THE SRU will not battle the English and French clubs to keep both Edinburgh and Glasgow in the Heineken Cup, but they will insist that if one drops out there is no financial penalty for Scottish rugby.
Speaking before leaving South Africa, where he was accompanying the Scotland squad on tour, to return for the union’s annual general meeting, SRU chief executive Mark Dodson insisted that he does not see any swift settlement to the ongoing row between the European unions and club representatives on a new way forward for the Heineken Cup.
The English clubs, under the Premier Rugby Ltd umbrella organisation, have threatened a breakaway from the competition when the current agreement ends next summer, and have signed a new broadcast deal for their European games with BT Vision. The European Rugby Cup (ERC) body, made up of representatives of the home unions, France and Italy, insist that that contract is worthless and they all remain tied to Sky TV, but are hugely concerned at the impasse.
At the heart of the dispute is a belief by English and French clubs that they deserve a greater share of the financial pot and that Scotland, Ireland, Italy and Wales should not have guaranteed places in the competition.
There has been much talk of making the Celtic nations qualify through the RaboDirect PRO12, with the top six or eight automatically going into a slimmed-down 20-team tournament, and the rest dropping into the second-tier Amlin Challenge Cup. Dodson insisted that he was confident, despite Edinburgh finishing this season in tenth spot, that both Scottish teams would qualify automatically. If they did not, he said he would have no problem with the side that did not dropping into the Challenge Cup, but only if there was no change to the £5m that the SRU received annually from ERC for competing.
“The PRL’s position is that they are going to ‘gift’ us and ‘gift’ Wales one team place with one to qualify, but it is not theirs to gift.
“If that happened, actually, it does not sound like a disaster, but it depends how it is firmed up. If they want to go for a competitive sporting format change they have to give us something back for that. In many ways I am not frightened of the ability to qualify. We shouldn’t be. If we have two decent teams then we should always have the ability to qualify.
“But we are going to fight tooth and nail to keep two in. We have a variety of scenarios being pushed towards us and I want to choose the best scenario. The best scenario in my opinion is one in and one [to qualify] plus the same money. If I have to do that I will talk to the board and see what I can do.
“But why should we fight for two and a half million pounds we have already got? It is just wrong and unfair. Why should six English and six French clubs qualify by right, and yet they want to make it seven or eight. Why should that be the case?
“It is not their competition. The accord [agreement] is there, first and foremost, to promote European club rugby and underpin international rugby in the northern hemisphere. It [the PRL proposal] does neither of those things.”
The argument from the English clubs is that their top 12 clubs are all better than half of the RaboDirect Pro12 sides and so they deserve to have more teams qualifying.
The fact that Scottish teams have qualified for the quarter-finals just twice in 18 years – Edinburgh reached the last eight in 2003-4 and the semi-finals last year – has not strengthened the SRU cause, but the debate will rage late into this year and Dodson is determined not to accept any compromise that leaves the SRU out of pocket.
He will report to the AGM at Murrayfield on Saturday that the union has made a modest profit this year – over £1 million, but slightly down on last year, as he invests more in the professional teams but continues to lower the debt pile which currently sits around £12m.
He is facing pressure at pro and Test level to improve the quality of players coming through the system and increase the number of opportunities for young players stuck in the bottleneck of a game in Scotland that has just two professional squads.
The current South Africa tour has handed nine uncapped players Test chances, and most have proven themselves worthy, but in a two-team environment many would have struggled for chances to prove themselves as top pros and are here because Scotland are seriously depleted by injuries and Lions call-ups.
There is a clear need for a third professional side, but Dodson dismissed that as an impossible dream, even with the European revenues remaining at the same level, and does not see a third pro team returning until Glasgow and Edinburgh are attracting crowds of more than 10,000, and so giving them a chance of covering costs.
“We will not make a third team in Scotland until we have made the other two cash positive,” he said. “The cost of running a pro team is enormous, so we would go from a small surplus to an increased loss. And there is no appetite for anyone to take a third team on. We know that from the people who have talked to us since I took the job. They are not serious about taking on a third team in a professional environment, being prepared to lose a significant amount of money year after year after year.
“So, we are where we are. There is a structural issue in Scottish rugby in the sense that we don’t get enough players into the hopper and we don’t make the most of the talent that we’ve got, so what we have to do is make the very best of our academy structure so we don’t lose any talented players.
“We are going to announce changes to the academy structure in late summer that should start to rectify some of these issues, but these are structural issues that have been in Scottish rugby for 20 or 30 years, and they are not going to be rectified in 12 months. What we have to do is first get the finances sorted out, second pare down our debt and thirdly start making our two pro teams as healthy as we can.
“Of course, we would like to look at a third professional team somewhere down the line and if the finances allowed us to do that then we would.”
For many the introduction of professionalism and money has been the root of all evil in rugby, but there is no escaping that it now holds the key to Scotland’s ongoing struggle to survive in the professional world.
THE SCOTSMAN RUGBY SHOW IN ASSOCIATION WITH GINGER GROUSE