KEITH RUSSELL, the former Director of Domestic Rugby for the Scottish Rugby Union, who won an unfair dismissal case against the governing body earlier this week, says that a cabal of high-ranking executives at the top of the organisation is actively hostile to sustaining the number of local rugby clubs currently operating in Scotland.
Speaking for the first time since Judge D’Inverno ruled that his dismissal by the SRU was “both procedurally and substantively unfair”, Russell (father of Scotland stand-off Finn) paints a bleak picture of an organisation dominated by a handful of egocentric personalities – led by Chief Executive Mark Dodson, and also including Chief Operating Officer Dominic McKay and General Counsel Robert Howat – who are pushing through the biggest ever overhaul of the domestic game in this country (known as Agenda 3) with minimal consultation and even less appreciation of what they are dealing with.
“They are really just interested in the pro-teams because that’s where the money is and goes,” said Russell, speaking exclusively to The Offside Line and The Sunday Times newspaper. “There is absolutely no recognition at all that the vast majority of players still come from clubs and then work their way up the system, so unless you get that system right, you’ve got a real problem.
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“I remember being asked once how many clubs we actually need: Would it be about 50? I couldn’t understand the question, because never mind 120, we actually need 250 – so that every community in Scotland has got a rugby club and anyone who wants to can play the sport.
“Their attitude is: We can’t resource 120 clubs to a good standard so should we have 50 and just get rid of the other 70 because they don’t produce top players? It is [for them] all about creating players for pro rugby, not developing the game for everyone to participate from Shetland to Stewartry.
“The only way I can describe it is that they operate it as a business with 120 sales outlets, and that’s too many because they can only resource 50 for their purpose of getting players into the pro game and the national team. There is no wider understanding of what a rugby club is, its role in a community, and the potential it has to positively influence people’s lives.
“Unfortunately, they [the SRU senior executives] don’t understand that as a small country we actually need to have more people playing from a wider demographic to broaden the participation and talent pool rather than looking to reduce it.
“To my mind, they don’t see that the function of a governing body of a sport is to grow the game as widely as possible across Scotland and at the same time have a structure in place for talented players to develop and represent their country. The SRU – the ‘business’ to them – isn’t 120 clubs, it’s the staff in Murrayfield and anything controlled directly by them. Understanding that the clubs are the key stakeholders in the sport in Scotland is a distraction that they would prefer to avoid, and the only time they get interested in them is when they need something agreed at an AGM or SGM. I don’t think that was the case for the domestic rugby department [before all the recent redundancies], who were all out there on the ground doing good things, but it absolutely is for the senior executives.
“They’ve come in to run a business rather than develop a sport. The two things aren’t mutually exclusive in terms of making the professional end successful, but you need to have the other bit working really well too.”
The vexed issue of how the essentially amateur club game fits into the professional era has haunted Scottish rugby since the day the game went open back in August 1995. During the Dodson era at Murrayfield, two ‘strategic plans’ have been published: ‘Inspiring Scotland Through Rugby: The journey to 2016’ was unveiled in 2012; then, just over a year later and before the previous ‘strategy’ had been completed, we got ‘The Way Forward 2016 and Beyond Policy Initiatives’, which included a proposal for an eight team ‘super league’ at the top of the club game.
But both of these papers were light on details when it got down to the bare bones of what the ultimate purpose of the domestic game should be and struggled to get any traction. Frustrated by a lack of progress, Dodson decided to grab the bull by the horns.
A Limited Consultation
As Director of Domestic Rugby at the SRU between February 2015 and May 2017, Russell was around during the period when Agenda 3 was drafted, but says he had no direct input into the process – although certain aspects were cherry-picked from a paper his team in the domestic rugby department had drawn up called ‘Vibrant Rugby Communities’.
“This was an internal document which brought together all parts of the domestic game so that we could see what each section was doing and how they were collectively contributing to overall development. It also had clear project outcomes and overall KPIs [key performance indicators] so that as a team we could track progress and measure performance. It was logical, methodical, longer-term,” Russell explains.
“Then Mark Dodson decided he wanted to make a presentation to the Board and Council about domestic rugby in September 2016, so he asked me before he went to Japan that June [shadowing Scotland’s summer tour] to draft something for him to look at. I pulled information together based on the Vibrant Rugby Communities plan and previous presentations I had taken to the Council.
“The ‘Agenda 3’ presentation was developed by Mark [Dodson] and Dominic [McKay] in Japan. Mark wanted something that would make a statement and be visual about the need for change. It was a sales presentation, not a plan or strategy. Whilst some of the content came from the paper I had prepared for them, the context was from Mark and Dominic. Agenda 3 was Mark’s name for it and referred to the three themes of: Participation, Finance and Performance.
“There’s quite a lot of content in there that addressed what we were wanting to do – around projects like Tartan Touch, player payments and the club sustainability fund – but the way it was being presented was very bombastic”.
After Dodson had presented to the SRU Board in September 2016, Russell was told to introduce Agenda 3 to the clubs at a series of six ‘President’s Roadshows’ around the country during the latter half of the year.
“I edited Mark’s presentation because I would never have gone to the clubs and told them they were effectively useless, not fit for purpose, and needed to be disbanded. So, instead of just telling the clubs how great the SRU was, we presented on what we were doing and then outlined the projects that were part of Agenda 3,” he explains.
“The clubs then discussed among themselves, in small groups facilitated by a domestic rugby development officer, what the issues were and potential solutions. The feedback from the six President’s Roadshow sessions was then fed into a working group made up of club reps from different regions and levels, and chaired by [SRU Vice President] Dee Bradbury. This is a normal process to engage the clubs as the key stakeholders in their sport. The outcomes were very positive and the working group came up with a number of workable actions which would reduce player movement and help remove player payments.
“These recommendations were then put in my Board Report under the Agenda 3 section so that we could get an ‘in principle’ agreement before going back to the working group to refine and adapt, but they were blocked from being progressed further for wider discussion and the working group was terminated.”
The jewel in the crown
There was a sticking point. The jewel in Dodson’s Agenda 3 crown was not yet in place.
“Unfortunately, Mark and the Board, without any consultation with me, had commissioned John Ryle [a management consultant from Manchester] to produce a report into a semi-pro structure above the Premiership, so that had to be resolved before any of the actions from the clubs’ working group could be progressed,” explains Russell.
Ryle had first appeared on the Scottish rugby landscape when doing the leg work for ‘The Way Forward 2016 and Beyond Policy Initiatives’ published in December 2013, which had included a proposal which never got off the ground for a ‘Super 8’ league at the top of the Scottish club game.
In April 2017, The Offside Line contacted Matt Horler – the SRU’s head of media – to enquire about Ryle’s latest involvement in Scottish Rugby and was told: “For background John Ryle is speaking to a small group from the club game and sounding them out across a range of areas. At this point it is too early to report back on any outcomes or proposals that may emerge. I would say I don’t recognize the ‘comprehensive overhaul’ reference you mention but given your interest I’m happy to arrange contact with relevant people here to discuss any resulting developments at an appropriate time.”
A request to Horler for an interview with Russell was evaded, perhaps because the Director of Domestic of Rugby was no longer considered a ‘relevant’ person given that this was just a month before he was relieved of his position.
“The semi-pro piece of work was never discussed with myself or the Council, and the stuff we were working on was effectively put on hold. Mark was not in favour of the consultative process that we had gone through as he thought that we should be deciding what to do and simply telling the clubs to like it or lump it.
“I met John Ryle once, when I explained my views on the Premiership, which had been developed with reps from the Premiership some months before, and [I also] gave him the previous reports which had been done on reviewing the Premiership. The issues that were presented at that time have still not been resolved by the Super 6 proposal in relation to: the competition structure; how players move between pro, semi-pro and ‘amateur’ teams; how we actually improve players because simply paying people doesn’t make them better; and what are the specific performance improvements that need to be made.”
The sound of silence
Russell was dismissed by the SRU in May 2017 and has not had sight of any feedback delivered by Ryle. Nobody outside of Murrayfield has. Dodson has consistently referenced his ‘performance department’ when asked about the authorship of the Super 6 proposals, with former Scotland coach Frank Hadden, and former Scotland players Chris Paterson and Alastair Kellock, among the names he has mentioned as being fundamentally opposed to the Premiership being the main feeder route into the professional game.
Meanwhile, Sheila Begbie was shifted from Head of Women’s Rugby to replace Russell, initially on an interim basis before being given the job permanently at the end of August 2017. She recently oversaw a restructuring of the domestic rugby department which involved 10 out of 16 staff members from the ‘club services’ and ‘schools and youth’ teams lose their jobs. Before joining the SRU in May 2014, she was Head of Girls’ and Women’s Football at the Scottish Football Association for 16 years. Begbie is not known to have spoken publicly on the Agenda 3 proposals at any point during the whole process.
There is no doubt that Dodson gave a compelling presentation at last August’s AGM and even received a round of applause for his performance, but a round of applause does not constitute a mandate.
“You bring it up at the AGM with no background, so you’ve got 150-folk hearing about it for the first time and saying to themselves: Hmm, maybe that’s okay and maybe it’s not. But you get it completed by May, so by next August’s AGM the horse has bolted,” reasons Russell.
“There is no clarity on what Agenda 3 actually is, what projects or initiatives are included, and what it is trying to achieve. Mark Dodson does not agree with an engagement process with clubs. He believes that the staff and the Board should decide what happens. He says: ‘If the clubs don’t like it, it is the clubs’ problem not ours’.
“It does not appear in any SRU document, and if you type Agenda 3 into the SRU website’s internal search engine the only pages that come up are under the Super 6 heading.
“Meanwhile, the semi-pro structure was never included in any Agenda 3 report that went to the clubs or Council. There is no visibility, as far as I am aware, of the recommendations from John Ryle’s report.”
An ezine sent out to all clubs in Scotland on behalf of SRU President Rob Flockhart on 21st May at the request of ‘a number of stakeholders’, promised to provide more detail on Agenda 3 in early June. We are now at 10th June and that information has still not been shared.
“There are no checks and balances. There is no plan. Look at the SRU website, there is no strategy. Mark doesn’t want to be held to account by a strategy,” says Russell.
Critics of Agenda 3 have often used the phrase ‘divide and rule’. Russell is not inclined to disagree.
“My view is that they [Dodson and co] can’t have a strong domestic rugby tier – with the clubs and the Council coming off the same page – because it doesn’t work for them to have this cohesive unit. I don’t think they have a plan in their own minds to weaken it, but they certainly know that they don’t want a strong club sector – unified and doing things together – because that means they can’t just do what the hell it is they want to do.
“He [Dodson] talks about sustainability of clubs, then he says at the start of the process that if he doesn’t get enough clubs applying [for Super 6] he will go and create his own franchises! The whole thing was launched at the 2017 AGM under the banner of ‘Agenda 3 – a blueprint for sustainable clubs’ but Super 6 is now being led by Stevie Gemmell [technical director in the performance department] with no input from domestic rugby. How is any of this part of developing sustainable clubs?”
The headline figure for the SRU’s contribution to each Super 6 franchise is £137,500 [£75,000 on coaching and back-room staff and £62,500 on players]. In fact, the current SRU contribution for Premiership clubs ranges between around £40,000 and £50,000 so we are talking about £90,000-£100,000 of ‘new’ money per franchise.
“There is a little bit more money going in to domestic rugby overall, but the turnover of Scottish Rugby has gone up by £15 million in the last five years, and if none of that was going back to the clubs then the Board know they would be getting it in the neck,” says Russell.
“And remember, the £600,000 extra going into Super 6 [£3m over five years] is not going into all the clubs out there – it is going into a vanity project of Mark Dodson’s. So, they’ll talk that up because it is a way of representing themselves as being all about the clubs but its not an accurate portrayal of the reality.
“If you were able to take that £100k [earmarked for each franchise] and say to each of the clubs involved: What is it you need to do to improve the quality of what you’ve got? Then they can all come back with a plan which can be assessed, and be accepted or rejected, on its merits. Because what Stirling County needs is different to what Ayr needs is different to what Melrose needs – it is not one size fits all.
“But they don’t trust and respect these clubs enough to do that. They are just not interested. The attitude is that they are rubbish and can’t do it themselves.
The big question
“I was asking: What is it they are not good at? The answer was always: Well, they’re just not good enough. They’re not training full-time. They’re not doing this and they’re not doing that. But none of it was about outcomes. None of it was setting down the criteria of what they need to get better at.
“Mark Dodson said to the press that Alain Rolland [World Rugby’s high-performance referees manager] won’t give the BT Premiership any referees because the standard is not good enough, but what does that mean? Is it that there are not enough breakdowns? Or it is not quick enough? That’s useful information because that is something we can start measuring and if that is what we think the problem is then we can work on that for the next couple of years and then go back with something that is empirical and say to Alain Rolland: You know what Alain, you are sending guys down to the English Championship but actually our number of breakdowns, speed of breakdown and so on, is the same or better. So, if that’s your problem, we’ve fixed it.
“But instead we are just being told that the Premiership is not good enough and we are expected to just take their word for it.
“I’ve never believed that, somehow, I got something horribly wrong. I was doing what I was doing – we were going on the right track – and if I was to speak to anyone on the Council or in the clubs I am 99 percent certain that if we got into talking about rugby then they’d be on the same wavelength as me.
“Mark told me: It’s your job to tell clubs what they need to do, and if they don’t like it then that’s their problem and not your problem.
“Well, that’s not how I see things being improved. It’s not how you develop sport. I’ve successfully developed sport for 30 years and know that without genuine engagement with the clubs, as the key stakeholders in Scottish Rugby, there will be no long-term change and progression in the game.
“Sport in Scotland is going through a significant change process and rugby absolutely needs to move forward. All World Rugby Tier 1 countries are going through the same challenges: How do we continue to make the sport relevant for young people? How do we improve transition from youth to adult rugby? How do we keep people involved at clubs, and not just in 15-a-side rugby on a Saturday afternoon?
“What we were doing in Scotland had been recognised more widely as I had been asked to sit on the RFU’s Under-19s Commission where they were asking these same questions about the game in England. The Tier 1 Development Directors group had produced a strategy for the key challenges all of the countries were facing and I had been asked to chair the group on player retention due to the good work that we were taking forward in Scotland. Interestingly Mark Dodson told me not to be involved in either group.
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“I had been brought in to lead the change that rugby in Scotland needs to make to become a modern, inclusive and engaged sport across all of Scotland’s communities, but Mark Dodson and the senior executives do not have the knowledge or vision to understand what that could look like, nor do they have a genuine interest in engaging with sport in Scotland to deliver on their strapline of ‘Inspiring Scotland through Rugby’.”
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