STEVIE GEMMELL met the press on Friday afternoon to discuss the progress of Scottish Rugby’s plans to create an elite Super 6 league at the top of the club game. As Murrayfield’s first ever Technical Director [reporting to Director of Rugby, Scott Johnson] he will be the point-man between each franchise board and head office – but despite occupying such an important role, this was the first time he had spoken publicly [or at least to the press] on the subject.
Gemmell’s emergence as an ambassador for the scheme represents a change in strategy, replacing Mark Dodson – the SRU’s combative chief executive – as the man to sell the concept.
That tallies with the feeling amongst some of the clubs involved at the sharp end of this debate who sense that there has been a general softening in approach from the governing body in recent weeks, perhaps in recognition that this concept is a much harder sell than initially anticipated.
The tone of Gemmell’s presentation was certainly less bullish than we have previously witnessed. The emphasis was on jovially cajoling any feet-draggers along rather than expressing outrage and incredulity at the thought of doubting the omnipotence of Murrayfield.
“From our point of view, the pleasing thing is that there are genuine conversations ongoing with interested parties. Scheduled before the end of next month is meetings with seven interested Premiership clubs, and a number of clubs – either individual or joint – from outside the BT Premiership,” said Gemmell.
There is, of course, a big difference between a club keeping an open mind, engaging in conversation with the relevant people and making sure that they are in command of all the key facts on such an important issue – and a club being genuinely enthused about the prospect of having to make such a massive leap of faith towards a proposal with only very fuzzy outlines and a serious potential downside .
But the purpose of Friday’s briefing was not to reflect on how the challenge of raising standards at the top end of the club game might be tackled differently, it was to reinforce the official narrative that this is a collaboration – even if the clubs did not see the pact they are expected to enter into looming over the horizon.
“What I can say is that there is a genuine interest. Undoubtedly there are questions, and part of the discussions we are having with the individual parties is around trying to bring something that is written in a document to life. The document was written in a way to try and encourage discussion and encourage applications, but with a flexible enough framework to adapt because every situation will be different,” added Gemmell – a former Ayr, Wigtownshire and Kilmarnock centre – who cut his coaching teeth working as a development officer for Inverclyde and Renfrew for almost nine years in the mid-1990s and early-2000s before being appointed Glasgow District [as it was then known] Academy Manager in 2003.
He had two spells as head coach of the Scotland 7s team in 2006-2010 and 2013-2014, and worked at Murrayfield as Head of Player Development in between time. He became Scottish Rugby’s Head of Academy and Performance Programmes after the Scotland 7s team finished joint seventh at the Commonwealth Games in 2014, and was appointed Technical Director at Murrayfield last November.
Behind Gemmell’s conciliatory overtures, however, there was little evidence of meaningful movement from Murrayfield on the key points of concern relating to the proposal.
Some projections state that each franchisee will be shelling out between £260k and £340k per annum to keep afloat, although others suggest it would be as little as £50k above the £62.5k club contribution initially discussed. We may not be talking English soccer’s Premier League levels of cash here, but even at the bottom end of the scale we are looking at more than the average club supporter can scavenge from the cracks between sofa cushions.
Gemmell, naturally, swayed towards the lower number, and indicated that cost efficiencies rather than a bigger contribution from the Union will solve that problem.
“Those conversations are ongoing but the figures are not as far away as portrayed. There is a difference but we don’t believe it is insurmountable,” he said.
“We’re effectively saying to clubs that we need £62,500 investment from them to match what we will be putting in to pay players. We are not naive, there is other money involved, but in terms of what the top clubs are currently doing and the investment they are putting in, we don’t believe it is significantly different.”
“We know they still need to run an amateur team – with costs associated – but I’m also not convinced that they need to be two separate entities. There can be some sharing of resource and therefore cost.”
Gemmell went on to explain that the initial requirement of 35 players per franchise squad is another area where savings on initial projections might be made.
“We are looking at a maximum of 35 players in any Super 6 squad, but does that mean all 35 players need to be named at the outset? Maybe it doesn’t, maybe there needs to be some flexibility around that. So, there is a number there but what that means in reality can and is being discussed,” he explained.
Gemmell added: “If the head coach of a franchise comes to me and says he’s got 10 players he wants to pay one amount, 10 he wants to play another amount and five that are in full-time jobs doing something which means they can’t do any more than they are already doing but they are vital to maintaining the standard of the team – then that’s his decision but he will be held to account on that.”
“Are we saying that everybody should be paid for every training session that they come to? No, there are various models you can put in place whether it is paid to train, paid to play or paid to win.”
Gemmell struggled when he was asked why Super 6 squad members who are not getting game time will be barred from playing down the leagues.
“As the performance environment kicks in and player standards improve, that is the right thing to do – to not have them play rugby that is not performance driven,” he said, which paints a pretty bleak picture of what the SRU anticipates being left behind.
In fairness, it has been stated from the outset that a key tenet in this proposal is that a strong line needs to be drawn between the performance game and the community game – but is Scotland big enough to support such strict demarcation?
According to Gemmell, speaking on behalf of Scottish Rugby, this is what was asked of them.
“We were mandated to look at four key areas. The first one was the Agenda 3 item around the amateur game and where that starts and stops, the second part was about improving the standard of the top end of our domestic game, the third one was about providing cross border-competition, and the fourth one was about providing a genuine coaching pathway and opportunities. Super 6, for me, deals with all four of those aspects in different ways,” he explained.
“The point here is you have to create the difference between the professional part of the game and the amateur part because that’s what our members have asked us to do, that’s what we’ve been mandated to do.”
“We’ve said that there will be six franchises in this competition and at some point people have got to decide: do they want to be part of it or do they not? Now, that’s not about a threat or anything else, that’s the reality because that’s what we were mandated to do.”
“Whether people agree that six is the right number, or whether it should be more or less than that, people are entitled to that opinion – but what we are delivering is a model which delivers what we were asked to deliver.”
There doesn’t seem to be any record of this mandate explicitly being given to the Board at any general meeting of the Scottish Rugby Union. It appears to have been more of an informal request.
“We believe it is the right way, we got to that point through various discussions – including input from the respective forums at national league and Premiership level. I’m not going to sit here and say there is a consensus, however, we have taken informed decisions as to why we believe this is the right way to go forward,” concluded Gemmell.