Windfall will help SRU compete with England, France, Ireland and Wales
SCOTTISH rugby is in line for a windfall of close to £2m after Edinburgh defeated Toulouse and set up a Heineken Cup semi-final with Ulster, which could finally launch the professional game in Scotland.
Playing numbers and competition levels have played their part in Scotland’s struggles to keep pace with the growth of professional rugby, but the real obstacle has been the lack of finance to compete with England, France, Ireland and Wales.
But Michael Bradley’s capital side have hit a jackpot that could begin to turn things around. Edinburgh earned 440,000 euros for reaching the quarter-finals and a further 440,000 euros after Saturday’s stunning 19-14 defeat of the four-times European champions, surpassing the feat of the 2004 team. That equates to £725,000.
They will also split the gate receipts with Toulouse from Saturday’s record 37,881 attendance, once ERC monies are taken off, which could top £200,000 and will be boosted by sales of food, drink and merchandise.
But their income will double after the semi-finals. Edinburgh are now guaranteed a 50 per cent share in the gate receipts from the semi-final with Ulster, who hung on to defeat Munster 22-16 in Limerick yesterday, at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday 28 April (5.45pm kick-off). Tickets are already on sale, from £30 to £60.
The Aviva holds 51,700 and with an expected wealth of non-Ulster and Edinburgh supporters to ensure a full house, even at a conservative estimate, anything from £750,000 to £1m could be heading Edinburgh’s way before contemplating the pay-out if they were to win and reach the final.
The income will go straight to the SRU, who own and finance Scotland’s two professional teams. However, chief executive Mark Dodson has pledged to reward Edinburgh’s success with re-investment, having already lifted the player budgets by close to £1m for next season to £4.2m. His bid to speculate to accumulate already seems to be paying off, and he is hoping for further new revenues through Glasgow qualifying for the RaboDirect PRO12 play-offs.
Bradley, the Cork coach who took over the Edinburgh reins only last summer, witnessed the difference that such finance made to the Irish provinces when they made the breakthrough in 1999, Ulster scraping past Edinburgh and going on to win the title in 1999 before Munster reached the final in 2000 and 2002 and then won it in 2006.
The Munster province was said to have sold 80,000 replica jerseys after the 2006 success, which raked in around £1m and covered the costs of signing attractive ‘box office’ talent, including All Black winger Doug Howlett. That may be beyond Edinburgh, but if even 2,000 of Saturday’s ‘new’ supporters were enticed to buy kit and season tickets, with new members also joining the burgeoning ‘Edinburgh Business Club’, and perhaps fresh potential for BBC Scotland TV to awaken to rugby, they could talk about one or two box office signings.
Bradley’s focus remains on the field, but he acknowledged that the season’s success should already have set a new standard for pro rugby in Scotland.
He said: “Toulouse are comfortably at the top of the Top14, and here we competed in the quarter-finals of the European Cup, so that’s where we should be. Leinster are up there, Munster and Ulster are up there and we haven’t been, and that’s been a disappointment for Edinburgh and Scottish rugby.
“I didn’t know what was possible [in my first year] because I’d never been in the Heineken Cup. But when you look at the players training you see athletes train, and when they apply their skill levels on the pitch you have some phenomenally skilful players in this side.
“We have exceptional talents; footwork, speed and they’re conditioned in a way that creates different possibilities to other sides that I’ve worked with, so you have all that potential.
“Against Toulouse, the scrum was absolutely critical. It is very difficult to win matches if your scrum doesn’t perform. It’s hard for the second rows, but the hardest position in a match like that is one, two and three and the boys were superb. We knocked them out of their stride early with the scrum and the lineout defence.
“I think we then played very good rugby in the second half; our defence was excellent and we closed them down, and those are good facts to take forward. We’d like to do the same with Ulster – pressure them in defence and take our chances when they come.
“The support was also critical. They were fantastic. We could have gone out there with 13 or 14,000 people and Toulouse would have felt very much at home, not under pressure … we created that atmosphere here and we converted, which was great.
“But,” he added, bringing a swift counter-balance, “if London Irish got that kick in the last five minutes at the Madejski Stadium [first pool match] then we might not have been here at all, but watching the match on television.
“So we’re going to the Aviva to enjoy the day, but we’ll enjoy it more if we win and even more so if we win playing the rugby we’re capable of playing.”
Bradley had received a lot of kind messages from friends and family in the south of Ireland, hoping for a Munster-Edinburgh semi-final, but he is not surprised to see Ulster as the opponents, and may attract more support now.
“Congratulations to Ulster on an impressive performance. It was a very tough encounter, but Ulster are playing very good rugby at the moment and are a very dangerous side.
“We’re really looking forward to playing Ulster in the semi-finals. We’ve played them twice already this season and come off worse on both occasions. However, a one-off semi-final in the Heineken Cup is a very different matter.
“We can take a lot of confidence both from our form on the road in this tournament and especially from our recent win over Toulouse at home. It’s a match that we look forward to and one in which we’re confident that, if we do our jobs properly, individually and collectively, we can win this match.”
One of Edinburgh’s finds of the season, winger Lee Jones, epitomised the spirit in the Edinburgh ranks when he added: “Toulouse are one of the biggest teams in Europe and top of the French Top 14, so I think if we can beat them we can beat anyone.
“I’m not surprised to see Ulster [in the semi-finals]. They have been playing really well this season and have a strong squad, with much of the Ireland team in there.
“They are a big team. Their forwards are massive and they play a forward-orientated game with a good kick-chase, but if we get our performance up front right as we did against Toulouse then I we can go in with real confidence.”
Edinburgh have taken a major stride forward this season, not only holding their nerve through the six Heineken Cup pool matches, winning five of them, but coming back from two months off for Test duty and regaining their form immediately in the quarter-finals. Their hard work might also have met a share of good fortune.
But when one considers the struggles of Scottish football clubs to compete in Europe, and the national side’s 51st place in the FIFA world rankings – even the Scotland rugby team’s slip to 12th seems less disturbing – it plays nicely into the SRU’s new push to make rugby a more realistic sporting alternative for ambitious youngsters across Scotland.
Edinburgh and Glasgow are also striving to embrace more of the traditional club spine that has supported rugby in Scotland for over a century, building a bridge that has never been successfully established.
Many thousands of club supporters, some long since disillusioned, were at Murrayfield on Saturday, and so as well as securing crucial finance to take Scottish rugby forward, the SRU have a golden opportunity to kick-start the process of winning hearts and minds.
Success is a powerful and persuasive master and if the new finance is used wisely, Edinburgh’s appearance in the Heineken Cup semi-finals has the potential to finally and firmly put Scottish rugby on the map.