Super Six: The big questions which must be answered – part one

Image: © Craig Watson - www.craigwatson.co.uk

APPLICATIONS to become a Super Six franchise open tomorrow [Monday], when those interested in throwing their hat into the ring expect much more clarity to be provided as to exactly how the new league is going to function.

The broad framework of the proposal was dealt with at the SRU’s annual general meeting in August and was summarised on this site at the time [click here]. But, the longer clubs have had to think about it, the more apparent it has become that SRU chief executive Mark Dodson’s presentation that day only scratched the surface in terms of explaining how the introduction of this scheme, which could rival Brexit in its capacity to both confuse and factionalise, might work.

There is a sense that Dodson’s initially bullish stance has mellowed, that he has taken on board some of the concerns raised by the club community over the past few months and smoothed down a few of the rougher edges of his original vision.

For example, he initially stated that centrally contracted players would not be involved in Super Six, and that fringe pro players would get game time instead playing for Edinburgh and Glasgow Warriors back-up squads in a newly created schedule of five or six  ‘A’ team matches – but it now seems that a more fluid relationship between the Super Six and the two pro teams is on the cards.

However, a number of fundamental issues still need to be addressed before clubs can gamble their futures on Super Six.

After extensive discussions with those most closely connected to the Super Six debate, The Offside Line has produced a two-part report into six of the key issues which will need to be addressed in the weeks and months ahead.

We begin here by discussing: finance, identity and autonomy. Then, on Monday morning, we will deal with which clubs are likely to be in the frame for a Super Six franchise, how the season will be structured and how we measure success.

1.    FINANCE

As Dodson has stated, this new league will be ‘paid part-time’. It is overstating it to describe the level of player payment as ‘semi-professional’ given the amount of money on the table.

The governing body is pledging £62.5k per franchise to pay players, which will be matched by the participating clubs so long as they can demonstrate that this expense is sustainable. That means £125k per season to pay a 35-man squad, which works out at just under £3,752 per year on average. Senior players will get significantly more than this and junior players will get significantly less, but either way, it is hardly a king’s ransom.

Is it realistic to ask them to sacrifice any more time and earning potential than they already do to train and play with so little financial compensation in return? At this level of payment, you have to ask just how attractive a prospect of playing in the Super Six really is? For many, it will represent a significant wage-cut to what they already get from their club. It is no wonder Dodson is so adamant that all levels below Super Six should be strictly amateur – because it would be highly embarrassing if these ‘lesser’ teams started poaching from the top flight!

Will the Super Six pay national minimum wage (travel to and from games counts as working hours, not just playing matches themselves)? Will injured players be eligible for national minimum wage? Will travel costs be paid to and from training? The devil will be in the detail of the contract, of course, and the story may well be that players are signing up to, effectively, zero hours contracts.

There is also significant ancillary costs on top of player wages, including: assistant coaches (x2), equipment purchase, facility rental, bus hire, insurance premiums, medical charges, youth development, general administration, media/marketing and the list goes on – coming to a total of £50k by one club’s estimate. There was no mention of these costs in Dodson’s presentation at the AGM, so we can assume that the governing body does not plan to pick up any of the bill.

This money (along with the player payment fund) will have to be raised through traditional avenues such as gate, bar, membership, advertising and sponsorship. As effectively new entities playing in a brand-new competition, this will mean franchises taking a significant leap into the dark – although the novelty factor and the prospect of reaching beyond Scotland will hopefully provide at least an initial spike in interest.

Will the SRU expect their own commercial interests to be accommodated within each club’s advertising initiatives? For example, the governing body are currently seeking a sponsor for their domestic league and cups, so is exposure on players’ strips part of their offer?



2.    IDENTITY

As well as player payments, the governing body is also committing the equivalent of £65k to cover costs for head coach, strength and conditioning coach, physio and analyst – but that won’t be cash handed to the clubs for them to spend as they see fit. The Murrayfield performance department will place individuals from their own development programmes into these roles, which will inevitably set the tone for how the team plays and the general ethos of the club.

The head coaches will have all come through the same pathway where they will have been schooled in ‘The Scottish Way’ [the SRU’s technical blueprint for coaching]. They will have very similar rugby experiences, very similar rugby ambitions and see the rugby world in a very similar way.

There has been a suggestion that the SRU will look for all competing clubs to become part of their relationship with Macron kit suppliers, which might not seem like a massive issue on the face of it, but are we going to end up with an army of undistinguishable players who all fit an SRU ideal, being coached in the same style to play the same sort of way, all the while wearing identical strips in slightly different shades of bland?

That might conceivably be a great way to expand the Scottish Rugby performance department’s capacity to house players until they are ready to step up to the pro game, but it is not exactly a vision of the future which will get the juices of good old-fashioned club supporters flowing. And it begs the question of what [if anything] is in it for the clubs?




3.    AUTONOMY

It is hard to imagine the SRU finding anyone from inside their organisation more suited to driving Melrose as a club forward than current head coach Rob Chrystie – who has, by universal consent, done a magnificent job at The Greenyards since being promoted from the assistant role at the start of last season.

He has championed the team’s attractive but effective style of play which has seen them march to ten bonus point wins from ten outings so far in the BT Premiership this season. He has fostered a ‘whole club’ mentality which has allowed Melrose to grow an unmatched level of strength in depth. And he has been the driving force behind setting up the MAD [Melrose Athlete Development] programme in conjunction with Edinburgh College – which provides extra training to 24 of the most promising young athletes in the area.

He does, however, have a good job as a course director at Edinburgh College, so it looks like he is going to have to decide whether he wants to give up that security to gamble on this enterprise. And then he must hope the fact that he is a relative outsider at Murrayfield does not preclude him from the job.

This situation is not unique to Chrystie and Melrose. Calum Forrester at Ayr, Fin Gillies at Glasgow Hawks, Phil Smith at Heriot’s and Stevie Lawrie at Watsonians are all in a similar boat.

Dodson has stated he wants full-time head coaches who are on the professional pathway, but is it really a full-time job? Or is he looking for these individuals to divide their time between the Super Six and working in other areas of Scottish rugby such as the academies?

It is understandable that the SRU will want some input into how their investment is managed, but the clubs need to retain control of the key things which make them what they are.

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David Barnes
About David Barnes 726 Articles
David has worked as a freelance rugby journalist since 2004 covering every level of the game in Scotland for publications including The Sunday Times, The Telegraph, The Scotsman/Scotland on Sunday/Evening News, The Herald/Sunday Herald, The Daily Mail/Mail on Sunday and The Sun.