The Bear’s rugby necessities: ‘We need more bad players’

Scotland Grand Slam hero says a change of mindset and some blue-sky thinking is necessary to combat a crisis in the club game

Iain Milne - The Bear
Iain Milne - aka The Bear - says it is time to be bold in order to reverse the alarming decline in player numbers below elite level in Scottish rugby. Image: Fotosport/David Gibson

RUGBY gave Iain Milne the opportunity to represent his country 44 times between 1979 and 1990, and to tour New Zealand with the British and Irish Lions in 1983. More recently, and more importantly, it has provided him with an invaluable support network and a positive focus during some tough personal times. But he fears that the future of the game in this country is now hanging in the balance – not at the elite level where he is encouraged by the full-houses he sees at Murrayfield and the competitive performances of the nation’s two pro teams in Europe – but at grassroots level where clubs are regularly forfeiting league and cup matches and 2nd XVs are being disbanded due to lack of available players.

After August’s AGM, the Scottish Rugby Council Standing Committee on Governance, independently chaired by Gavin MacColl, QC, was asked to come up with a season structure recommendation which can combat the alarming drop-off in participation levels amongst adult males in this country. A survey was sent out to all clubs at the end of September, three supplementary questions were distributed this week, and MacColl met (separately) with the Premiership, National One and National Two/Three forums last night.


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While Milne welcomes any initiative which seeks to help grassroots rugby to survive, he does not believe that the club game can really flourish again until we have an overhaul in mindset.

“It is about getting back to having a place for any individual – of any ability – to play the game,” he says. “So, if you are a keen youngster and you don’t have the physical attributes to play Regional League 1st XV rugby, or National League 2nd XV rugby – which can be quite brutal – then there is a pathway there for you. You can just turn up and play social rugby.

“We’ve got to have a great cultural change going back to what rugby was all about. Historically, it is a unique sport in that it is not based on excellence but the attributes of discipline, respect, honour and trust – which actually create the clubhouse atmosphere whether you are 18 or 58, a builders’ mate or a high-powered lawyer – it is a great way of bringing people together.”

Milne is fiercely opposed to amalgamation, but believes cooperation and collaboration needs to be part of the future for clubs fighting for survival.

Clubs are on their knees

“At the moment there is too much distrust between the clubs, and too much self-interest,” he explains. “Having spoken at dinners all over the country, been involved in our 3rd XV, seen how the Premiership forum works and learned a bit more about the SRU, I don’t have all the answers – but I believe the clubs need real leadership.

“The SRU are very good at producing documents like Agenda 3, talking about amateurism, deciding where Super 6 should fit into it all, and so on – but that’s not getting to the heart of the matter. They have to realise that most of the clubs now are on their knees when it comes to administration.

“The biggest thing is getting a team out on Saturday, and the next thing is getting the books to balance – they don’t have time to go into how to reach certain criteria to access grants, or to look through Agenda 3 and come to a consensus on what the big picture is, or make a definitive decision on how amateurism or professionalism effects our game.

“So, I believe that they need led, but by that I mean getting a group of likeminded individuals together to come up with a plan for the whole club game, and then get a number of chosen clubs from all levels to look at this discussion paper and tear it to bits, so that we actually produce something which is a proper solution with the reasons behind it clearly stated – rather than a loose agenda where clubs look at it and, quite naturally, say ‘that’s good for us, that’s good for, that’s not and that’s not’.

“The clubs need to be a part of the solution, not just be told what the solution is. If it makes sense and the reasoning is there for clubs to see, then I believe we can build a consensus.”

Birlinn Books

No to tokenism

Milne says he would happily be part of this working group but only if it had “an official voice”.

“I wouldn’t be interested if it was there as a token gesture. I’d expect it to be listened to because we are reasonable people with good ideas based on strong arguments. It needs to be club led, but it has to be through a group of individuals who have got no other agenda than the good of the game, working alongside Sheila Begbie’s [Domestic Rugby] division. All I want to do is get my voice officially heard within the machinations of the SRU, along with a few other voices – so that it means something. A lot of clubs I speak to agree with what I am saying.”

So, where would Milne start? Well, he has some pretty strong opinions on how youth rugby should be run, but the focus of this article is on the senior men’s game.

“That’s not because I don’t care about the women’s game – of course I do – but it is in its infancy and it will grow naturally. It’s the adult male game which is, at the moment, dying on its feet,” he clarifies.

League and season structure has to be a priority

“There are two really obvious things I’d start with,” he continues. “The season is far too long, and there is way too much travel. Peoples’ social lives have changed, and we have to accept that.

“There were games through in the West Regional Leagues being cancelled in September and pencilled in for April next year – and that was before the bad weather hit – it’s crazy! So, a simple solution is ten team leagues, that is only 18 fixtures, and they have to be played between the beginning of September and the end of March… and if they can’t get played in that window then they don’t get played at all and no team gets the points.

“I know people will say: ‘What happens if a team above us won’t play us because they know that if they lose they won’t win the league?’  Well, is that really what our game has got to at that level? If it is, then we have to get away from that by changing what we class as ambition – which at regional level shouldn’t be about winning the league and getting promoted, but getting teams out, introducing new people to the sport, creating a club environment people want to be part of.

“Which brings me onto my slightly more controversial opinions.

“I would have an absolute maximum of three national leagues, the rest of it regionalised and no reserve leagues. So, for example, Langholm 1st XV might be in the same league as Kelso 2nd XV. And the ten clubs in that league would organise their own fixtures and their own rules for situations like when one team is short of props, or a team has 25 players available and wants to give everyone a run-out. Obviously, the lower the level gets the more relaxed it gets for all these regulations.

“I would have no promotion or relegation for five years. That means you will get the same ten clubs sitting around the table every year, and you will build some trust that way, rather than the self-interest and cheating that goes on at the moment.

“Calling games off because you have a few guys missing and you know you will have a stronger team later in the season is absolute nonsense – and it happens far too much.

Redefining ambition

“People say: What about ambition? Well, surely the ambition should be able to get a strong 1st XV out, and then get a 2nd and 3rd XV out. Once we get to that point then let’s start thinking about having a fourth national league, but you get into that by hitting certain criteria – having two or three senior teams, running a youth section, having a women’s section, and so on.

“I was through in the west doing a talk and I said that I wouldn’t have promotion for five years, and this guy said that would kill ambition at his club, so I asked him what division his club was in and he said they were in West One. Then I asked him how long the club had been going for and he said it was over 100 years. I said: ‘What the hell difference is another five years going to make?!

“I’ve played at the highest level and the lowest level. I’ve lost by 69 points to Hawick, and I’ve beaten them by a lot as well, so I understand it. This linear league system where you must get promotion, or avoid relegation… why? What difference does it actually make to the running of your club?

“We need to stabilise the whole game at the moment and start thinking seriously about how we are going to grow numbers.

“Quite simply, we need more bad players, because today’s players are tomorrow’s administrators, and we are in danger of having nobody to run the clubs in 15 to 20 years’ time. I’ll be dead or fed-up doing it, and so will be a huge raft of people my age who are currently doing it, so that is why the game is in crisis now.”

Dakota

Milne then turns his attention to the prospect of re-introducing strict amateurism and argues that the economic laws of supply and demand will be the only effective way of eradicating player payments below the elite level of the club game.

“You can’t turn the clock back – the game is professional,” he stresses. “I’m not a fan of paying players but at the moment they are like gold-dust – we can’t afford to do anything which might lose them.

“However, the more players you have, the less valuable they become, and we can start to saying: ‘I’m really sorry that your personal situation means you have to work on a Saturday but we are just not in the business of paying. We have a good young guy in the 2nd XV and we are going to give him a chance. But please keep coming down to training, and if your work situation changes then we’d be delighted to have you back’.

Sheila Begbie – whose job title recently changed from Director of Domestic Rugby to Director of Rugby Development – has instituted an overhaul in the way her department operates, with a network of regional directors and managers being appointed across the country. Milne would like to see that mirrored in the way that elected club representatives on the SRU Council are organised.

Council not fit for purpose

“That would mean they are responsible for everything from the top amateur team to the worst team in their region, so they are listening to all the clubs’ issues,” he explains. “At the moment, we’ve got Council members for the Premiership, National One and National Two/Three, and the majority are only really thinking of their 1st XV and things that impact them. Then you have representatives from the regional leagues who are coming at it from completely the opposite direction. My thinking is that you need Council reps who really understand the problems that clubs at all levels are dealing with, because that’s how you find solutions which might not suite everybody, but everyone can understand why we have gone that route.

“I just get fed up with all the negativity that is going on at the moment. I know the SRU have made mistakes, but they’ve also done some bloody good things. Do we want rid of Mark Dodson because of what he’s done wrong? I just think we should be careful of what we wish for. If you look at our previous 25 years, we have not covered ourselves in glory.

“To me, the fault lies in the governance of the Board and Council, who failed in their duty to oversee the conduct of the executives. I don’t believe the Council is fit for purpose at the moment because they don’t seem to be listening to what the clubs actually want.

“I think there are aspects of the Board which are wrong, as well. There are people there who have been there too long now, and that causes problems with the clubs because it points to self-interest again.”

“But what we really need to focus on at the moment is what is happening on the ground. And rather than just moan about it, let’s try to do something. I think it needs to be quite radical – and it comes down to the values of playing the game for fun and respect.”


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

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David Barnes
About David Barnes 1027 Articles
David has worked as a freelance rugby journalist since 2004 covering every level of the game in Scotland for publications including The Sunday Times, The Telegraph, The Scotsman/Scotland on Sunday/Evening News, The Herald/Sunday Herald, The Daily Mail/Mail on Sunday and The Sun.

16 Comments

  1. I wish I’d seen this article sooner, it’s one of the best I’ve read on the subject. I’d just to make a point on the number of national leagues, when I was part of the Forum of Scottish Rugby Supporters I researched results over several years and contrasted what was then the newer regional set up compared to the older greater number of national leagues. What I found was there was a bottle neck in the national leagues, a club only had to win a few fixtures and they were safe at that level. Similarly a club could be “blocked” from promotion by clubs coming down and being too strong for the others. The regional leagues allowed for quicker progress.

    Further, the argument for a return to more national leagues was that there was stronger competition , whilst it looks like a compelling argument, I found that teams that had previously been locked in a league below their neigbours were beating them in the new regional leagues – the stronger competition argument just wasn’t holding up when put to the test.

    Regional leagues demand less time of players and less money from clubs for transport. I really don’t like to personalise this by using particular clubs as an example, and I have nothing but respect for the commitment these clubs and players show on a weekly basis, but it just doesn’t make sense for Orkney to be travelling to Ardrossan and St Boswells and vice versa

  2. Very valid points for the adult game and would hopefully keep more 18-22 year olds in the game. These changes would need to be implemented along with changes to the youth structure. The Conferences don’t work: club vs club at alll age groups lead to multiple one sided games and unfulfilled fixtures. Independent schools have priority over players developed by club mini sections. In any other sport a strong club structure will ultimately lead to a strong national team and a larger playing pool at all levels. Scottish Rugby needs to increase player numbers at school age by actively targeting state schools to get kids along to local clubs. Retaining those players (and parents) would be helped by having competitive fixtures at a regional level for all abilities. That allegiance with a club would be strong and would help retain players into adulthood, whether that be social or elite level. I hope changes come soon as player numbers continue to decline, clubs will close and the funnel to elite level will become even smaller.

    • Absolutely bang on Colin. The Conferences have only been detrimental to youth rugby. 5 years ago there were 16 club teams in east of Scotland playing on a Sunday. There are now just 2 with both clubs having more players than they can play. As Ian says below, the SRU have made it harder for kids to play by introducing restrictions and a league structure that is not based on merit that only discourages players to participate. The whole club/school structure being the worst concept of the lot.

  3. One of the most honest assessments of the game in a very long time providing examples of workable solutions.

    The SRU needs to listen.

  4. An excellent and thoughtful article. Part of the problem in the adult game is to do with the supply of young players coming through from the schools/youth sector. Just take a look at the fall-off in numbers in most of Scotland’s secondary schools and the lack of of players at senior level can be understood. Much of this can be attributed to the disastrous decision to make PE an academic subject, resulting in a diminution of physical activity and consequent health issues. The other reason is the loss of goodwill within the teaching profession so that the kind of inspiration Iain Milne talks about when he was at school is no longer there. I believe that rugby, in particular, and sport in general can have a profound effect on health, morale and performance and can help to make schools less joyless places. And of course it could produce greater numbers coming through to the adult game. But that requires sport to become politically active and to lobby government to effect the necessary changes

    • Alan, while to some degree I accept your points but what is being missed in all this is that we do currently have 10,000’s of children and youths under 18 playing the game, millions of pounds are being invested and 10,000’s of volunteer hours helping yet the numbers entering adult rugby is tiny. There is no point in investing more into the youth game until we can produce a product they want. I could go on but it time for action.

    • We should also understand demographic changes. Birthrate is nearly 50% less now than it was in the 1960s. So there are less young people around. Add in massive increase in alternative spirt options and “the internet” then it becomes more understandable.

      I think the idea we can continue to pull in large proportions of young people into the game is flawed. That age has passed.

      • So why don’t we give up? Of course I accept we will not return to the good old days but we can do a lot better than we currently are.
        There is more for young people, adults and families to do these days that is why we must shorten the season, reduce travel and make our unique club house atmosphere fun for everyone, it can be done!

  5. The same situation is happening in England despite a considerable investment in staff to help clubs!
    The overall objective of mini junior rugby is to introduce people to a game for life! The ridiculous influence of 1st 4 sport means the coaching awards are not fit for purpose and the issues regarding no transition of players into adult rugby are masked! Many of us owe a lifetimes involvement in the game to a few teachers who were often delivering in a volunteer capacity outside of their job of classroom teaching! They installed values and love of the game. Go to any club mini section in England or Scotland and you will see appalling coaching and practice often by people who have attended coaching awards! Until the issue of poor delivery is addressed we will continue to shrink as a game!!!

    • While coaching is very important for many reasons what is more important is for players, parents and coaches to understand the ethos of rugby and what it can give young people as their lives move on, it’s not all about winning.

  6. Excellent article David and Iain. Good comments on youth rugby too Bear – kids I coach in different sport all play, all have time as subs and in different positions, & all have turns as captain, and as much as they love scoring have little interest in score-line, yet people keep telling me that’s impossible. It’s simpler than many think. Solutions are there if all club officials, coaches and parents could put self-interest aside and game/players first.

    • David, thank you. I would be more radical in rugby between ages up to 11 and not just have them playing rugby but introduce other sports as part of their training session. Football, rounders etc, great for eye hand coordination.

  7. The Union should be employing staff whose KPIs are based around growing the game and not managing its’ decline.

    And those KPIs should be about significant stuff, like transfer of kids from schools to Clubs, and youth rugby to senior rugby – not just how many kids might have touched a rugby ball as part of a couple of PE or after-school sessions.

  8. Great common sense article David. The Bear has some great ideas worthy of serious debate. I have suggested this to Nat 1 Forum and a few reps of SRU and elsewhere. I hate the current negativity and we need to get back to discussing these important possible future solutions to real problems the game is facing. I want to see Iain@s ideas debated or as he says torn to pieces. He wont like me saying it but he is our national treasure. Of course he doesnt have a monopoly on ideas but lets give him a chance to debate his ideas as widely as possible. Good on ye Bear.

    • On youth rugby we again have to change our culture. I’m not talking about schools rugby though I do believe there should be some relaxation on the laws in allowing players to play on a Saturday and Sunday. This would have to be monitored closely as we definitely don’t want players at the top of their game playing Saturday and Sunday.
      On club youth rugby my views are quite straight foreard. The goal of all youth sections should be all about teaching youngsters and parents all about th culture of our game and producing players, whatever standard for the adult game, winning should be secondary. One simple law I’d like to bring in would be EVERY youngster should get a minimum of half a game, regardless of the result. I would be tempted to introduce this to the bulk of club rugby.

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