Shameful assault on reputations of men with the game in their veins

‘WE know", wrote Lord Macaulay, "no spectacle so ridiculous as the British public in one of its periodical fits of morality".

Essentially the story is simple. A man was hired to do a job. Those who appointed him became dissatisfied. They told him he had lost their confidence and he resigned. Sad, but it happens every week in business. It happens often in journalism. There are lots of ex-editors who thought they were doing a good job till they were told to clear their desks. David Mackay has been followed out of the door by his chief executive and three non-executive directors. They went of their own accord, though the chief executive Phil Anderton might have been pushed if he hadn’t resigned.

We have it on authority that the departure of the non- executive directors "will seriously hamper the SRU’s ability to find a partner" but since the authority is - surprise, surprise! - one of the departing non-execs, we may be a bit sceptical. Non-executive directors are two a penny though they usually cost a bit more than that.

Mackay’s first act as chairman of the executive board was to sack Bill Watson, the chief executive he had inherited. Watson is a good man, but Mackay may have been right to sack him. I don’t know. Then, this season, Mackay and Anderton have sacked the chief executives of the three professional clubs, combining the three posts in one. (More of that later). Like Watson, the three have accepted their dismissal silently and with dignity. Quite a contrast from the way McKay and Anderton have reacted.

In his press conference Anderton said: "What this is all about is governance - who runs the game." Well, that is at least admirably frank. Who runs the game? The hired hands or the elected representatives of the clubs? Is there just a touch of arrogance there?

We keep hearing that rugby is now a business, the SRU a multi-million business, and so we need men with business expertise. Fair enough, but businessmen can make a muck of things, and often do when they move into sport. You don’t have to look far from Murrayfield for evidence of that - across the railway line to Tynecastle is far enough.

Whatever Anderton says, the dispute is not just about governance. Members of the general committee lost confidence in Mackay and Anderton because they objected to a range of decisions and acts, and because their objections were ignored or swept aside. On Thursday Alastair McHarg who, ever since he stopped playing has worked with the Exiles, told this paper that: "Mackay should have been sacked two months ago when he refused to accept the committee’s two nominations for the (proposed) unitary board." One has to ask why he did so. Until we get an answer we are entitled to suppose it was because the two nominees were men likely to ask awkward questions, not yes men. Who runs the game?

For many the most disagreeable feature of this week has been the opprobrium directed at the "amateur" members of the general committee, opprobrium little short of character assassination. This is shameful, and I hope that, when the dust has settled, those who have been flinging insults at them will indeed have the grace to feel ashamed. All 14 committee men have, over a great many years, like McHarg, devoted far more time to their clubs, districts and the SRU, and to furthering the cause of Scottish rugby, than their critics can even begin to imagine. They have done so unpaid, while employees of the union have been in receipt of handsome salaries. They are decent responsible men, and what they have done this week will not have been done lightly.

Anderton speaks of his "belief in integrity and honesty," and then says: "I’m frankly not prepared to continue to work in the new environment." The implication is that the committee-men lack these qualities of "integrity and honesty." This is intemperate, foolish, and shabby.

To listen to their critics, you would think the committee was made up of dunderheads. Well, I know only two of them personally, and they are men of honour and intelligence. George Jack has been a successful headmaster. That requires what are now called "people skills" and "management skills". Norman Douglas is a successful farmer. That doesn’t mean he has straw coming out of his ears. There is, admittedly, one significant difference between a farmer and the chief executive of a multi-million business. If the farmer gets his sums wrong, he may go bust. If the chief executive gets his sums wrong, he walks away with a golden handshake.

ANY suggestion that the committee members don’t have the best interests of Scottish rugby at heart is not only absurd; it comes close to being slanderous. They may of course have got it wrong, but that they had much to be alarmed about is obvious.

Anderton repeatedly said that the committee had approved and endorsed a succession of the executive board’s decisions. He didn’t, despite speaking as one with "a belief in the principles of integrity and honesty", add that in some cases this approval had been given reluctantly, and in others because the committee had been presented with a fait accompli. Not much that has been the subject of argument concerns what those of us passionate for the game care about - what happens on the field of play. But there is one exception, and it is especially relevant because it calls in question the commercial acumen of the executive board.

I have written before of the folly of starving the three pro-teams of resources in order to spend more on the national squad. This has been foolish in rugby terms: the results are sadly plain to see. But, given the intentions to franchise, it looks like commercial lunacy too. How do you sell a damaged product? Any farmer knows that you fatten a beast before taking it to the mart. Likewise the decision to sack the three chief executives and replace them with one man seems bound to make successful franchising more difficult. These decisions were taken in the face of opposition from some of the committee. Anderton now says that the problems of the professional teams have come about because they are "state-run" - a pejorative expression - and that "we are the ones recommending change, and we’re the ones having to fall because of it." This is, to say the least, disingenuous.

I don’t know if the committee has made the right decision. They may have, but I wouldn’t go so far as to say, like McHarg, that "this should not be seen as a tragedy for Scottish rugby, but a godsend." Yet it’s evident the Mackay-Anderton-McGeechan-Williams regime has been failing to deliver improvements. In such circumstances heads roll. It’s sad because, I’m sure that, like the committee-men, they have worked for the best interests of rugby as they understand them. But that’s how it is in business. Ask any recent chief executive of Marks & Spencer.

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