internally we didn’t feel that. We felt really comfortable with what we built and what we found out about ourselves as part of creating the bid. We knew the media speculation was focussed on other areas, and that’s fair enough – but we were quite happy to get on about our business.
Is there going to be challenges getting the access you need to Meggetland given that your landlords, Edinburgh Leisure, are not renowned for being helpful?
“We have a good relationship with Edinburgh Leisure and this takes it on to a different level. There is a lot of people interested in expanding everything that goes on at Meggetland – because there is a lot more happening there than just rugby and we have a great relationship with the other sports – so we are definitely looking to progress that. This will make a step change.
“As it happens, we have a facilities development plan which we started about 12 months ago – before Super 6 was even invented. That covers our clubhouse, gym and also the pitches. Super 6 will help us accelerate much of that. There are details which need to be ironed-out, but we are pretty confident that we can have a much better situation going forward.
“Everyone who uses Meggetland is interested in all-weather surfaces to make the most out of a fantastic asset. We’re looking to develop, in time, all the pitches.”
What about this ground-sharing arrangement you are now involved in with a local football club?
“Tynecastle FC have been talking to Edinburgh Leisure and ourselves about working closer together in a ground-sharing arrangement. We met with them and are very comfortable that we can work closely together and have a very close relationship.
What has been the response to this news from the wider club community?
“Changing the name and changing the entity [to Boroughmuir Rugby and Sports Community Club] was a big step five years ago, and this will create another wave of enthusiasm. I’ve already had a lot of messages in the last 24 hours from people who have not really been involved in the club much during the last three or four years, and they are saying: Well done, congratulations and how can we help?
“Boroughmuir has got a strong identity and cementing that is very important to us – we want to strike that balance between inclusiveness and developing sport with competing at the highest possible level.
When do you start building you squad for the start of Super 6?
“We’ve got next season to get through and that will be business as usual, but with an eye towards building up to Super 6.
“We’ve raised a lot of money to put into our youth academy and that’s about building Boroughmuir for the future. We want to show a clear link to someone coming in at primary one to how they can become a professional player. So, being part of Super 6 makes it a lot easier to join the dots.
“We absolutely will [need to strengthen], however Super 6 doesn’t start in August, it starts the following year, so we have planned next season in the best way that we can under the auspices of how we are currently running. We’ll need to find a balance of how we transition into next year, because there might be a greater movement of players than we would otherwise have expected.
Vice-President – Heriot’s
George Heriot’s School own Goldenacre – could that cause problems?
“I’m not concerned at all because we’ve had massive support in this from the school. I think they see the value of us remaining in the top flight of Scottish rugby. Sandy Paton, who is the chairman of the board of governors, is a home and away supporter of the club – there’s not many home and away supporters – and our new principal Lesley Franklin is a sportswoman in her own right and she realises the value of team sports and Heriots’ heritage.”
Does that mean a 4G pitch is on the way?
“We don’t know, that’s the truth of the matter at the moment. But what is being proposed is that we play up at the top end, next to Ferry Road, because that overcomes the lights issue.
“The proposal that we put to the school is that we build a state-of-the-art health and leisure facility up there which would run from the existing cricket club pavilion to Ferry Road, and that would be revenue generating with a stand on either side, rather like the stand at Old Anniesland at the moment.”
“It is the school’s decision, but we have put that in a proposal to them. They have the development of Goldenacre in their strategic plan, but it is a timing issue because they are actually doing quite a lot of work at the moment at their main campus down in the Grassmarket.”
Is the general membership of the club all on board?
“It has taken a bit of time. The natural thing when people propose a fundamental change is that there is absolute resistance to it, and we had that at the very outset, but one of the watershed moments was when Mark [Dodson] came down and spoke to a meeting at the club, and that really worked very well. As a Board, we had a bit of an intake of breath when we thought about of the contingent liability of the finances involved, but then we got our heads round that and we’ve always been fairly canny about how we run the club – we’re hopefully pretty prudential.”
How is the link-up with Stewart’s-Melville going to work?
“We want to work hand-in-glove with them, so we can help improve their fortunes. You don’t want clubs like Stewart’s Melville to disappear, that would be a tragedy. Like all the Edinburgh clubs, we have fairly strong bond-ship with them having grown up kicking lumps out of each other. And we want to involve Edinburgh College in that triumvirate. Once we’ve got that all bedded down we’ll move out and try to actually build with other clubs such as Edinburgh Northern and Inverleith.”
How do you go plan to attract new supporters to Godenacre for this Super 6 franchise?
“As the years have gone by, the club has become much more inclusive of people from a’ the airts, as it were. We’ve had a fair number of players from abroad and from elsewhere in Scotland, so that’s helped us in terms of looking more externally. But it is still a big challenge for us because we’ve not been particularly good at going out into the community in the past. This whole process has brought a sharp focus onto that, and we are going to have to get a lot better at it. I am confident that we can break that old tribalism – the territorial imperative!”
Head coach – Melrose
Will you take a sabbatical from your job as director of the rugby performance course at Edinburgh College to coach Melrose in Super 6?
“Yeah, I am open to discussions because you guys know how much passion I have for what I do and how much I love coaching.
“First of all, we had to get Melrose Rugby into a position to get one of the franchises, which we have now done, which is brilliant The partnership with Napier University is very strong and exciting too. We are certainly moving things in the right direction and I think the six clubs selected are all forward thinking and want to push the standards up. It creates an opportunity for players and coaches to kick on.”
What does Melrose need to do to carry on as top dogs into the Super 6 era?
“The club is continually evolving. As soon as you stand still and think that that group of players is going to take you all the way through then you are going to fall behind. It will be a continual cycle, I suppose. Hopefully, we will keep hold of some of the senior players who can lead the younger guys through it.
“We have a clear model for what we are trying to do and we’ve kind of had that model for the last eight years, since Craig [Chalmers] was there as coach and then John [Dalziel] took over, and then myself.
“There are some good, exciting guys coming through so we need to make sure that they get opportunities as well.”
Was there any resistance within the club to joining Super 6?
“We were very open and transparent with the whole club from the start and said that if we were going to do it we were going to do it ourselves as Melrose Rugby. We had an excellent members’ meeting when Mark came down when people were allowed to ask questions and hear from the horse’s mouth, as such, about the vision for Super 6. And as a whole club, everyone – unanimously – wanted to go for it. That was a great process and from there we worked forward with our bid.”
Is there concern about Melrose becoming isolated in the Borders as the only Super 6 side?
“Clearly with the Super 6 having just six clubs, the clubs in general are going to have to work harder with each other. We have got change and now it is up to us to working well with everybody in the area to create opportunities to use this as a stepping stone to the pro game.
“I always try to look at it from the players’ point of view and they invariably want to play at the highest level, and if this becomes a stepping stone from the club game – to allow them to flourish and be better – brilliant. But it is important that we create partnerships and not just a structure where the traffic is all one way – it has to be a two-way street.”
How will this effect Melrose Sevens which is still, essentially, an amateur event?
“We haven’t really got to the stage of thinking to deeply about that yet, but the Melrose Sevens is a level above the norm in that it brings in a lot of professional players, and club players want the opportunity to test themselves against the best players possible.
“Will the Melrose Sevens look different? It might, but I think it’s important that the local clubs are a massive part of it, because if you ask the players at places like Jed, Kelso and Hawick if they want to play at Melrose? The answer will be: yes they do.”
Vice President – Stirling County
What was the big draw of Super 6 for your club?
“We were keen to go for it as soon as we knew about it. If there is a part of our club where we have underperformed then it has been the adults, but we wanted to be at the top table.
“The investment in the coaching staff is just going to be a shot in the arm for us.We haven’t really paid a coach before – some clubs already have a coach who is on a full-time salary – so I am hoping that this will allow us to kick on.
“There are some fantastic coaches out there, but it is a competitive salary and will be a great job for someone.”
What’s the plan for the playing surface at Bridgehaugh?
“That is going to be a challenge. According to Stewart Harris from sportscotland, anything can be done. We haven’t looked into a 3/4G pitch at great length and we need to. But we also have a fantastic relationship with Stirling University which has just been boosted by a couple of recent appointments they’ve made, and they are really enthusiastic about rugby – so we’re talking with them and ActiveStirling about 3G provision in Stirling.
“It has been a long time since we’ve had a game cancelled because the pitch is unplayable, so I think it might be a two-stage journey – we might find training facilities first and then come onto the pitch.”
“Personally, I’d be against us leaving Bridgehaugh, but other people say yes.”
What is your club’s role as the only representatives from the Caley region?
“We have a number of players from Aberdeen but it is a difficult one because Caley itself is so large. Folk in the north are used to travelling long distances, we want to work with the clubs in Caley but we can’t lord over them so we need to be careful about that relationship.
Is the club and the SRU now on the same page in terms of the funding of a Super 6 franchise?
“The gap hasn’t gone, but we can’t sell anything yet because until we see a fixture list we don’t really know what it is. We are fairly comfortable that with the support of the SRU we can close the gap. It may take a couple of years, but things will get there.”
How important is it to build momentum through next season leading into Super 6?
“I think Super 6 is going to enthuse through everything we do next season. The big thing for us is appointing the coach, which according to the original timescale is due to happen in August.
“I think what we are going to try to do next season is blood as many youngsters as we can and see if they are ready for the step up. We need to give our existing players the best chance they can to be selected.
“It’s going to be a strange season with no relegation. I think Heriot’s were saying that they don’t want to lose to clubs which aren’t going to make Super 6 but, actually, Super 6 is going to be so different it doesn’t actually matter. So I think we just get as much as we can out of the campaign, and give all our guys as good a chance as they can to win a contract.
Committee member – Watsonians
How easy a decision was it for Watsonians to apply for Super 6?
“The club has probably gone on the same journey as myself. I was pretty much a sceptic when it was announced at the AGM. In fact, I asked the first two questions to Mark Dodson at the time, and up until Christmas time I was a doubter.
“Sean Lineen was probably the biggest factor in my conversion. He’s in charge of the age-grade rugby just now and he said the Under-20s are now playing a 14-game season every year – the Six Nations and straight into the World Championships – so they are out of the club game from Christmas onwards.
“Then they’re looking to where they go next at the end of the Under-20 season to improve as players. Many are currently playing in the Premiership, and their agents, their parents and the players themselves are saying it is not a high enough level for them to progress.
“That got me looking at it and saying: ‘Okay, if we shrink the number of teams, we therefore give our best players the opportunity to flourish.’
“All our clubs are doing good things, great things, but we’re all doing it differently. If those players in the six teams are all feeding their information into the high-performance department at Murrayfield, someone will take an overview of that, and those who aren’t performing or are performing really well will soon get recognised.
“Having the Super 6 under a monitoring regime form the high-performance wing at Murrayfield can only improve the standard of rugby at the top level of the club game.
“I think it’s long overdue that we do something different at the top of the club game in Scotland. I just had a different proposal and I had to swallow my pride and say: Well, they haven’t gone with that but I can see the benefits that we could get from this, so I’m going to go with it.
“My preference was for an A-team for Edinburgh and Glasgow. There is still talk of potential games, but the cross-border games are the ones players will gain most from.
“Six teams playing against each other three times a season isn’t ideal, but cross-border games will excite the players, to play at that level.”
Is it a concern that too much central control will make the teams too similar/bland?
“I don’t worry, personally. I think Watsonians have always had a brand of rugby that we try to stick to, which is open and exciting. I believe that brand has now been adopted by Gregor Townsend and the national team, so I’ve no problem with that being the way they want us to play.”
Are you concerned that a shadow PRO14 league is now being mooted?
“It depends when they [A-team games] get played. Super 6 will have a 20-game season, so that is not massive. If the A-teams become another stepping stone for the best of the Super 6 players for four or five games per season then it will be useful to test them out at that level and see those that are potentially capable of playing professional rugby and those that still have more development to do in the Super 6.”
You expressed some concern early on in this process about Super 6 squad players in need of game time not being made available to play in the amateur leagues below. What’s your take on that now?
“I’m still very keen [for that to happen] and I was glad to hear Mark Dodson say in various meetings: ‘It doesn’t do me any good, as CEO of Scottish rugby to have part-time professional players sitting on their backsides on a Saturday, not playing rugby’. So, I took from that that there is a bit of negotiation to be done there. Clearly, if you have a squad of 35 players that should be enough to furnish the fixture list of a Super 6 team, but Watsonians used 44 players this season and other clubs are around the same number.”
Can the six clubs work together?
“I think so. I think there were massively ambitious clubs within the Premiership who were driving this agenda from a number of years ago. I’ve only had two years experience of sitting on the Premiership Forum and it is a different dynamic to National League One, but I very quickly became aware that the pushy clubs, the aspiring clubs, were the ones that wanted to drive the agenda forward, but they couldn’t get agreement across the board. That’s why it was probably right to hand it over to Scottish Rugby to say: ‘You have a look at it, come back to us and say what you think.” And they did, very forcibly.
“It took a bit of convincing. And that same convincing still has to be done with a lot of club members. But I think most club members now see the benefits of it and want to keep Watsonians at the top of the Scottish club game.”