STEVIE DOUGLAS is a naturally ebullient personality, but the Boroughmuir President’s demeanour darkens as he considers the potential implications of Super 6 on his club and on the game in general in this country if not handled properly.
“It doesn’t feel like a brave new dawn to me. It feels like my club is tainted – that we are now seen as an SRU club,” he says. “I know that is the perception, and the challenge for me is to show that the perception is not reality – that we are not just looking after ourselves but are genuinely committed to helping all of club rugby be the best it can be.
“It is frustrating because I feel like my club has become a bad club to be at in a lot of people’s eyes,” he adds. “I don’t see Boroughmuir as an exclusive club, I don’t think our values have changed – my values certainly haven’t changed – but we do have additional responsibilities now, and we need to be more paternal.”
Douglas’ candour, and his recognition that those who don’t see things the same way should be embraced rather than dismissed out of hand, is refreshing. Super 6 was thrust upon Scottish rugby without proper consultation just over a year ago by SRU Chief Executive Mark Dodson, and there has been a like-it-or-lump-it attitude exhibited by Murrayfield towards those who do not share the vision from that point until now.
Dodson’s single-minded determination to get what he wants has bypassed the legitimate concerns of those clubs which fear that they may end up as collateral damage, meaning we are now less than a year away from the competition launch and there is still no real clarity on how it will run or the potential impact it will have on the rest of the game.
In short, Dodson has failed to win over hearts and minds on this fundamental change, so it is little wonder that the six clubs involved have now clearly decided to take the lead when trying to sell the concept.
Douglas has been a member of Boroughmuir since 1979, initially as a player (he was vice-captain of the 1991 Championship winning team), then as a coach and committee man. He is a well-liked and widely-respected figure across the club scene, so is a natural spokesman for the chosen six as they try to convince the rest of us that they have the interests of all the game – not just themselves – at heart.
“My view is that we’ve been needing to find a way forward for quite a while without much success,” he says. “So, I think this is a lead, and it is a good, positive lead because at least it is trying to address the big issues.
“The Premiership’s rugby capability has been improving year-on-year. It is quite a good product, actually. But the professional stuff is still getting further and further away, so it is important that we try to bridge that gap.
“I’m a big Scotland national team supporter. I go to as many away games in the Six Nations as I can, and it is great that we are competing now – but we can’t rest on our laurels. We’ve got a good structure around the four regional academies working through to the professional sides, but what is the next step for those guys who are not going straight into the full-time game.”
Douglas then points to the experience of Jamie Ure, an industrious and aggressive second-row/blindside-flanker, born and raised in West Sussex but Scottish qualified, who played for Boroughmuir last season whilst part of the SRU’s academy set-up.
“He had bad luck with injuries but came in at the back end of the season and was one of the key boys who saved us from going down,” explains Douglas. “Now he’s been cut from the academy so has had to go away down south [to Rotherham Titans playing in England’s third tier National League One] to pursue his rugby ambitions. He doesn’t think he can get what he needs in the Premiership to make himself a better player, to give himself a chance to be a pro.
“So, there is a wee bit missing there, and it is the likes of Jamie that clubs in Super 6 will be targeting.
“You have to keep in mind that we are talking about a pathway for these boys to get into professional rugby. I didn’t play for Edinburgh until I was 27, so people develop and mature at different times, and we need to be able to accommodate that.”
More than one way to skin a cat?
“I don’t think there is a binary – yes or no – answer to that. It could be, but it definitely isn’t going to be if we don’t grasp it and give it our best shot. So, it is about how we make it work,” he says.
“We [Boroughmuir] initially supported a multi-club collaboration – an old Edinburgh District approach – but that didn’t pan out because some of the other clubs, including a few which are making the most noise now, didn’t want to go down that route. So, we came up with our own proposal, we made our bid, and we were successful. But nothing has changed in terms of what we stand for as a club just because we have an involvement in this new league. We have always been, and always will be, committed to club rugby – I’m a club boy and I couldn’t be involved if I thought this was going to hurt the club game.
“The key fact is: without clubs we don’t have Scottish rugby. That is beyond dispute. So, whether it is Currie, Dalkeith, Livingston, North Berwick … all those clubs are very important, and we need to make sure they survive. And I feel I have a responsibility now to do as much as I can to ensure that they do survive.”
Noble sentiments, and nobody who knows Douglas will question the authenticity of his words, but what does that mean in practice?
“For the first time ever, we are going to have a full-time coach who will be paid 12-months per year. And Super 6 is only 20 games, so what are we going to do with the other 30-weeks of the year? Why would we not be sharing that benefit elsewhere? Why would we not be helping other clubs by doing specialist coach sessions. Can we help out with physio drop-on sessions? Because I know that is a big issue facing a lot of clubs at the moment. We can do those things. I’m sure we can. Where there is a will there is a way.”
The three Edinburgh clubs involved in Super 6 – Boroughmuir, Heriot’s and Watsonians – have invited all 33 full member clubs in the region to a meeting at Murrayfield next Tuesday to look at ‘minimising the potential impact of Super 6 in Edinburgh and maximising the opportunity Super 6 brings.’
A focus group involving a smaller sample of clubs took place at the start of this month aimed at framing the agenda for the main meeting. Currie Chieftains and Edinburgh Accies – the two Premiership clubs in the city which did not make the cut – declined their invites on the basis that they want concrete proposals to respond to rather than run the risk of getting embroiled in a fudged solution.
The ‘club XV’ dilemma
One of the sharpest bones of contention relates to where in the domestic leagues will the amateur/2nd/club XVs of Super 6 outfits play from next season onwards. The chosen six argue that they entered this process on the understanding that it would be National League One [directly below the top-flight Championship], but there is concern that these sides will quickly be promoted and become the dominant teams in the Championship with an unfair advantage when it comes to attracting players.
One solution is that the chosen six are placed in National One but there is a moratorium on promotion into the Championship for a certain number of years. Whether that is a compromise all the Super 6 clubs will be able to agree to will be telling.
Interestingly, Douglas reckons that the danger of a logjam of Super 6 clubs at the top of the club game is not as real as outsiders fear.
“I don’t think it is a one size fits all scenario, but our Club XV will probably not play in the Championship. If we are put in National One then we will be trying to survive in that space,” he says. “The model we’ve got is probably the same as Stirling County’s in that we want our Club XV to be the proving ground for our youth academy, which would mean playing here then moving up to a club in the Championship such as Currie Chieftains or Edinburgh Accies, before becoming a Super 6 player.
“We have spent the last five years trying to develop our own talent. Our Under-16s were undefeated last season, and our Under-18s beat Stirling for the first time ever at the end of August. Why would we work so hard to achieve that, then not have a pathway for these guys coming through?
“That is the whole driver for this: people playing rugby; and getting the opportunity to recognise and fulfil their ambitions. Providing player pathways is the key.”
Another option which has been mooted is that these teams should play in a dedicated 2nd XV competition instead.
“That is not somewhere I would want to go,” Douglas shoots back. “My concern is that all that would do is drive people away from the non-Super 6 clubs.
“If we had 2nd XVs then they would – almost by definition – be the feeders for our 1st XVs, and we’d end up with great 2nd XVs playing against other great 2nd XVs, and any ambitious kid leaving school is going to see that as the next step into Super 6. I want players to view the Championship as an important step in the pathway. Because we want our Stuart Hoggs and Finn Russells to pass through these clubs on their way up.”
The clubs involved gave the SRU their feedback on the initial drafts of the Super 6 participation agreements last Friday. Dodson is understood to be keen to have the paperwork signed off sooner rather than later, but it is unlikely that the guys putting their neck on the line will be in a similar rush to give away their greatest bargaining chip. Especially with so much still to be settled.
“You know what is more important for me? It is the relationship we have with all the other Edinburgh clubs, because that’s the bit which should be helping us,” concludes Douglas. “To be honest, it isn’t about what the SRU want, it is about what the Edinburgh clubs need to make this thing effective. That’s the key.”