David Ferguson: SRU paying £51,000 a year for Netherdale as feud goes on

THE SRU confirmed this week that it was still paying more than £51,000 per year in rent and maintenance of Gala RFC's Netherdale stadium, but is refusing to use the facilities as the feud over a contract continues.

When the SRU executive board closed the Border Reivers pro team in 2007 to cut some 2 million a year from the budget, Gordon McKie, the SRU chief executive, insisted that a near-2m contract the SRU had demanded be put in place in 2002 to support the new pro side with a top-class pitch would be torn up.

However, with the new undersoil heating system and a state-of-the-art grass surface still needing maintained, the Netherdale Sports Club – a body set up to manage the ground on behalf of the SRU and Gala RFC – has held the union to the deal. The 2008-9 financial report showed the union is still paying out over 51,000 per annum in rent and maintenance with an overall liability remaining of 1.5m.

After an unseemly spat between leading SRU officials and the NSC forced a stand-off in the dispute last year, the SRU insisted that it was keen to bring the issue to an end with a one-off lump sum, to enable Gala RFC to take on the running costs themselves. McKie insisted that no figure had yet been mentioned, but confirmed that the SRU was at least talking with the NSC again and keen to end the feud.

He said: "We've had some discussions with them recently and I hope it moves on soon, because it is creating unnecessary tensions... if we could find a sensible way to deal with it then we could all make it go away and move forward.

"I wouldn't say there has been an offer from them, but what we have is an opportunity to have some dialogue. Currently, we need to look at holidays affecting individuals, but it's likely we will have further discussions with Gala RFC in the summer months."

The SRU still sends maintenance staff to Netherdale as part of the agreement, but as frustrations mounted SRU officials told their counterparts at Gala that while the agreement remained in place they would not take any representative matches south, the SRU believing that it would incur greater costs if the pitch was used more often.

Even Edinburgh back-up games planned for Netherdale were ruled out, though Edinburgh are now seeking to play one-off matches at capital club venues again, and the SRU even paid Dundee FC to stage an under-20 match at Dens Park rather than use the pitch they installed at Netherdale.

The SRU is now looking at A, under-20, club international and other representative matches for the coming season, including where the SRU's pro side will play home games in the new British and Irish Cup. But, ironically, while the union continues to pay rent for Netherdale it seems unlikely that Gala will host any of them.

If the rent agreement stops, and Gala take back all running costs, the SRU will then consider the ground that has played host to the All Blacks, Wallabies and South Africa in the past.

Any hope of a professional team returning was swiftly dampened by McKie. He and finance director Eamon Hegarty spelled out at Saturday's AGM how they had managed to improve SRU finances in their four years at the helm, slashing the debt by close to 10m in four years. The improved turnover figure of 29.8m for 2008-9 was the highest in SRU history, earned largely through an increase of 4.3m in new broadcasting deals and greater ticket sales for the three home matches in this year's RBS Six Nations Championship.

Yet, despite this, there is no consideration being given to the return of a third Scottish professional team, be it in the Borders, Aberdeen or anywhere else.

"We see two teams as being the right number," McKie added. "A third pro team would only be looked at if, from a rugby perspective, it made sense, and at the moment it doesn't. Our finances are very healthy and robust, and debt is well down, but we don't see a third pro team as a rugby priority at this time.

"I'm not saying 'never', but we would rather invest in other areas that are part of our strategic plan – clubs, the stadium, performance of age-grade teams and the pathway structures etc. We are also seeing successful growth now with the two pro teams we have.

"Due to the hard work of both Glasgow and Edinburgh there has been an increase in attendances of around 45 per cent over the past season. With players returning to Scotland and the squads boasting an exciting crop of young Scottish talent, we look forward to building on the good work over the forthcoming season.

"But we still took the sensible decision in the current financial climate to freeze budgets. That won't change because we increased our turnover last year by 1.6m."

One area where purse strings have been eased is the creation of a high performance rugby director's post, and it will be interesting to see how that person feels about the lack of pro-game opportunities for young Scots after a year in the job.