A MOTION, proposed by Aberdeen Grammar and supported by an overwhelming majority of the delegates at last Saturday’s AGM of the Scottish Rugby Union, called for clubs to be given the opportunity to conduct a full and open debate on three key issues relating to the governing body’s controversial Agenda 3 overhaul of the club game.
The first of these discussion points is shaping up to be the key sticking-point in the Union’s vision of a Super 6 league – consisting of franchises from Ayr, Boroughmuir, Heriot’s, Melrose, Stirling County and Watsonians – aimed at bridging the gap between the domestic and the professional games. It relates to where the ‘club XVs’ [also known as 2nd XVs or amateur teams] of successful Super 6 applicants should fit into the new league structure.
Here is a transcript of the debate which followed –
Gordon Thomson (Aberdeen Grammar – Chairman and Director of Rugby – proposed the motion): This has been debated at length at National One and with the four existing Premiership teams who are not going to be in Super 6. There are a number of options being put forward by clubs and there is no unanimous feeling amongst the groups I have spoken to. It clearly needs debate and examination.
One of the issues which has been raised is that as Super 6 is within the domestic rugby structure, their 2ndXVs – by default being their amateur sides – cannot play in the National Leagues, because there is precedent that teams in the National Leagues’ 2ndXVs are prohibited from reaching the National Leagues to stop the same club having two teams at the top end of Scottish club rugby.
Some other views that have been expressed is that there should be a Super 6 ‘A’ League playing against themselves, or they should play in the national reserve leagues, and [there are] various other combinations of putting them in various other leagues – so it is open to debate.
There is no clear view expressed other than there is a desire that they are not allowed to be in the Championship during the five-year period of the moratorium for promotion into Super 6.
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Phil Thomas (President – Currie Chieftains): The fundamental issue we are looking at here comes down to strategic planning and taking an overview of the total changes which are being proposed under Agenda 3/Super 6. The reality is that if you move one piece in this system, you actually affect all the other pieces in this system quite fundamentally.
I have to say, I delight to hear Mark [Dodson] speaking, I think he is really entertaining – he’s on a different planet from the one I’m on but nevertheless I have a lot of respect for his ability to put over his point of view. There are other points of view and they can be equally well and forcibly put across.
In the Premiership, we have always had a situation where 2ndXV teams play in the reserve leagues, so the logic for having a reserve league approach is – I believe – inescapable. I think we just should accept that, because if we don’t then we will have a situation where you have Championship sides who can’t play in the Championship, and the league above them can have the 2ndXVs playing in the Championship – which seems to me to be totally imbalanced.
But, fundamentally, before any of this is implemented, it needs to be properly set out with the proper costings, because at the moment what we are looking at is a situation where we are forcibly driving down the standards of the top club level rugby and transferring the very limited amount of funding for clubs there is at the moment into a very different category.
Mike Dalgetty (Melrose – Director of Rugby): Melrose Rugby and our partner Edinburgh Napier University have been awarded the right to host a Super 6 franchise squad at the Greenyards. That franchise will be a separate legal identity, run by a separate Board from the Melrose club, consisting of the head coach appointed solely by us, two club directors, an Edinburgh Napier representative and an SRU representative. The people beside us here [SRU executive team] will not be running Melrose Rugby Club – we will, however, be working together to try and close the gap between the pro game and the club game. It will be a hell of a challenge, especially working with other clubs.
In a partnership with Edinburgh Napier, we have been awarded a franchise. It has not been awarded Melrose Rugby Club. We will continue to run as a community club with a responsibility of offering game time to players of all ages, and a hub to enjoy the sport.
As part of the application process, Super 6 clubs had to agree, against the will of some involved, that single applicant clubs awarded the franchise would see their club placed down to National One. Why National One? The argument has been made to put them down further, put them in reserve leagues, put them elsewhere. Melrose Club XV is not the 2ndXV to a franchise, it is the 1stXV to a club – the same as any other club.
The franchise team is a team in a competition for five years – the club has been there since we pinched the goalposts from Gala in 1877 and we have no intention of handing them back in five years’ time. Melrose Rugby is still Melrose Rugby.
The fact that previous, consistent, well-argued concerns from clubs throughout the divisions over player safety and team competitiveness resulted in the Cup being split [with the top competition reduced to 16 teams] is a major consideration as to why clubs [Super 6 club teams] can’t go further down. Safety of players is paramount.
Not all of our current Premiership players will play Super 6. A number have already said that due to age, work and family commitments that it is not for them, but they want to continue playing the game for the Melrose Club XV. In fact, some are so enthused by that prospect that they have persuaded very capable ex-Melrose players who stopped for work reasons to start again this season.
I’m confident that Scottish Rugby will always regard safety as being of paramount importance, and I would be genuinely shocked is anyone chose to dismiss concerns over very experienced, quality rugby players being artificially forced to play against opposition not of equal fitness and strength levels, for what would be potentially political reasons. Not for the traditions of sport where meritocracy is the basis of success or failure.
When Super 6 was first discussed, the very first Melrose club meeting put together to gather opinions was with our youth coaches and leaders. Everything we do should be about players and I needed the view of those involved with our future, not the old duffers like myself upstairs. I was surprised at their enthusiasm for a clearer pyramid to the top and fully took on board that the Melrose club team must continue to allow players to be as good as they can be, and to succeed and to fail as peer groups. It will serve absolutely no purpose for Melrose, through such a major change as this, to fill our Club XV with players from another club. It will destroy our longer-term ability to survive as a club of any meaning.
The majority of players will still want to play for their local club, those who move for personal ambition and to test themselves at a higher level, will move up. Those who don’t – won’t.
It is the minority with ambition and quality who enter the true pyramid of opportunity, the majority should just want to be as good as they can possibly be and are allowed to be.
The reason we are [being placed] in National One is for rugby reasons. If we introduce a precedent of saying that ‘we don’t like them anymore, they’ve done something we don’t agree with, they can’t be in that competition’, then it is not a game I want to be involved in.
Meritocracy is what it is about. Melrose Rugby Club will be Melrose Rugby Club. The franchise is for a competition which will involve players gathered from all clubs to play in. We will not have a 2ndXV below that.
Frank Spratt (Edinburgh Accies – President): It comes down to a fundamental principle: where do Super 6 teams lie with regard to club rugby? They are either in club rugby or they are not!
If they are in club rugby they should be subject to promotion and relegation as all other clubs are, and if they are not then they can certainly remain within club rugby with their other teams. But I think at the moment, what we are trying to do is create separate organisations and still class them as clubs. They are not – they are out-with the club rugby scene and they should be dealt with out-with the club rugby scene.
If you are going to class them within the club rugby scene, then their 2nd XVs, by principle, do have to play in a reserve league. That is the fundamental issue which has to be resolved.
Stevie Gemmell (SRU employee – technical director): From a Scottish Rugby perspective we have always said that the challenge around Super 6 is around improving the standard and providing another vehicle for our most talented players in Scotland to remain in Scotland and play at the highest standard of rugby possible. One of the challenges we face in the global game is our most talented young players leaving this country and going elsewhere because of the – perceived or real – gap between our domestic game and our professional game.
We were also tasked with the need to provide a genuine pathway for our most talented Scottish coaches so that when opportunities come up in Scotland and elsewhere we have a genuine opportunity for Scottish coaches to take that place.
Those were the reasons that we set out on a journey to find a solution. It is a solution which not everyone in the room is going to agree with, but it is a solution which has been set out to deliver on what was requested by the clubs.
None of us know what the next five years are going to bring in Super 6, what we do believe is that what we are putting in place will improve standards, retain players and provide opportunities. Alongside that we need to ensure that we have successful, vibrant and sustainable club game at all levels.
In the debate we need to consider our players at the heart of any decision – they are why we are all in the room. We are here to provide opportunities for men, women, boys and girls to play the game. We have a responsibility to provide the right platform, the right environments and the right cultures for those players to play at whatever level they aspire to play at.
The movement of players has happened since rugby began. What Super 6, as part of Agenda 3, is looking to do is help provided that genuine pathway for players and coaches, but also retain the integrity of the clubs which were successful through the independent process of achieving a Super 6 franchise.
Kevin Quinn (Marr – President): This affects every club in Scotland. It is sad that we are having the motion today around something that was announced to the clubs at the AGM last year, and for me one of the key issues is that as clubs we have been asking but been unsighted on the detail on any appraisals or impact assessments carried out leading to that announcement. And the questions which are being posed come from the absence of that detail.
As we’ve move forward in the last year, it’s always been like a movable feast. We get to the point where we think this is what is happening, and then new information comes out or there is a clarification on something. That is why I think the work that Gavin McColl is going to undertake [as chair of the governance working party] is going to be critical because it is going to set the landscape for club rugby for the future – we need to get it right.
We all want to see the club scene being vibrant, healthy and forward-looking. We want to provide opportunities for players and coaches to experience the highest level of the game. The risk for me in this is that what we create if we don’t get the model right is an artificial scenario where there is an imbalance.
Rangi Jericevich (GHA – Director of Rugby): I, and I think everyone else in this room, respect the Super 6 clubs’ desire to continue to drive forward as clubs within their community. The problem really is the impact that the Super 6 franchise within their club has on other clubs in the area’s ability to do the same. There is no doubt that it will provide any club with a Super 6 franchise with a strategic advantage, and indeed there will become a commercial imperative for them to use their Super 6 status to increase their general membership, to increase their playing membership and to increase their income to afford the Super 6 franchise they will be contributing towards.
Although we didn’t end up with a franchise in Glasgow, this was certainly one of my main concerns – that you end up with a club within your area which has this strategic advantage in terms of attracting players, not just at senior level, but, more importantly for us, at junior level where we work extremely hard to grow our game.
Knowing players as I do, youngsters showing a degree of talent for the game right down to junior level will naturally gravitate towards the clubs they feel are best placed to progress their careers. And that has an obvious impact on what we are likely to end up with at the end of this five-year process: which is six powerhouses and the clubs in their vicinity finding it extremely difficult to maintain their current playing standards, not just at senior but junior levels, going forward.
Super 6 – for me, a fundamentally flawed idea from its conception – creates this monster, and it is just unfortunate that there is potentially going to be a real stand-off and a real falling out over this issue when, in fact, none of us were actually consulted on it in the first place.
Gregor Townsend (SRU employee – national team head coach): I’m probably not going to comment on the actual motion being debated. I just want to put on record before I talk about Super 6, on behalf of the national team, our thanks to all the clubs for their support this year, when we visited clubs and the buzz around the national team we received, and especially with the number of supporters we are getting at Murrayfield.
Regarding Super 6, from a rugby perspective, from the national level, it is certainly something that is going to provide a pathway for our players coming through into professional level, which is the big driver of the national team’s success.
A competitive, professional game with very good coaches, with Scottish players staying at Glasgow and Edinburgh to get cohesion and alignment, is the key driver of our success at national level. We have a very exciting and improving age-group and academy system that you see in the under-16 and under-18 regional games, that you see in the Scotland Under-18 team doing very well winning all three international matches this year, and with the Under-20s performing really well over the last couple of years. That means that there are more players coming through our system than ever before and the club game is at the heart of enabling that system to be better and better.
I was part of the [Super 6] interview panel and I really enjoyed hearing all the presentations about what Super 6 meant to the clubs involved. It is going to be a really exciting franchise system – a new level of rugby – and us at the national level are looking forward to seeing players playing at a higher level. I know there is a lot of debate on how that might work out, but from our perspective this will really help the development of our game.
Ross Whiteside (Hamilton – President): I think we are trying to decide about an issue without having the information we require – where exactly are the players going to play?
If you have 35 players in a squad for a Super 6 team, 22 guys get picked, and say one guy does not get picked on a regular basis – where is he going to play? That is going to determine the level that these teams should be playing at, and the safety element of who they should be playing against. So, until we get the detail of this, it is going to be really difficult to make the right decision.
Keith Wallace (Haddington – President): The separate teams in Super 6 and wherever their other team plays means that there are more players needed, and the amateur stuff [set to be strictly enforced in all domestic competitions apart from Super 6] means that we will lose players if we can’t have, for example, overseas imports, and if we are not paying players at the top end of the game. So, there will be players sucked out of the game, more than there is just now, and that will affect everyone all the way down at a time when we are really struggling to field teams.
I’d also like to make a point on meritocracy. I certainly support meritocracy, absolutely, and I’m very interested in how it has been determined that all of these teams are, in their own merit, suitable for National One. One example from last year, we at Haddington in National Three were absolutely terrible, and we only just lost to Boroughmuir 2ndXV. Frankly, I would worry about the welfare of Boroughmuir 2ndXV playing in National One, so we can argue as much on that – but it is not an assumed right that all these six teams, if they do get play in National One, deserve to be there.
Phil Thomas (President – Currie Chieftains): For clarity, no-one at all, that I know of, is arguing that there shouldn’t be a step above the Premiership which allows players to ease into professional rugby. But you have to start from the premise that the top level we have now is the Premiership, and the level we want is above the Premiership, so you have to have sides playing at Premiership level in ‘club’ rugby and have whatever you have above them in the next tier.
And the notion that you gut the funding to those clubs who are playing at that top ‘club’ level, and transfer it into funding the Super 6 set-up, simply drives down that top level and creates not just a gap but a chasm between the top level of club rugby and what will be Super 6. It will be a devastating move to make because it will ruin the pipeline that I think, actually, has improved really considerably over the last few years.
From the standpoint of Currie Chieftains, one of our biggest worries these days is the number of players we have signing professional contracts – it is one of our big recruitment issues – so there is a gap going up, but the gap is not as great as many people would think, and we have to be above the Premiership and not forcing the Premiership down.