Keith Wallace column: Super 6 must not push rest of club rugby off the cliff edge

Player numbers have reached crisis point – and new league could be a killer blow

Edinburgh Accies Heriot's
Edinburgh Accies won't be a Super 6 franchise, while Heriot's will be next season ***Image: ©Fotosport/David Gibson***

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?

‘The challenge is to show that perception is not reality – we are genuinely committed to helping all club rugby be the best it can be’

 

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Keith Wallace
About Keith Wallace 1 Article
Keith Wallace this month celebrates 40 years of playing senior rugby since his debut at 15 for Haddington RFC. He played representative rugby at school and under-21 levels and is still pulling on his boots when needs must, having played briefly (in emergency) for his club 1st XV this year. He first held a committee position at 18, has been involved in many aspects of the club game ever since, and was elected as Haddington RFC president in May. He has previously served on the Board and Council of the SRU, and he was behind his firm’s sponsorship of the Border Reivers in their last season. He is a Chartered Engineer, a Chartered Director and has a keen interest in corporate governance.

16 Comments

  1. I think the latest Scotland squad hints at what the super 6 might be used for.
    It maybe used as incubator for 3rd rate Southern Hemisphere players to to start there journey for residency. So super 6 may not affect current player numbers much at all.

  2. Maybe I’m missing something.

    So take out the s6. Pay them to train more and play each other more. Put s6 seconds in BT1. Stop all others paying anything at all and see stars drift away and class foreign players disappear.

    How is this better than putting more money, effort and resource into existing set up which has far wider geo coverage and grass roots support?

  3. I’m not so sure. The problem with the increasing number of players needed to field a XV has been there for ages, I don’t think having a Super 6 specifically adds to or subtracts from it.

    You can do as many impact studies as you like, but the maths hint at the answer. There are currently 46 1st XVs playing in national leagues, which will rise to 54 under Super 6. But 6 of these will be the Super 6 ‘Club XVs’, made up of existing !sts who don’t go off to Super 6 and club 2nds promoted to fill the gaps. So in reality there will be two more teams at national level and I guess they will be promoted from the regional leagues.

    So there will be the same number of players in the same number of clubs, don’t see how that will noticeably exacerbate the player-numbers-per-team that Keith is talking about. The main effect is more likely the loss of some of the S6 3rd XVs, as players get promoted to fill the gaps in the 2nds.

    • You may not be so sure, and it may not be as bad as feared, but the point is that the SRU haven’t even bothered to investigate what the impact may be. Keith in this column has done a pretty good job of a brief impact assessment and the picture painted is bleak! This in itself should cause those pushing ahead with it to pause and reflect. I see no reflection happening, just a belligerent attitude which we have come to expect from those currently in charge.

    • I’m lost in your logic.

      So taking up to 210 players out of the club game into S6 won’t have an impact on numbers??? Yes this may be mitigated by using academy players but I suspect they are turning out for club sides already.

      There is a shocking lack of detail on how S6 will work. Will S6 players be able to turn out for club sides? Will club players be able to turn out for S6?

      What I find most amusing about all this is that if a motion was put up to an SRU AGM with the lack of detail contaibed in S6 and Agenda 3 it would get past first review from Graham Ireland. But those rules don’t seem to apply to the exec and Board.

      • Ref the logic, 6 x 1st XVs get stripped out of the leagues to form Super 6, 6 x 2nd XVs (the S6 ‘Club XVs) join the league in their place. Can’t see that there will be much difference in overall player numbers in that transaction.

        What you are not allowing for in your sum I think is that the bulk of the 2nd XVs from Watsonians, Heriots, Ayr, Stirling Co, Boroughmuir and Melrose will be switched from the Reserve League to play in National 1, to make up the S6 clubs”amateur’ teams.

      • Thanks for the explanation- I can count as well.

        That you seem to think that all these players moving up has no impact is really interesting. Let’s us Stirling County as an example. They need 35 players for their S6 side. Most of these will not be existing county players. They will have to come from somewhere? County will need around 70 players for their 1sts and 2nds (as illustrated by Keith and I can confirm that we use that estimate at our club as well). They also run a 3rds. Let’s say they need another 25-30 players for that squad.

        That would be a side in Nat1 (based on current proposals). A team in Nat Res 1 and a side in Midlands 2. And the simple matter of 100+ players on top of whatever they need for S6.

        Sounds a breeze to me and will in no way affect the clubs around Striling.

      • Granted that, if you create 6 new teams, which Super 6 does, you need to find 200 additional players from somewhere. I think the likely outcome will be that six reserve teams fold at the Super 6 residual clubs, as they reconfigure their amateur teams.

        Certainly the better players will be attracted to Super 6 from across the leagues, but that is the intention behind the concept that, like it or loathe it, the AGM agreed. The extent to which this is likely to happen is more debatable: ambitious players who want to play at the highest level have traditionally migrated to the Premier teams and it will primarily be from the Premier teams I’d imagine the bulk of the recruits are drawn. The clubs that suffer most are likely to be the Premier teams that didn’t make the cut to S6, namely Currie, Hawks, Edinburgh Academicals and Hawick, who will surely lose some of their better players.

        I doubt there will be a big call for S6 players from National and Regional League clubs.

        What is more likely to happen is that, to field their ‘Club XV’ side in the Championship, Watsonians for example might promote a lot of boys from the 2nds to fill the vacant places, the gaps in the 2nds will be taken by boys from the 3rds and their 3rds and 4ths will be merged in one team. I could see 5 or 6 reserve or regional teams folding as a result, Watsonians 4, Boroughmir 3, ‘Ferry Road Wanderers’ (joint Heriot’s/Stew Mel 3rd XV), Stirling County 3, Millbrae and Earlston.

        That is where I think the bulk of the 200 ‘additional’ players will come from. We gain 6 semi-Pro teams at the top of the pyramid and lose 6 reserve teams at the foot. If so, the effect on the player numbers will be about neutral, with any shortfall in numbers likely compensated for by SH and other players coming north looking for Super 6 contracts.

        I personally preferred Dodson’s initial idea of leaving things as they are and fielding Pro U23 teams against the Irish and Welsh Pro teams, giving the Stage 3 Academy players some good high-level competition, which I feel would represent a better solution to the perceived problem. But alas, the Premier clubs weren’t for letting go of ‘their’ Academy players, so we are where we are.

  4. If stars are stripped out the local teams to make up super six squads, where is the inspiration for the kids, not to mention the impact on club spirit and momentum. If it’s as feared, the impact will be felt further down the line after years of disruption.

  5. With an imperative to focus on the proper management & development of the Game’s grassroots / community bedrock in Scotland, there are certain attractions in both the new Welsh and the Irish management structures.

    To seek a simple community rugby breakaway under its own wee “junior partner” governing body organisation attached to the SRU monolith as some have been suggesting would surely just represent a hand-over of Scottish rugby’s grassroots foundations, aka its historic family jewels, to the currently omnipotent Murrayfield cabal – lock, stock & barrel.

    Better by far for member clubs first to wrest back control of the overall governance of the Game in Scotland – and only then to hive off the running / financing / management of the professional side of things to a semi-autonomous corporate subsidiary ultimately accountable to the main national union of all member clubs. Thereby, in the final analysis, control would “remain” (!) with the clubs, while, within reasonable prescribed limits, the financial, strategic & operational management, etc. of the professional Game would be undertaken separately.

    The fundamental point in all of this is to ensure that control & management of the professional end of the Game in Scotland remains subsidiary, even subservient, to its grassroots community foundations. However, if any of that is to happen, the vast majority of previously supine, dozy, lazy clubs will require to wake up, smell the coffee and get a grip. 🧐🤔

  6. With an imperative to focus on the proper management & development of the Game’s grassroots / community bedrock in Scotland, there are certain attractions in both the new Welsh and the Irish management structures.

    To seek a simple community rugby breakaway under its own wee “junior partner” governing body organisation attached to the SRU monolith as some have been suggesting would surely just represent a hand-over of Scottish rugby’s grassroots foundations, aka its historic family jewels, to the currently omnipotent Murrayfield cabal – lock, stock & barrel.

    Better by far for member clubs first to wrest back control of the overall governance of the Game in Scotland – and only then to hive off the running / financing / management of the professional side of things to a semi-autonomous corporate subsidiary ultimately accountable to the main national union of all member clubs. Thereby, in the final analysis, control would “remain” (!) with the clubs, while, within reasonable prescribed limits, the financial, strategic & operational management, etc. of the professional Game would be undertaken separately.

    The fundamental point in all of this is to ensure that control & management of the professional end of the Game in Scotland remains subsidiary, even subservient, to its grassroots community foundations. However, if any of that is to happen, the vast majority of previously supine, dozy, lazy clubs will require to wake up, smell the coffee and get a grip. 🧐🤔

  7. Barney, you big Bar Steward. Will you please stop publishing truthful, intelligent, well-researched and informative posts. In doing this you are showing up the mainstream rugby media in Scotland.

    This was another brilliant piece. When they come to cut down the long grass at Murrayfield, to build “Legoland”, they will perhaps find a lot of issues, such as this, which TCD and the Minions don’t want mentioned.

  8. Very good piece. The issues in the club game are there for all to see but other than sanctioning clubs there appears to be little interest from Murrayfield.

    When companies look to do this level of strategic change – like a Super 6 and Agenda 3 – there would typically be impact studies, cost benefit analysis, scenario papers, stakeholder positions. A fundamental piece would be in fully understanding current status and what the future desired state would be, with its opportunities and risks logged.

    That the SRU have leapt over the cliff with none of this preparatory work – or even worse done the work but not shared it with clubs is a daming indictment on the lack of business nous in the organisation.

    Using Keith’s simple analysis of required player numbers would have thrown up worrying trends. But that has been ignored for the bigger “vision” of S6A3

  9. An informative and well researched article from Keith Wallace. When all the questions are posed why does no one from the SRU come back with answers? Is it that this research has brought to light problems they hadn’t thought of eg player numbers. I can see players being disillusioned when “hoovering” starts as when the SRU told Border clubs they would lose no more than 2 players to the new Border pro team then they took double and more from some clubs so the players not selected looked around and thought , “I’m as good a player as he is” and went off for contracts in Australia, Italy and England. I know when the dust settled one Border club lost 11 players. I hope for the sake of Border rugby this does not happen when Melrose look around for recruits but at least there is only 1 Super team in the Borders where Edinburgh will have this problem tripled

  10. Excellent exposition of the not so super 6 ‘concept’ Keith. Someone, somewhere needs to put their foot on the brake and pause to reconsider.

  11. You present a very interesting analysis but if I may, I would add two points.

    Firstly, no-one seems to mention overall demographics in any of this. A simple analysis of birthrates in Scotland since 1950 shows a dramatic decline in newborn children. If you follow the numbers through (ignoring changes in mortality rates and immigration/emigration) then the current total population of Scots born men in their 20s has dropped by c.32% since 1992. Even if nothing else had changed in rugby, then active participation would have declined dramatically. Immigrant populations such as those from Eastern Europe, which have swayed the overall population numbers, tend not to feature heavily in team sport participation, certainly not in the first generation.

    Secondly, it has to be considered that rugby has changed forever…the fact that it is now a much harder, more serious sport, means that more and more, young men will not be participants, but viewers. You either take it very seriously, playing in your club’s 1st XV..or you simply don’t play at all. The half hearted player no longer wants to play nor would be allowed to by their spouse/partner in many cases. This isn’t just a Scottish phenomenon – more than 20 years ago I worked in South Africa in a large office with lots of young men in their 20s, all of whom had played rugby at school. How many of them played club rugby at the weekend? None. I was the only one..and they thought I was mad for playing given how hard the games were.

    I’d argue both of these points have profound effects for all clubs, irrespective of competition structure.

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