John McLellan: SRU is no friend of grassroots rugby

Turfing Edinburgh Wanderers out of its historic home shows the SRU's priorities, writes John McLellan.
Mark Dodson, chief executive of the Scottish Rugby Union, may have to wait for a hearty three cheers from grassroots rugby (Picture: Lisa Ferguson)Mark Dodson, chief executive of the Scottish Rugby Union, may have to wait for a hearty three cheers from grassroots rugby (Picture: Lisa Ferguson)
Mark Dodson, chief executive of the Scottish Rugby Union, may have to wait for a hearty three cheers from grassroots rugby (Picture: Lisa Ferguson)

Highest-ever turnover of £57m, a surplus of £1.8m and record victories over Australia, Argentina and England; Scottish Rugby chief Mark Dodson can be forgiven for giving himself a good slap on the back after the publication of the SRU’s annual report this week.

It sets the scene nicely for the AGM a week today, at which Dodson might expect to be metaphorically carried aloft on a gilded chair for all he has achieved since his arrival in 2011 after years of rancour between the Union and its member clubs. He has also successfully steered through the controversial plan to create six semi-professional sides to provide a more intensive pathway into professional rugby from schools and clubs and so strengthen the flow of talent into the elite game.

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But Dodson might be kept waiting for a hearty three-cheers from the clubs gathered to review the year, because for all his undoubted achievements the feeling persists that while the clubs remain a bedrock for youth development, the adult sections are a burden. Scottish Rugby Union Ltd is a business and the product which generates the cash is the elite game, but like all products it needs quality raw material. The relevance of adult amateurs is increasingly limited to coaching and refereeing development and who at HQ really cares if clubs only field two sides?

The annual report does not detail total adult playing numbers or club membership, but both will be thousands below the 554,000 who went through Scottish Rugby turnstiles last year. The traditional clubs still matter to the extent they remain the main nursery for development beyond the private schools, but the diehards gathering at HQ next week wonder whether that’s really about it.

If there is one club which feels this more than most it’s the one right outside, Murrayfield Wanderers, with a history going back to 1868 before rugby was properly constituted but now in the process of being evicted from the playing fields it has used in one form or another for a century.

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Edinburgh Wanderers FC has been an SRU tenant since 1902, but the Murrayfield part of the club started playing on what is now the international pitch during WW1 before it was acquired by the Union. After Murrayfield RFC and EWFC merged in 1997, the old clubhouse on Corstorphine Road was sold and the £300,000 proceeds invested in the new pavilion next to the main stadium. Public sports grants of £125,000 and £165,000 were made on the basis of a wider public benefit.

A 25-year lease was agreed with the SRU, which paid £50,000 compensation for taking ownership of the building, but the understanding was that the lease was a technicality as there was never any chance of the arrangement ending. But those were gentler times, everyone involved in Scottish rugby believed the interests of the clubs and the union were one and the same and the governing body would never turn on one of its own.

But those SRU men are now dead, and ten years ago the club was told the lease would not be renewed because the amateur club was not compatible with future needs. Relations deteriorated until last year when a terse communication from the Union (which I’ve seen) confirmed the plug would be pulled this August.

The SRU has done nothing illegal and argues the club was given ample notice to plan for the future away from Murrayfield, and it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Wanderers were naïve to think a gentleman’s agreement guaranteed a secure future. So from next month Wanderers leave their purpose-built, self-funded home to an uncertain future scattered across different locations; matches will be on pitches in Roseburn Park, training at Saughton Park and hospitality in the ice rink’s Riversdale suite. Scotland international centre Mark Bennet has just been appointed coach and, despite the upheaval, the club will continue with its extensive community programme, taking rugby to schools like Tynecastle High and the Wester Hailes Education Centre where the game has not traditionally been taught.

Meanwhile, plans are being developed for a new pavilion in conjunction with Murrayfield DAFS cricket club on the site of the existing changing facilities and derelict WW2 armoury. The aim is to include a public café and to work with the Friends of Roseburn Park to create a facility for the whole community.

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Ironically, after £20m has been spent on the Roseburn flood prevention scheme, there are drainage problems on the park, which is why training will be at Saughton and the club’s training floodlights could be moved there if Edinburgh Leisure agrees. Sports Scotland rejected an application for a £100,000 improvement grant for Roseburn drainage works because the overall impact of the SRU’s decisions is a significant reduction in publicly available sports facilities. The only remnant of the historic relationship between club and union is an agreement about car parking and a shipping container to keep the club’s memorabilia secure until a new pavilion is available.

Edinburgh Rugby will take over the existing Wanderers clubhouse and will expect the planning application for the 7,000-seat stadium to go through, but the future of the rest of the Murrayfield estate is unclear. The SRU’s hotel idea seems to have been abandoned because of problems striking a deal with an operator, and the future of the ice rink is deadlocked because of a bitter wrangle between the major shareholders.

Having cut the back pitches from an original six to three, there is now speculation that the ultimate goal is for commercial development of the two left after the Edinburgh stadium is built in order to clear the last of the SRU’s debt. After this season, Scottish club rugby will change forever, with the launch of the Super Six semi-pro set-up and whatever the SRU plans for the amateur game under its yet-to-be-revealed Agenda 3 programme. But the lesson of Murrayfield Wanderers is clear for all clubs; the SRU is a business, not your friend.

STV cull continues

And on evictions, the cull at STV under new boss Simon Pitts goes on, with corporate development director Steven Walker following production director Alan Clements, head of news Gordon McMillan and technical chief Alan Brown out the door. One of Scotland’s most experienced media executives, Walker was formerly Scotsman managing director and News Scotland general manager who set up the Scottish Children’s Lottery for the station in 2016.