Shake-up leaves club rugby league wide open
IT’S ALL change in the divisional structure of club rugby and that’s good news for prospects of a competitive top flight.
Another season, another league reshuffle. Scotland now hosts just one premier league of ten teams, one national league of ten teams and two championship leagues of the same number, which are divided into A and B along approximate east/west geographical lines. In reality the six national leagues from last season (three premier, three national) have become two.
One team will be automatically promoted/relegated between the top two leagues while a play-off between the second-bottom side and the second-top side will determine a second promotion/relegation place. One team from Championship A and one team from Championship B will gain promotion at the end of the season, with the bottom two teams dropping down from the national league to take their place.
This plan was pushed through amid quite some brouhaha at the 2011 AGM but the final vote proved overwhelming support for the changes. The new structure is designed to cut travel costs and time, generate more local derbies and concentrate the best talent in just a few top-class clubs at the peak of the pyramid. Whether it will work is probably the wrong question to ask. Whether the plan will be given time to work is the real issue, with chatter about an eight-team premier league already doing the rounds.
One advantage of a ten-team premier league is that there should be no easy games, no walkovers, no cricket scores, which can only be a good thing for players and fans alike. In the last ten years there have usually been one or two soft touches in Premier One, just as there has usually been one club dominating the division: Hawks, then Currie and latterly Melrose. In contrast, this season’s league title looks wide open, with perhaps half of the clubs in the league harbouring reasonable hopes of finishing on top of the pile.
That is not the only change. It may appear absurd to talk about any paradigm shift in the heart of Scottish rugby when two of the oldest clubs in the Borders heartland won the league (Melrose) and picked up the RBS Cup (Gala) last time out but two of the clubs expected to fight for the title come March next year hail from the opposite end of the country and neither has ever won the title. Dundee HSFP took the 2012 championship to the very last day of the season and finished a worthy second. A little more self belief could have seen them go one better with a well-rounded squad that was still a little too reliant on flying winger James Fleming.
Dundee should be challenging again but so, too, should their Caledonian rivals from Aberdeen. The rest of the country may be suffering from the effects of a recession but the oil industry is in pretty good shape and so is the Aberdeen jobs market. Aberdeen Grammar have also benefited from an army regiment taking over RAF Kinloss in Moray. The club have already bagged a couple of khaki recruits in the form of two Fijian Army Sevens players, with the promise of more to follow.
No one has recruited as aggressively as Grammar but they don’t have long to bed in their legion of “loons”. Aberdeen travel to Dundee on the opening weekend of the season and whoever emerges from next Saturday’s tussle with the points and plaudits will get a huge psychological boost. It is just possible that Alex Duncan and Ian Rankin, respective coaches, will have mentioned the fact that either club could make history by taking the title for the first time.
Glasgow certainly won’t take the title for the simple reason that they don’t have top flight representation for the first time this millennium. Scotland’s largest city has three clubs in the national league (Hillhead/Jordanhill, Hawks and Hamilton) so perhaps the talent is spread a little thin but wasn’t Hawks designed to attract the best of the west? Instead, relegation means that the Glasgow standard bearers have lost six players to Ayr, who continue to showcase how a club should be run off the field with the extensive backing of local businesses and fans.
Millbrae boasts a crowd and the atmosphere that comes with it, which is more than you can say about several clubs in the capital. Edinburgh have four teams in the top flight but only one of them is likely to contend for any silverware at the sharp end of the season. Accies and Heriots were promoted from Prem B while Boroughmuir finished bottom in Prem A. All three will be happy to finish in the top half of the league. Currie remain the pick of the capital clubs even if that presumes Edinburgh’s suburbs stretch all the way to Balerno.
The men from Malleny Park never really recovered from being mugged by Gala on the opening day of the season last year and they finished the season poorly but this team is all but unstoppable when everyone is available and in the mood.
But, whoever challenges for honours at the end of the season, at the end of the day the top class Scottish clubs must decide what they are for.
While the SRU appears ambiguous on the role of Premier One, the clubs can’t afford any such dithering or doubt. The clubs remain the bedrock of Scottish rugby and it’s time their central role in player development was properly acknowledged. Murrayfield has decreed rather bizarrely that Premier One offers insufficient grounding for a professional coach but Scotland’s top league continues to churn out players for the professional game, with Melrose’s Fraser Thomson and Sep Visser from Boroughmuir just two of the latest recruits. As well as providing, Premier One should also receive a fair smattering of unutilised professional players from Glasgow/Edinburgh in return, at least until the injuries kick in.
Premier One has a family friendly, low-priced, high-scoring, hugely entertaining product to offer the Saturday afternoon sports fan but, if you look at the pitiful crowds at most games, not the faintest idea of how to sell itself.
Search for a job
Search for a car
Search for a house
Weather for Edinburgh
Sunday 26 May 2013
Temperature: 9 C to 16 C
Wind Speed: 15 mph
Wind direction: West
Temperature: 8 C to 12 C
Wind Speed: 18 mph
Wind direction: South