WHEN Mark Dodson took over from the much-criticised Gordon McKie as SRU chief executive there was a hope that Scottish rugby would find sharper leadership.
That is being put to the test now as Dodson finds himself in the spotlight this morning over his filling of key positions. Simple knowledge of rugby put him one rung further up the ladder than McKie, and Dodson was clever enough on entering Murrayfield to read the runes and insist that his priority would be to put rugby back at the heart of union decisions – the key criticism of the previous regime.
Improvement in the marketing, ticketing and investment in pro rugby have been welcomed as signs that Dodson is backing up the talk although news that Vern Cotter, his choice for Scotland coach, may now remain with his French club Clermont Auvergne for another season does not smack of precision planning. Coming as it does after an announcement three weeks ago that he had his man but would not reveal his identity, a decision that became a PR disaster with coaches across the globe being questioned, the SRU’s leadership is increasingly under pressure. Meanwhile, Edinburgh’s supporters are still reeling from a dire season and remain in the dark over their new coaching team just two weeks from the start of pre-season.
It now appears that Scott Johnson, unknown to Scottish rugby before being hired as a mentor/saviour 18 months ago by an ailing Andy Robinson, has control of the major rugby appointments in the game. Just as Frank Hadden and Robinson were with McKie, the national coach – “interim” – is Dodson’s main adviser on who should take over the Edinburgh and Scotland reins.
He may be the only real adviser. Such has been the change at the SRU in the past decade that Murrayfield now lacks real experience of international coaching or even what it takes to succeed with a pro team. The rugby influence at board level has been boosted with soon-to-depart president Alan Lawson joining Ian McLauchlan and co-optee John Jeffrey, but none of them has been involved at the sharp end of professional or Test rugby coaching.
So, it is likely to be left to Johnson himself, on a crash course in Scottish rugby, to determine whether he continues as national coach beyond the forthcoming quadrangular tournament in South Africa, alongside his new role as SRU director of rugby, or appoints someone in an interim capacity for another year.
That, however, could throw up the kind of situation Cotter found himself in a year ago. The RFU had put Stuart Lancaster into the England hotseat after sacking Martin Johnson, and then went after Cotter. The Kiwi watched the RBS Six Nations unfold and after Lancaster steered his side to four wins, he read the signs and apparently told the RFU that they had to appoint their interim choice.
The SRU will clearly wish to avoid history repeating itself and so, if Clermont stick to their guns and hold on to Cotter, they are more likely to put together some amalgam of currently-employed coaches. They have one new coach in place, Jonathan Humphreys, with the former Ospreys man in charge of the forwards while the defence coach, Matt Taylor, has a contract with Glasgow that allows him to work with Scotland through the Test windows. With Massimo Cuttitta (scrummaging) and Duncan Hodge (kicking/backs) also on board. Johnson is, therefore, the favourite to oversee the team through the autumn and 2014 Six Nations.
The other possibility is that Clermont release Cotter. They are believed to have already begun looking for his replacement, but have yet to find a suitable candidate, which is why they have refused the SRU’s approach. Should they find their man, however, Clermont may be inclined to let Cotter go.
For the moment, however, Cotter is focused on one more season in France, pledging to finish what he started and make Clermont the European champions. He said yesterday that he had enjoyed his best season since joining from the Crusaders seven years ago, and he thanked the staff, players and supporters whilst apologising for not winning the Heineken Cup or Top 14 title.
“It is important to keep and maintain the strong relationship between our players, our fans and our stadium,” he said. “We want to continue to build but we are also happy to see that our game and our players have further developed this season and will continue to do so next season.
“The goal this year was for our players to grow as leaders in our decision-making, and their roles in the squad, and I think we have improved in that and the performances and results are proof of that. But, obviously, we are disappointed not to be able to bring back the European Cup. We got very close to it. It was a goal that we set ten months ago, the day the 2011-12 season ended, and we failed to get there, which is obviously frustrating.
“But we will bounce back and we’ll get the European title next season in my last year at the club. When I arrived, we were eighth [in the Top 14], and now we have played six finals, ten semi-finals, won a European shield and the Top 14 shield and I can’t wait for the new season. The club is in good health and I always said I wanted to leave the club in a better state than I found it in. It will happen.”