Keith Wallace, the President of Haddington RFC, has some serious concerns about the implications of the SRU’s plans to launch a new elite Super 6 league to sit at the top of the current domestic club structure, and specifically where the 2nd XVs/Club XVs of these teams should be placed within the domestic league structure.
Here he explains why he is so worried about the consequences this initiative could have on the rest of the club game.
THE challenge of populating three ring-fenced Super 6 squads in Edinburgh, plus their three ‘Club XVs’ in National One [the second tier of Scottish rugby’s domestic league structure], will require around 15 percent of the best players currently turning out for all the other clubs in the district to be hoovered up by these governing body created entities. At a time when we need more and more players to fulfil fewer and fewer fixtures, this flagship policy of the Scottish Rugby Union’s Agenda 3 programme will clearly have a massive – and catastrophic – impact on the clubs left behind.
If the receipt of the Keith Russell Employment Tribunal judgement was a low moment for Scottish Rugby, and the Board and Council statement on the subsequent reviews an even lower one, then the launch of Super 6 – if left unchallenged and unchecked – will be the lowest yet.
While the SRU have yet to produce any analysis of the impact Super 6 is going to have on the club game, a simple look at the number of active adult male players – in terms of games played – in Scotland at the moment highlights that we are at a pivotal moment in the history of club rugby in this country.
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My club, Haddington, can be used as an example of how perilous the situation is. We have a good catchment area, a proud history of producing competitive teams and players who have gone on to play at a higher level, and a progressive approach to youth development – but we are finding it harder and harder to keep players engaged.
When I started out in senior rugby in 1978 we were still running a 5th XV, and records show that we honoured 96 fixtures that season (and indeed an astonishing 110 the season before). Our 5th XV folded two years later, our 4th XV followed in the late 1980’s, our 3rd XV went the same way about five years ago, and this season we are struggling to get our 2nd XV out.
We are far from alone. Most, if not all, of the teams our 3rd XV used to play against five years ago no longer turn out.
Three out of the 12 clubs in our 1st XV league [National League Division 3] don’t run a 2nd XV; and a quick look at the results of the teams that do show that five of those clubs, including Haddington, have failed to fulfil at least one 2nd XV fixture already this season.
Further up the ladder, the Kelso 2nd XV team which deservedly won our 2nd XV league [East Reserve League Division 1] last season have struggled to fulfil fixtures in National Reserve League Division 2 this season.
Gala 1st XV play in National League Division One. Their A team have already had points deducted this season as a sanction for failing to fulfil three fixtures.
At least three others in National One have failed on at least one occasion to get a 2nd XV out. This is the worst I have seen in all my playing years.
A numbers game
An analysis of the games played on 29th September – arguably the best Saturday of the season for player numbers, with students and farmers back, cumulative injuries still low, and winter weather and demoralising defeats still to take their toll – reveals that only 95 club matches went ahead in Scotland. Assuming that each team had 18 squad members, that means 3,420 male players got a game. According to the SRU’s own figures, there were 17,055 players registered in Scotland in 2013, so we are looking at only 20 percent of the number of registered players from five years ago actually getting a game.
There were 15 reserve team games cancelled on 29th September, compared to seven on the corresponding Saturday last season. The following week was equally depressing with at least three 1st XVs cancelling fixtures.
In the Edinburgh area the situation is particularly acute given the threat of three Super 6 franchises being launched next season. Saturday 6th October witnessed only 46 teams being fielded by Edinburgh and Lothians clubs, which means 828 players turned out (if we use the assumption of 18 players per team).
Eight of the teams fielded in Edinburgh came from Super 6 clubs, which equates to 144 players. That leaves only 684 players from all the remaining clubs in the Edinburgh and Lothians area.
It is hard to comprehend only 46 teams fielded in Edinburgh and the Lothians when so many of the 30-plus clubs used to run five sides, but it is not simply a case of falling player numbers – it is more complicated than that, which needs to be borne in mind as we consider the impact of creating Super 6.
A changing world
When I started there were no replacements, fewer injuries and most players played every week. Now with benches, injuries and many young guys simply not willing or able to play every week, you need more and more players to get a team out. There is a lack of peer pressure and a bewildering array of excuses which impact on frequency of turnout.
I would estimate that back in the 1970s and 1980s you could run five sides with 100-110 players, now you typically need a pool of that size to get three teams out. Right now, at Haddington, even with 70 players, we are struggling with our 2nd XV, although we expect this to clear in the next couple of weeks.
Effectively, to run three teams now you need three overlapping circles of players, getting bigger as you move down that club: typically 40 for a 1st XV; 45 for a 2nd XV; and 50 for a 3rd XV. The overlap between 1st and 2nd XV [i.e. the players who will shift from one team to the other] is typically 15 or so players, while the overlap between the 2nd XV and 3rd XV is around 20, so in total we are looking at about 100 players.
As far as I’m aware – and I’ve been at almost all the meetings – nobody from the SRU has bothered to properly forecast how many players will actually be needed to run a competitive 2nd XV near the top of the domestic game alongside a Super 6 franchise, preferring instead to follow a suck-it-and-see approach – which is shockingly foolhardy on such an important issue.
I have looked at this several ways. The most simplistic view is that we are creating six new entities each of which needs 35 players [3 x 35 = 105 in Edinburgh]. Another analysis, incorporating the potential impact of strict amateurism and Premiership players who don’t get a Super 6 contract deciding to retire, suggests a figure in excess of 50 players per entity.
However, using my overlapping circles approach, one of the most fundamental flaws of the Super 6 proposal is having no playing up and down – ignore dual registration because it is never a two-way street – so the 15-player overlap between 1st and 2nd XVs explained above is immediately lost.
Below this, some Super 6 clubs will argue that in a one-off game their 2nd XV would hold their own in National One, which may well be the case when they have a good week in terms of players being fit and available, but can they really claim that any of the 20 overlapping players from their 3rd XV could act as back-up in National One?
Take Watsonians – probably the strongest club in terms of playing numbers – as an example. Their 3rd XV is full of good, keen boys and they were worthy 24-64 winners when they played against Haddington A last month, sportingly helping to make up our numbers. However, I played in that match and I didn’t feel out of my depth. I would not dream of playing National One. I simply don’t believe that the overlapping players between 2nd XV and 3rd XV are of a standard to play National One.
So, what does all of this mean in Edinburgh?
Well, if all three Super 6 clubs want their National One team to survive and prosper, then simple maths means 105 [the sum of the overlaps] of the best players from the other Edinburgh clubs will become recruitment targets. This is no criticism of the clubs involved; in that situation all clubs must look to protect themselves.
We’ve already established that the Edinburgh clubs only managed to field 684 players on the busiest Saturday of the season, so we are talking about 15 per cent of Edinburgh’s playing population being hoovered up by Super 6 organisations. It will be carnage in Clubland.
No doubt we will hear the argument that the players may come from outwith Edinburgh, but it is hard to see anyone travelling far for the money involved; and, of course, players will also be drawn elsewhere. The Borders clubs will see something similar happen with Melrose, the Midlands clubs with Stirling County, and Glasgow and Ayrshire clubs with Ayr. Furthermore, as noted above, if we end up with strict amateurism, then the loss of overseas players, plus native players who have been left demotivated on the outside of Super 6, will make this even worse. Not to mention the impact on front-row resources, which is beyond contemplation!
Remember, it is clubs who introduce the next generation of players to our great game. Without them there will be no game. So, at a time when they are peering over the side of a cliff, the governing body should be trying to pull them back to safety, not pushing them over the edge.
Nobody who really cares about Scottish rugby is arguing against the need for improvements to the top level of the domestic game and to the interface with the high-performance game, but it has to be a two-way street. The domestic game is the nursery which produces players, whilst the high-performance game generates the money which keeps the whole show on the road. In essence, this is the Union. The problems start when one side of that balancing act decides to cannibalise the other side with no regard for the long-term consequences to the game.
A few questions to finish off with –
- Can we really put up with a governing body which is steamrollering ahead with these plans when it is abundantly clear that they have had no impact assessment done?
- Is it right that, 13 months after its fanfare launch at the 2017 AGM, the three potential Edinburgh franchisees are still describing Super 6 as a concept?
- Is it right that that the whole Super 6 programme continues to float on shifting sands [no more than two in any district but now three in Edinburgh; originally to be part of the high-performance game but categorically stated at the AGM as part of the domestic game; no playing up and down but now dual registration; no clarity of when games will be played]?
- Is it right that the paid officials at Murrayfield now appear to have handed responsibility for getting the clubs on board to the six franchisees – who have yet to sign their Super 6 contracts for next season?
- Is this yet another process failure by the CEO, or is it simply the sign of a governing body which does not care about the future of its clubs?
- Should the governing body’s efforts not be going into reversing the decline in games played rather than imposing changes which can only accelerate this alarming trend?