IT has been described as ‘the most important SRU AGM in a generation’ with clubs expecting to be given their first chance to fully discuss Agenda 3 and the Keith Russell affair in an open forum later this [Saturday] morning. The two issues are related with Russell as Director of Domestic Rugby having initially led the Agenda 3 programme before falling foul of Mark Dodson, the Scottish Rugby Union’s omnipotent and impatient Chief Executive, on account of his collaborative approach to bringing about change.
Dodson has been in the eye of a storm since the start of June, when news broke that he, along with his General Counsel Robert Howat, had been hauled over the coals by respected employment tribunal adjudicator Judge Joseph D’Inverno for the unfair dismissal of Russell in May 2017.
Russell subsequently launched a scathing attack in the press against the management culture fostered by Dodson at Murrayfield, and of the Chief Executive’s contemptuous attitude towards the SRU Council and the clubs they represent.
In response, SRU Board Chairman Colin Grassie instigated an internal review led by Board member and former Solicitor General Lesley Thomson, which was announced by a joint statement from the Board and Council. That statement also dismissed out of hand – and without need of investigation – the allegations levelled by Russell against Dodson and his closest associates at the top of game in this country.
On the same day as the statement was issued, Dodson, despite presumably being the focus of the investigation, fronted a series of press briefings, flanked by SRU President Rob Flockhart, in which he said that, while he did not agree with some of Judge D’Inverno’s findings, he was confident that no stone would be left unturned by Thomson in her enquiry. Flockhart chipped in to dismiss Russell’s claims as ‘laughable’.
It has never been made clear what the terms of reference of Thomson’s investigation are, and after eight weeks of silence we are still waiting to hear her analysis of this sorry affair. She apparently addressed a joint Board and Council meeting last week and it is strongly suspected that tomorrow’s AGM will be told that a fully-independent enquiry has now been ordered – although Thomson is not slated to speak according to the agenda.
As David Johnston eloquently argued on this site yesterday, an attempt to ‘kick the can down the road’ could be very damaging to the already strained relations between the SRU hierarchy and the member clubs they are supposed to represent.
Agenda 3, meanwhile, is at the heart of both motions which will go before the meeting, with the implications of a new part-time professional six team league [Super 6] to sit between the domestic and the professional game the key bone of contention.
The first motion, which has been proposed by Aberdeen Grammar and seconded by Marr RFC, seeks to secure the right of clubs to debate Agenda 3 in an open forum and to consider its implications, with clubs returning a completed questionnaire to the SRU by the end of October, and the whole process to be overseen by the Council Standing Committee on Governance led by independent Chairman Gavin McColl QC. The three specified areas of concern are: placement of Super 6 amateur teams in the domestic leagues and the potential of a moratorium on these sides being promoted into the new top tier of Championship; the definition of amateur players within the league below Super 6; and season and league structure.
The second motion, proposed by Haddington and seconded by GHA, seeks to enshrine the right of clubs to have the final say on the format of national club competitions within the Union’s bye-laws.
This could have major implications on whether the amateur teams of Super 6 clubs are allowed to compete in National One when things get going at the start of 2019-20, although the argument will be made that Super 6 teams are, in fact, new entities and that their amateur (founder) teams will be simply retaining their long established domestic league status.
Both Haddington and GHA will support an amendment raised by Portobello which limits the focus of the motion to just the Premiership and National Leagues, on the basis that regional, reserve and the women’s leagues need greater flexibility to alter competition format on a local basis and at short notice, rather than through a general meeting of the clubs.
Bizarrely, having not raised the issue during the four-week period when amendments could be submitted, the SRU Board and Council issued a long-winded ‘note’ just a week before the AGM in which it highlighted some apparent ‘potential ambiguity’ in the second motion.
A response, drafted by Bill McMurtrie of GHA and co-signed by Keith Wallace of Haddington, provided clarification when none should have been needed – and the whole episode only succeeded in reinforcing the sense that the clubs and the Board/Council are pulling in opposite directions.
Agenda 3 was unveiled by Dodson as a fait accompli at last year’s AGM and the recent drive to consult with the clubs indicates that his bullishness may have got the ball rolling but the approach was ultimately a tactical error.
With Dee Bradbury set to become the first female President of a major rugby Union when she is confirmed as Flockhart’s successor at the meeting, the election of the new vice-president is a four-horse race.
Graham Low from Gala looks like an also-ran. Jim Littlefair (North Berwick) and Mike Munro (Aberdeenshire) are the two ‘establishment’ candidates, and as long-serving Council and Board members they have endured some torrid evenings at Vice-Presidential hustings around the country during the last month, in which they have struggled to answer questions about the clear lack of scrutiny exerted by the Board over their executive members in the lead-up and aftermath of Russell’s dismissal, and of the ill-prepared and heavy-handed approach to introducing Agenda 3.
At least they have been able to attend all the hustings. The fourth candidate, Ian Barr (Lasswade) – the anti-establishment choice, who is standing on a platform of holding the executive to account and ensuring that the interests of the clubs are not steamrollered – didn’t make the Aberdeen hustings hosted by Munro, because his invite was apparently sent to the wrong email address. He also missed the East League (called and hosted by Littlefair) and Midlands hustings because it was during the first week of Edinburgh trades when he was on holiday.
Amongst ‘Other Competent Business’, a hot topic is likely to be the allocation of international tickets via the clubs. Having failed in an attempt last year to remove clause 4 in the Union bye-laws which sanctifies the right of member clubs to purchase international tickets, the governing body have now changed the ticket application process – with the full name, address and other details of the person taking each ticket now required to be collected by the club’s fixture secretary on behalf of the Union. This has raised issues with regard to data protection and the extra workload for fixture secretaries.