THE Scottish Rugby Union’s chief executive Mark Dodson is typical of the breed in that he lavishes time and attention on journalists only when clouds are gathering, and who can blame him for that?
So the take-it-or-leave-it offer of an interview slot lasting no more than ten minutes suggests that there are blues skies above Murrayfield’s board room right now. This was the interview equivalent of speed dating, Hollywood A-listers offer more time when they have a film to sell.
Dodson was peddling nothing in particular. He insisted he had no hidden agenda and, instead, he was would take any questions – unless, it turned out, they concerned the fate of the three Glasgow players currently on trial for assault. On any possible sanctions that the SRU might take should one or more of the accused be found guilty of assault, Dodson had no comment to make.
Instead, we talk about the influx of foreign players into Scottish rugby, first at Edinburgh and now at the national level with New Zealander Hugh Blake parachuted into the national squad with the ink on his visa still drying. There will be more because another Highlanders’ flanker, John Hardie, might yet show up in July, Englishman Mike Cusack has already qualified for Scotland and the South African duo of WP Nel and Josh Strauss will do so just before the World Cup.
It is surely wrong, albeit helpful to Scotland’s cause, although not as much as Dodson thinks. Ultimately, more quality players will gravitate towards the big money leagues, so France and England will benefit more. Surely all these foreign mercenaries make a mockery of the international game?
“I shouldn’t have a view on it because I am not a sportsman,” is Dodson’s less than convincing opening response. “We have a world governing body that takes into account opinions from all over the world.”
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Some might suggest that World Rugby, as the IRB has been re-branded, studiously ignores public opinion on this thorny topic. “It is the actuality and you have to make sure that you have an eye to making sure that the Scotland squad is as strong as it should be,” Dodson continues. “And, if you look at the number of foreign qualified players in the English squad and the Irish squad and dozens of other squads across the world, we have to make sure that we bring people who want to play for Scotland to Scotland.”
Does it not undermine the integrity of the international game, having so many foreign players popping up in so many Test teams? “Some people see it as an opportunity for people to play international rugby,” counters Dodson. “Some people see it as you describe it.
“What you think you are describing is going back to life in a pre-professional era, but people in the 1920s and 30s and 40s were not qualified to play for Scotland. Even in the 70s and 80s glory days, there were people who weren’t Scots who were playing for Scotland and the rest of the nations across the world too. All you are seeing now is a more transparent version of what was always happening.
“Rugby is a global game with global opportunities for players across the world and we live in a world that reflects that. Scotland is purely playing under the same kind of rules as everyone else.”
I try a different tack. As an English supporter hailing from Manchester, would Dodson prefer to support a side of Englishmen or a team stuffed with foreign players who have qualified thanks to World Rugby’s ludicrous three-year residency law?
“It doesn’t matter what I think,” he stonewalls and you can read into that comment you will.
With that conversation hitting a dead end, the talk moves to the loss of players to the Aviva in recent weeks, with Sean Maitland joining London Irish and Niko Matawalu being lured to Bath Rugby by Bruce Craig’s millions. Dodson accepts that it is tough for the Scottish teams to compete but he insists that Glasgow will be active in the market and there are already rumours that they are talking to Italian flanker Simone Favaro.
“Don’t equate the move of Niko or Sean with any diminution of ambition or budget availability at Glasgow,” he warns. “We will be signing top quality players to add to that squad this year. Those guys say their future lies elsewhere and they have done fantastic things for Glasgow and for Scotland and Sean will still be a feature there. We wish them well and we will replace them.”
Dodson has achieved plenty in his time at Murrayfield, the new semi-artificial pitch, the naming of the stadium in that game-changing deal with BT and what he refers to a “future-proofing” Scottish rugby, although that might be over-egging things just a little. What is at the top of his to-do list now?
“I think we have to look at two things, he says. “This year is a year full of opportunity for us. It starts with the Six Nations and ends with the World Cup. Internationally, we know what we have to do, we have to start delivering on the pitch. Vern [Cotter] started that in the autumn and we have to build on that.
“Secondly, we have to continue to grow the pro-franchises. We are up against incredibly well-funded franchises in England and France and Japan and those are the countries that have fuelled player inflation. We have to make sure that we keep up to speed with the salaries that are being paid there and that is not going to be easy.”