THE four-month bidding period for Scottish Rugby’s Super 6 franchises only began on Monday, but already Mark Dodson has drawn the firm conclusion that there is broad support for the scheme. And not only is the governing body’s chief executive extremely confident that Super 6 will work, he is convinced that it must work – for the sake of the sport as a whole in Scotland as well as for the top level of the club game.
In a wide-ranging discussion with The Offside Line this week, Dodson insisted that Super 6 – which is scheduled to replace the BT Premiership for season 2019-20 – must be seen in the context of his plan to restructure club rugby as a whole, known as Agenda 3. We will examine that broader vision, along with some of the more contentious details of Super 6, in the second part of this interview, to be published on Sunday.
We begin here, however, by looking at the broader picture as viewed by Dodson. First, he says why he is confident that the plan will work, then assesses how the half-dozen franchises look likely to be split across the country (he has stipulated there will be one in each of the four regions, with two floating). He then explains the thinking behind Super 6 – in particular the belief that there has to be less of a gulf between the Premiership and the pro teams than exists at present – and ends by insisting he does not have a target number for attendances at Super 6 games.
The Offside Line: You got approval for this plan at the SRU’s annual general meeting in August, and the application period opened on Monday. How enthusiastic would you say clubs have been so far?
Mark Dodson: “It’s been enthusiastically received as part of Agenda 3. A lot of the clubs don’t care: the clubs at the bottom are saying ‘This [Super 6] is not for us. Agenda 3 is what we’re interested in.’
“There’s another group of people who’ve said ‘We’re really interested in this and we want to do it’. Then there’s some in the middle who say ‘We’re really interested in this, but we’re frightened. Can we do it? And if we don’t do it, what happens to our club?’
“It’s the middle bit that worries me. The top and bottom bits are self-selecting. The people with the dilemma in the middle are invariably the people that don’t know what their club stands for any more. And we have to help them.
“This is a big step for them to take. Do they want to stay as they’ve always been? I can understand the attraction of that, and they can still do that. Or do they want to take this new step into the future? We’ve got to get them to sort out in their own minds what they want to be.”
TOL: How many clubs are in that top bit?
Dodson: “I would say in the top bit there are six.”
TOL: What are the bids going to look like?
Dodson: “We’re going to encourage people to think about single-club solutions, syndicate solutions, working with a tertiary partner, an educational partner – thinking differently. I’ve heard about something with Spartans: that to me is thinking out the box. That’s a smart move. Now whether it can go anywhere depends on the application and where it comes from, but I was really pleased by the fact that it shows the Premiership is taking it seriously.”
TOL: Was it not you who got in touch with Spartans?
Dodson: “No, no. Spartans have been mentioned to me by Bill Gammell for about five years. We didn’t trigger that. If it doesn’t work, or it isn’t the optimal solution, it won’t get the franchise.”
TOL: How many applications do you expect?
Dodson: “I think we’ll get more than enough.”
TOL: So more than six?
Dodson: “Oh, more. Yeah.”
TOL: We were going to ask what you intend to do if no-one applies, but you clearly have no worries on that score.
Dodson: “I’ve no real fear that we won’t have enough applications. And it does say in the document that if we are short, we will form a syndicate ourselves. We will encourage something to be formed, whether we underwrite it or not.”
TOL: Let’s look at the possibilities region by region. In Caledonia, there has been talk of Aberdeen University becoming involved.
Dodson: “Aberdeen will probably be involved anyway, whatever happens in Caledonia, because they’re already involved now. Is it really feasible we’re not going to have anything in Caledonia? Not really. I think something’s going to happen up there.
“You don’t have to be a genius to think that you won’t have some kind of university involvement from Aberdeen or some involvement from Aberdeen Grammar. How it all turns out at the end of the day I don’t know and I frankly don’t care, as long as something in Caledonia is part of the highest level of the domestic game.”
TOL: Are Stirling County too far south to be regarded as a good representative for Caledonia?
Dodson: “It’s Caledonia. I don’t know whether Stirling want to go. I hear that they’re seriously considering it.”
TOL: What’s your feedback from the Borders so far?
Dodson: “Trying to get the Borders clubs to work together is not the easiest thing in the world. I’ve only been here six years and I’ve not seen it happen yet.
“The Borders is ripe for one, possibly two, franchises. There’s no question about that. Whether they’re able to work together to create one is up to them. It won’t be us saying ‘You can’t have one’ or ‘You shouldn’t do one’, but we will insist on one location. If four or five clubs combine, they’ll have to play at one place. They’ll have to sort themselves out.
“If Melrose want to go alone or be part of a syndicate, that’s terrific. If Melrose don’t go, but three or four clubs want to put themselves together and do, we’re completely open to that.”
TOL: What’s your ideal solution in Edinburgh and Glasgow districts?
Dodson: “It would be nice to have a north and south solution [in Edinburgh], wouldn’t it? That would probably be the best solution. That seems to make sense, and Edinburgh could probably cope with two franchises.
“Do we have Ayr and another one from Glasgow? These are only examples, but what we said is we want one from each of the four locations and two floating franchises.
“But for me, I don’t think six is the issue. It’s trying to get down to six that will be the problem.
“I want to create a franchise with the ability to maintain their position at the top of the table, but grow. And if we can grow from a Super 6 to a Super 8 over time, I’m very happy with that.
“But we have to have the right ingredients, and one of the things we haven’t got here is facilities. There’s a massive gap in the facilities between some clubs and others. What I’m trying to create in the Super 6 is teams that will all have the ability to be beacons to the other clubs.”
TOL: Everyone accepts there’s a gap between the standard of play in the BT Premiership and the pro teams – how big do you think it is?
Dodson: “I think it’s bigger than people give it credit. The gulf is really large. You can’t have a £4-5million pro team and expect the next level to be just as good.
“I was told that the Premiership was fine and the Union were wrong and nobody quite understood how good it was and it was only a matter of time before Melrose were that close to the pro teams. Then you see the British & Irish Cup results and you think ‘Guys, somebody’s trying to tell you something’.
“I think they’ve come to the conclusion that they’re not there, and they also want to have a different kind of future. They couldn’t agree the future themselves – that’s why we were asked to step in.
“They didn’t want the Super 8 when I first started: that’s fine. We’re now at Super 6 and we’ll take it from there. The reason I got back involved in this is they asked us to. Even two or three years ago I don’t think people were ready to listen. I think now they understand that there’s a whole new world out there and they have to change the way they behave. And I think it’s brilliant that they have.”
TOL: Who within Murrayfield assessed club games and decided that the BT Premiership had to be replaced in order to address that gulf in standards?
Dodson: “I asked a group of nine people from our high-performance department about the standard of the Premiership. They all came back and said it wasn’t fit for purpose as a place to develop the next generation of Scottish talent. So it’s a universal view, held by everybody from Vern Cotter to Gregor Townsend to Al Kellock to Chris Paterson to Johnno [Scott Johnson] and so on. Everybody with an opinion, if you like.
“Then we listen to the voices in the Premiership – your Mike Dalgettys, Billy McHargs, Ray Mountfords, Phil Smiths – all those kind of guys. And they quite rightly think ‘Well, we’re not that bad, because we play good rugby’.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt the Premiership has improved in the last two to three years, but the gap is getting wider, because everybody else is improving too.
“I would say most parts of the Premiership are now saying ‘We need a new future, because this isn’t working’. I’ve got all the high-performance department saying ‘This doesn’t work’. I’ve got the head of referees in World Rugby, Alain Rolland, telling me ‘Your domestic layer is terrible – we can’t put referees into it’.
“And I’ve also got the Scottish national and regional press not covering it either. I can’t get any traction down there from TV or anybody else – that’s why the job you’re trying to do is important, because it’s getting marginalised all the time. So we have to reinvent it almost.”
TOL: Do you have a target for the size of crowds once the Super 6 is up and running?
Dodson: “No. If I said to you I wanted 1,000 people, or 3,000 or 4,000, it doesn’t make any difference. It’s the rugby I’m interested in.
“Build it and they will come. If you build high-quality rugby in the right environment, that’s friendly, that’s open, that’s publicised – people will turn up. At the moment we’re not doing any of those things.
“None of these clubs are going to make their money or survive through gate receipts. I don’t want to be the guy that says ‘They’ll get 2,000’. We’ve proved trying to get more than 5,000 at Edinburgh is a hell of a job.
“Magic tap over at Glasgow. I can sell the internationals here. So I do know how difficult it is to get people to come out and spend money and support something new.
“But if we put all those things in place in a new environment, I’m convinced people will come. And it will be decent and you will get crowds there: I’m sure of that.
“But I don’t want to put the cart before the horse. If they get 500 people there, but they’re playing the right kind of rugby, that’s not a failure in the first year. It’s going to take time: that’s why I’m giving it a five-year window.”
You may also be interested in reading –