NEIL MEIKLE, the director of rugby at Heriot’s, says the description of Super 6 teams as potential ‘super-hoovers’ is pretty accurate – but he takes issue with the inference that this is automatically a bad thing for Scottish rugby.
He believes that, if managed properly, the new league structure being proposed by the SRU as part of their controversial Agenda 3 programme should properly harness the country’s playing resources and improve the game at all levels.
“It should go right down to the schools and be sucking everybody up through the Regional League clubs, the National League clubs, the Championship clubs and into Super 6, so that everyone is playing at the most appropriate standard for their ability and commitment level,” he explains. “So ‘Super-Hoover’ is the right word, but it goes a lot deeper than the National League clubs [who appear to be the most agitated by the prospect of losing players] – but it can’t be about the Super 6 taking everything and not putting anything back.
“People are getting too focussed on emotion, and too focussed on day one. ‘Are we losing our star player to Super 6?’ The answer is yes, and you should do. That’s the way the world works now,” he adds.
There is growing unrest amongst the clubs not involved in Super 6 about what will be left behind once the new league kicks-off at the start of the 2019-20 season. A particular bone of contention is the plan for ‘amateur’ teams of Super 6 franchises to be placed in National League One of the new domestic league format, with the potential to be promoted at the end of that campaign straight into the top-tier Championship.
Two motions have been tabled by National League clubs for August’s SRU AGM. The first motion demands that the clubs and not paid SRU administrators have final say on league structure. The second motion calls for a debate on a number of key issues relating to Agenda 3, including where these Super 6 amateur teams should be placed in the new league structure and what the appropriate definition of ‘amateur’ is for the purposes of this new set-up.
At least two Super 6 clubs will argue that they have simply taken on responsibility for hosting a franchise as a separate entity, that the status of their core club has not changed, and that they have dropped down into National One as a concession to the other clubs. On that basis, if the other clubs reject the proposal for Super 6 amateur teams to play in National One, then they expect to automatically resume their current position in the top flight of the club game.
But Meikle believes a more conciliatory approach is required.
“It is vital that we come to some sort of agreement that maybe doesn’t suit everyone – but is acceptable to everyone,” he says. “I don’t know what the answer is to that, but I know the answer is not running roughshod over the rest of the clubs – because that maybe works for year one, but I don’t see it working in year five.
“There’s a lot of thinking to be done on that. You can’t just knee-jerk it – there’s going to be a lot of learning this as we go along. So, we’ll need to put an agreement in place for year one, but we may have to amend that for year two.
“It fundamentally comes back to Super 6 clubs working with the rest of the clubs – that’s so key. People have got to have a new mindset on this because if we go in with the old prejudices, the old thinking and the old ideas then we are going to end up in the same place.”
Meikle also believes that people are underestimating how easy it will be for the Super 6 clubs to resource and run an ‘amateur’ team capable of competing at the top of the Championship on top of the demands of a newly formed Super 6 franchise.
“Clubs like Currie Chieftains, Glasgow Hawks, Hawick, Edinburgh Accies and Jed-Forest are all going to be pretty damn competitive. To run a team to be successful against them, you don’t just need to find the players but also coaches and support staff as well. It is not going to be easy and it is not going to be cheap, so I’m not convinced by this assumption that all the Super 6 ‘amateur’ teams will automatically end up at the top of the Championship.
“I think the question you ask these players is: Do you want to play for Edinburgh Accies 1st XV going for the Championship, or a Heriot’s 2nd XV trying to find their way? Because if being part of a Heriot’s or Ayr or Melrose 2nd XV is a prerequisite of making their Super 6 squad then something is really wrong.
“What is the goal of a Championship side? I hope it is to be the champions. So that when Neil Meikle goes to a player at a Championship club and says: ‘Do you want to play for Heriot’s 2nd XV?’ He can say: ‘No chance mate. I’m playing for Edinburgh Accies and we’re going to win the league.’ I have no problem with that, because they want to play at the best level available to them at that time, and they are showing a bit of loyalty which is a good thing.
HEAD COACH REQUIRED: Heriot’s are already advertising for a head coach to run their Super 6 team, initially coming on board on a part-time basis before going full-time during the lead-up to the league’s launch in August 2019.
“I can state categorically that our Super 6 team will be looking for the best players available, not just the ones who are in our 2nd XV. People are too simplistic, they don’t actually think about it from a players’ perspective.
“And I want this on the record, we are not recruiting anybody for this last season of the Premiership from Edinburgh Accies or Currie Chieftains [who had unsuccessful franchise bids], and I think other Super 6 teams should follow that because we have a responsibility to ensure that the other teams within our area are not detrimentally affected by what we are doing.
“Why would we want to kill-off the other clubs in the area? We need to be looking to work with these guys and finding out what we can do to help them.”
35-man squads are not workable
Meikle continues: “I don’t think you can have 35 players because – going back to my previous point – how does that support the other clubs?
“Plus, try signing a third-choice hooker. At Heriot’s, that’s Stewart Mustard, so do I go to Muzzy and say: ‘You fancy signing this contract with no money, to be behind Michael Liness and Ali Johnstone?’ He’ll say: ‘You are never picking me if those two guys are fit, so I am never going to play, so I’d rather play with my pals in the 2nd XV’.
“Now, you might say that Stewart Mustard is a veteran and Super 6 is for youngsters who will sign-up for anything if they think it is a step in the right direction to a pro contract, but realistically that guy is better off playing regular rugby elsewhere, but training with us when appropriate, and stepping up when the chance comes along.
“We used 44 players this year, and I’d imagine most of the Premiership teams are about the same, so we are talking about 40 players being required as a conservative estimate – in which case, what’s the point of a 35-man squad? I think you go 25 and you float guys up and down. And if you have got ten floaters then you can’t have more than three in your 2ndXV and you float the other guys out to – in Heriots’ case – Stew-Mel and Edinburgh Accies.”
The geography issue
Another bone of contention is the geographic spread of Super 6 clubs, with three teams – including Heriot’s – based in Edinburgh, and five located within 40 miles of Murrayfield.
“The geographical argument doesn’t stack, in my view,” insists Meikle. “Having six teams that get this right – regardless of whether all six are from Edinburgh, Glasgow or the Borders – is far more important than having a geographic spread.
“If you take the top two divisions in Scotland at the moment, there’s three Glasgow teams there, and only one in the top flight, so if it is a hot bed of talent then where is it? The same applies with Aberdeen and Dundee.
“Edinburgh is a very, very competitive rugby environment and that’s why you have seen the Edinburgh clubs do well out of Super 6. This whole process wasn’t a sporting competition, it was a business competition, and the Edinburgh clubs have existed in a massively competitive environment for decades, so we know we’ve got to be on top of our game every year – moving forward, changing what we do, and staying in front, because otherwise you just get eaten up.
“Heriot’s is a finishing school. The nature of rugby has changed – guys don’t all come up through the junior section and play in the 1stXV anymore. If you look at the Scotland Under-20a squad this year, Heriot’s have two players in it, Currie have one, Stirling have one, there is French-based players and English-based players – the depth is really spread out. Good rugby teams come and go – it is about the longevity of what you can provide to aspiring players.
“It would have been great to have a Glasgow team. It would be great to have a geographic spread across the whole country – but if in five years’ time the whole thing is falling down, then what does it matter? Whereas, if in five years’ time we have a really strong six team league then we can go up to eight, we can even go back up to ten.
“Currie Chieftains will be absolutely fine because they are a great club who do what they do exceptionally well. It is not for me to say whether or not they should be in Super 6, but I have no doubt that they are big enough and strong enough and tough enough to adapt and thrive in this new environment. From a development perspective, they need to keep doing what they are doing, and Scottish rugby needs them to keep doing what they are doing. Nothing has actually changed in that sense from where they were before – their best players were getting taken into pro rugby and that’s still the case except it is Super 6 – we’ve always known that we needed to extend the pro game. The same goes for the other clubs which missed out.”
Meikle also dismisses concerns that a six-team league with a cross-border competition which looks like being against Welsh clubs will lack popular appeal.
“It is irrelevant. You can have a 15-team league when everyone is playing each other, and everyone is getting a shot, but that doesn’t work if you are serious about raising the level,” he reasons. “Is year one going to be better or is it going to be worse than what we’ve got at the moment? Who cares! It is about what it looks like in year five.
“You will struggle to find anyone who will say that the Premiership has really accelerated in the last three to four years. It is getting better, the players are physically better, but you would struggle to argue that the gap with the pro game has been substantially closed.
“I actually think that when the Edinburgh and Glasgow guys drop down it isn’t always easy to identify which one is the pro, mainly because they can’t be arsed. So, if we can create this intense environment then we can start to address that.
“People ask where the players are going to get the time from,” he continues. “To me, that betrays a fundamental lack of understanding of the effort and time that Premiership players already put in.
“You have these 65-year-old guys who played back in the good old days saying that club guys can’t afford the time to go part-time pro – but do they understand that current club players are already doing recovery sessions on a Sunday, video sessions Monday night, weights on Wednesday and training twice a week?
“If you look at the physical condition of some of these guys, you don’t get that from training twice a week – they are putting in the effort anyway so why not support them a bit more.”
A united front
The first meeting of Super 6 clubs to start planning for the start of the new league is next Wednesday evening. With a real lack of clarity as to how this new league is going to operate, there is likely to be some fraught conversations.
“The key to Super 6 working is the six teams coming together to make it happen. The SRU are there in an oversight role – they are not going to drive it forward – the clubs are,” says Meikle.
“One thing I don’t like is the suggestion now that the Super 6 franchises should get more money. The money has to be what was on the table when the bids went in because every club made a judgement on whether they were in or out based on that number, so, you can’t move the goalposts now.
“When you’re making changes of this magnitude, democracy doesn’t necessarily provide the best route to do it,” he says, in reference to the criticism which has been levelled against the SRU for railroading this overhaul of the club game through with minimal consultation with the clubs.
“The proof will be in the pudding in five years’ time, it won’t be year one when clubs are turning around saying we stole all their players – it will be five years’ time when we are able to assess whether we have built greater strength in depth and a better pathway for you players to reach their potential.”