THE window for Super Six applications opens today, and clubs have more than four months to decide whether they want to go ahead and apply. Yesterday, The Offside Line examined three key areas of concern for potential applicants: finance, identity and autonomy. Today we look at three more issues that are perhaps of wider interest within Scottish rugby: who will end up being the half-dozen franchises in the league, how will the season be structured and how will we measure success in this experiment?
1. SEASON STRUCTURE
Back in August, Dodson outlined a schedule which would involve the Super Six teams all playing each other three times, then filling their diary with five cross-border games, which would take the total number of matches for each franchise to 20 for the season.
News broke last Wednesday that the British and Irish Cup is going to be disbanded at the end of this season after the English Championship clubs decided to withdraw from the competition. Nigel Melville, the RFU’s professional rugby director, explained that: “There’s no great appetite. The variance of teams has been very up and down. There’s not a lot of spectator or commercial support either, so we want to look at other domestic-based options.”
It was assumed that this was the ideal competition for the SRU to latch onto for their extra five cross-border games, but it seems that the grass is not necessarily greener on the other side.
We are still waiting for the dust settle, and it could be that the demise of the British and Irish Cup is a blessing in disguise if it frees up Wales for some sort of competition, but we have been down that route before, back in the late 1990s with the unloved Scottish-Welsh League during the early days of professionalism, and nobody involved in that desperate experiment, with the ten-hour nightmare coach trips to the Valleys and back, has any fond memories of the experience.
As for the domestic league competition, how excited are people really likely to get about having six teams playing each other three times with no threat of relegation for at least the next five years?
As it stands, the 2nd XV for each franchise is going to initially be placed into National One [third tier], but there is a push for them to be put into the Championship [second tier]. This could become a contentious issue with regard to where fringe Super Six players should get game time.
2. WHO WILL BE IN SUPER SIX?
The bid papers must be submitted by 31st March 2018 and a final decision on the six successful candidates will be announced on 1st May. It is a fair assumption that Dodson already has a pretty good idea about who he wants involved. He has stated that he wants an even(ish) geographic spread, covering all four of Scotland’s traditional rugby districts [East Scotland, West Scotland, Caledonia and the Borders] with two ‘floating’ franchises.
Melrose, Ayr and Stirling County are obvious candidates given their track record as progressive clubs with strong youth set-ups and established links into both their local community and into higher education.
Dodson is keen to have a team based in Aberdeen. The major challenge with this will be ensuring that there is a suitable player base in the area, while the toxic relationship which currently exists between the city’s two leading clubs – Aberdeen Grammar and Aberdeenshire – needs to be addressed. Aberdeen Grammar’s clubhouse is going to be put up for sale early next year, which would bring a significant cash injection, even after debts have been serviced. The solution, however, might lie with Aberdeen University, who have been in discussion with the SRU about building a 4G rugby pitch and extended club rooms on their campus.
Edinburgh is complicated because of the six clubs from that city in the top two leagues, only Edinburgh Academicals own their ground – and they have been caught up in 15 years of planning disputes and fundraising for a new clubhouse. They still haven’t managed to break ground on their ambitious redevelopment scheme so are operating out of a glorified portacabin at the moment.
The other five clubs are tenants of either a private school in the case of Heriot’s, Watsonians and Stewart’s Melville, or the council in the case of Boroughmuir (on a facility rental basis) and Currie Chieftains (on a long-term lease). This could cause major headaches when it comes to access and making any structural changes to the venue which might be required in order to meet SRU criteria. The density of clubs in the capital also means that tribalism will be a limiting factor in growing a support base.
There are murmurs of either Spartans Football Club or one of the city’s universities emerging from left-field to take on a franchise, which might make sense in terms of facilities and providing a blank canvas, but would also be viewed as another step away from the game’s soul.
Psychologically, it will be very hard for a club such as Heriot’s – who have never been out the top division and were Scottish Champions less than two years ago – to suddenly accept that they have almost overnight become a third-tier organisation.
Recently re-branded Currie Chieftains have been making a conscious effort recently to reach into population bases to the west of the city such as Livingston and Bathgate, which opens up the prospect of two franchises in the capital.
Glasgow Hawks was founded for this sort of eventuality 20 years ago, but they face similar logistical challenges to the Edinburgh clubs.
3. MEASURING SUCCESS
The BT Premiership has its problems, but the situation is not as catastrophic as the doomsayers would have us believe. Seven Glasgow Hawks players from last season have since signed full-time contracts. Jamie Bhatti made the move from Melrose to Glasgow Warriors during the summer and is now a full cap. The Scotland Under-20 team achieved its highest-ever finish of fifth at June’s Junior World Cup, with 17 or 18 members of their 23-strong match-day squad in most fixtures playing regularly in the BT Premiership. Let’s not forget all the good things about the BT Premiership to focus exclusively on the bad points.
There is always room for improvement, but how is progress in this brave new world going to be quantified?
IN amongst all this are countless more minor issues which will need to be considered, discussed and resolved.
Then there is the question of what is going to happen to the clubs that do not become part of Super Six, which is a whole different can of worms.
At the moment, the mood amongst the clubs most likely to be directly impacted ranges from cautious support to weary resignation – with a few steadfast opponents thrown in for good measure.
“I can’t say we are jumping up and down with excitement – it is more trepidation than anything else – but for the last 20 years we have been talking about something needing to change so we are definitely keen to see where is goes,” said one influential figure at a leading club.
We will hopefully be a little bit clearer about what the future will look like by tonight. The Union should be congratulated for taking a decisive step, which has at least stirred meaningful debate and forced everyone to really think properly about what they want from the club game. We owe it to the sport in this country to move forward with an open mind and in a spirit of cooperation.