IMPROVING the fortunes of Scottish rugby has often been compared to turning around an oil tanker at sea but the new chief executive, Mark Dodson, would appear to be giving the lie to that.
In just ten weeks since he took up his post, he has opened up the Murrayfield Stadium clubhouse, over which Edinburgh supporters had taken the previous SRU regime to court, re-opened long dormant cash turnstiles and established a management set-up to help market Edinburgh and Glasgow more professionally.
More significantly, he has opened the Murrayfield chequebook which people not only feared was lost in a maze of cobwebs but may not even have existed at all.
It was stated regularly in recent years that the SRU just had no money and so, through a near six-year period under Gordon McKie, the previous chief executive, the most prominent activity was cost-cutting so deep as to make George Osborne wince.
At a rough estimate, around £3 million has been committed inside the last two months to Glasgow and Edinburgh in the way of salary rises for players, new deals for new players and the latest agreement for Ospreys’ Australian coach Scott Johnson to augment Andy Robinson’s Scotland coaching team for the next four years.
In an exclusive interview with The Scotsman, Dodson explained the thinking behind what he has done so far and why he is decidedly optimistic about turning around Scottish rugby.
“We’ve done nothing that is extraordinary yet,” he admitted. “We’ve just tried to put the supporter first and make people realise that rugby is at the heart of what we do. We have invested in the pro teams and given confidence back to the people who are at the coal-face of Scottish rugby.
“Opening the President’s/Thistle Suite was something urgently wanted and I knew that opening it up would be a good thing, but to open it up on the night of the Racing Metro game was one of the better things that we did, because everyone was on such an astonishing high and the atmosphere in the room from the business side and everyone else was amazing.
“We had about 400 people in there, at least 150 of whom stayed until the death, and it had a clubhouse feel that bonded people together. They had seen an astonishing once-in-a-lifetime game anyway, but the atmosphere around that game was probably the most special time I’ve had up to now.
“Opening the turnstiles for cash paying was just obvious, because you can’t expect everyone to plan two weeks or more in advance to see a game. In sport, sometimes, you just see a game is on and say to your mate, ‘Fancy going to that tonight?’
“We have also been fortunate in many ways, with weather, lack of major injuries, and I also have to give credit to the management team for being up for it and wanting to turn things around quickly, as well as Sir Moir Lockhead [SRU chairman] and Ian [McLauchlan, SRU President] and the board for their support.”
A direct, straight-talking individual, Dodson has become popular with the staff and praises the efforts of Graham Lowe, the SRU Performance Director, in leading the re-signing of over 20 young players. But Lowe is quick to state that he is now being given his head by the 50-year-old in a way that seemed impossible under the previous management.
“We wanted to show these guys how important they are to the future of Glasgow, Edinburgh and Scottish rugby,” said Dodson, “and I think that has been hugely beneficial to the game. It’s given both the squads confidence and I think cheered people up by providing a strong sign that we are putting rugby first, which has fed through on to the performances on the pitch.”
That is a clear change of direction to his predecessor and, simply speaking about the strength of Scotland at stand-off, tighthead and other positions, one senses a passion and grasp of the game that was never felt in innumerable such interviews with McKie.
Dodson lost rising star Richie Gray to Sale within days of taking on the job and that still bothers him. Money was not the issue as the Mancunian offered Gray more than Sale put on the table in a bid to stop Scottish rugby’s prize asset leaving.
“At the same time, we’re not being silly with money,” he stated. “Because you sign players early and add new players doesn’t mean you have opened a blank cheque-book. We have paid market rates and haven’t overpaid for anybody. Richie was a one-off.
“We have been strong on investing in young Scottish talent, but, at the same time, the coaches have been clear on the need for experience to help these boys develop, and win, and so we have supported that too and you’ve seen that with Glasgow. You will see it with Edinburgh too.”
The obvious question is: where is the money coming from? The SRU has been able to turn over £35m but, as welcome as the new funding is, it must beg the question how Murrayfield has changed from its Scrooge-like status to an eager investment broker breathing new hope into the professional game.
In ten weeks.
Dodson said: “There is money here and there has always been money generated by Scottish rugby. To answer that honestly, I think it is about spending priorities. We have looked very closely at the non-rugby activities, administration and other areas, bringing some work that was contracted out in-house and are basically driving people harder and making them work in a slightly different way.
“We’ve cut back on certain expenditure. We haven’t had a chance to generate new revenues but the difference now is that rugby here is no longer seen as a cost, but seen as what we do. Everything now is about rugby, and everything else that we do is a support for rugby and maybe that wasn’t the case before.
“I don’t want to look backwards, but we obviously saw things we could do quickly that could turn things around in here and it comes back to a desire to put rugby back at the core of what we do in the Scottish Rugby Union.”
What he does not wish to be explicit about is what is already known. That the £500,000 that was spent on the President’s Suite to turn it into a nondescript events venue, the thousands lavished on other suites and parts of Murrayfield that the hoi polloi do not see and money spent on outsourced services, signalled poor prioritisation.
Dodson has more “quick-wins” up his sleeve, including new matchday entertainment around Murrayfield for the 2012 RBS Six Nations matches with England and France and an online ticketing system for next season similar to airlines, where supporters can order and print off tickets at home and zap them on the way into the stadium.
However, as welcome as improving the matchday experience and becoming more supporter-friendly are, Scottish rugby will not suddenly become viable on the strength of supporters finding it easier to get into games. Dodson nodded in agreement, then said: “I have not been here long, but, with the help of the staff here, the first thing that I identified is that you have got to create a virtuous circle in the professional game.
“We start with the players on the pitch, get the teams to win, which puts bums on seats, which creates revenue and spectator excitement, which creates ancillary revenue, and that gets sponsors excited and wanting to become associated with the teams and the sport.
“That interest and success starts to encourage broadcasters and you get television revenue, and before you know it you are actually creating a surplus that you can re-invest into the teams. At the moment we’re at the first step of creating that virtuous circle.”
Dodson is currently in talks with “a large number of people and businesses”, testing ideas on new kinds of sponsorship and the unique attraction that rugby can offer, but he accepts that promises of new streams of revenue is something we have heard many times before, only for it to fail to materialise as figures such as Phil Anderton, David Mackay and McKie discovered just how small the Scottish rugby community is.
“I recognise that it was a difficult challenge and remains one. I’m not saying it’s going to be easy or that we’ll pull it off next week, but the more successful we are the brighter people feel about Scottish rugby, the more warm feeling they get and enjoy the experience, the more our teams win. . .
“It is a sequential thing. People have to feel good first and you have to win games, and then people come to the table. Those things are happening, but we have to ensure they continue to. There has always been a good feeling about Scottish rugby in general in terms of goodwill. What we’re now managing to get is people wanting to come and talk about working with us; asking how they can get involved. And we are being much more open and transparent too, and asking, ‘What do you think we should do?’ or ‘How should we tackle this?’
“We don’t have all the answers here. We’ve got a difficult job. But I am excited about what is ahead of us. It’s going to be a bumpy ride and we will have stormy times, but we can deal with that if we are together as a group, kicking the ball in the same direction and all understand what the strategic goals are.
“My job is to bring the supporters, player group, staff here, the media and the nation of Scotland with us. At the end of the day, 80 minutes on the field is like going to a casino. It will happen out there and we can only do what we do.
“But we will keep building. We will be humble when we win and reflect when we lose, but we won’t panic or get ourselves into a situation where we are zig-zagging on our strategy.”
The challenge of making professional rugby work in Scotland and strengthening the sport from bottom to top remain significant and whether Dodson has the answers only time will tell, but there is a distinct whiff of fresh hope at Murrayfield emanating largely from the fact that a “rugby man” has taken charge.