THE new state-of-the-art playing surface at the national stadium looked resplendent beneath the glorious sunshine in which Murrayfield basked yesterday lunchtime.
The whole setting provided the perfect backdrop for the official launch of the 2014-15 domestic season.
And as players from clubs stretching the length and breadth of the country posed for pictures, gave press interviews and traded gentle banter with each other about prospects for the coming campaign, it was almost impossible not to be sucked into the general mood of optimism which tends to permeate these sorts of occasions.
Ian Rankin, the president of the Scottish Rugby Union, was certainly enjoying the feelgood vibe as he looked at the season ahead.
In a previous life he was the long-serving head coach of Dundee HSFP so understands as well as anyone the challenges the club game has had to face during the professional era, with dwindling investment and a lack of exposure leaving hard -working committee men and women increasingly exasperated by a sense of neglect from a governing body which they believe has continually failed to recognise the importance of the game’s traditional heartland in the overall health of the sport.
However, Rankin believes a wind of change is sweeping through club-land, and he has called upon everyone involved in the game – from high-flying executives in the governing body down to volunteers at grassroots level – to seize the moment.
“In the last 12 months I’ve seen the recognition [of the SRU Board] for the club game. It has always been the foundation. The big effort was the overdraft, then there was bigger investment in the international squad, then we lifted the pro sides, and now the new BT deal means that we can do more to carry out some of the strategies which have been in place [for the club game],” he said.
“It is an opportunity which has come round and we have to grab it with both hands. We can’t afford to be looking back at this in five years’ time and regret that we didn’t do more. The club guys are without doubt starting to feel the benefit.’
Rankin added: “The game has been talked down for so long that people start to believe it, but when you get out to the grassroots…well…some of the junior clubs I‘ve been to this year have been fantastic. You go along to a place you have never been before, and when you come away you are energised by the enthusiasm and hard graft they are putting in to get both kids and adults playing rugby.”
A major bone of contention for the club game in recent years has been the role it has to play in the “performance” arm of the game. Proposals were put forward by the SRU last December to create and partially fund a semi-professional Super League involving eight sides at the top of the club structure with the aim of increasing the number of players getting exposure at a higher level. However, opposition to this scheme (chiefly from ambitious clubs lower down the food chain who feared that their progress would run into a glass ceiling) meant that the original plan was put back a year, and the new league will not now commence until 2016-17 at the very earliest.
Despite the misgivings of many clubs, Rankin believes it is vital that the SRU press on with this proposal, so long as they use a sensible timescale.
“When this was first put in place, one of my main arguments was that you have to professionalise the clubs. I was there at the start of professionalism when overnight we were expected to become professional but it took us quite a while to get up there, so some of these clubs need to have strength and conditioning facilities and a coaching structure put in place. There is no point having fully pro players or semi-pro players if your coaches aren’t available for most of the time to take these guys,” he pointed out.
“You speak to the players and they are hugely excited that this might give them a stepping stone – especially some of the late developers, and when I say that I am talking about guys as young as 20, who have not been picked up by the age-grade set-up.”
“If we want to improve, we are the only nation that doesn’t have that level. It’s not going to be an overnight thing but we have to get it in place as quickly as possible if we want to move on.” Rankin also urged sceptical clubs to view the plans with an open mind.
“If we make the top division an elite league then rather than hacking off the clubs below, we should be encouraging them to lift their standard because they want to be a part of it.
“It is the teams sitting on their laurels that are going to be overtaken,” he reasoned.
“It is not just going to be a hand-out. It will be the clubs that show they have a sustainable business plan, with the right people and the right facilities that will get this going and keep it going. It’s not for foreign players. It’s about developing Scottish coaches, it’s about the academies only being for Scottish players, otherwise there is no way that any of that [SRU] money will go towards it.”