In search of rugby’s eightsome deal

Heriot's captain Jack Turley celebrates with his team-mates after winning the BT Premiership Grand Final. Under the Super League proposals, Edinburgh could be represented by just two clubs Photograph: SNS
Heriot's captain Jack Turley celebrates with his team-mates after winning the BT Premiership Grand Final. Under the Super League proposals, Edinburgh could be represented by just two clubs Photograph: SNS
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The SRU’s Super League proposal is back in vogue – 18 months since sparking an outcry from the clubs at such a radical move

The headlines focused on a major change to Premier One with a semi-professional eight-team Super League proposed as the pinnacle of the club game. According to one source, the consultants had spoken to only two Premier One clubs before tabling the proposals and they caused an entirely predictable outcry.

‘I think that 18 months ago the clubs were not not ready for this’

The clubs took fright at such radical proposals and decreed that they weren’t for them. The ideas were shelved, “parked up” as one Murrayfield insider would have it, but far from forgotten because, like flared trousers and facial hair, the eight-team Super League is back in vogue.

The timing is odd and the modus operandi employed to launch it is even more peculiar as the whole thing appears to be taking place under the radar. The details are sketchy and no one is offering any firm proposals, but, like a black hole, they can be identified by their effect on other objects. At their recent annual meeting, Aberdeen Grammar became Aberdeen Rugby Ltd and their president, Gordon Thomson, admits that the changes were made largely with the new Super League in mind. He also has a pretty good idea who is behind the whole idea.

“It was made quite clear to me that this (Super League) was the future,” said Thomson last week. “The push is coming from the very top of the SRU. I have no doubt that these changes will come about, although the World Cup may make it difficult to implement this coming season, but I think it will happen for the 2016/17 season.”

It is only fair to point out that others don’t envisage the Super League ever happening, while some insist the clubs will get there but not in time for tomorrow. An SRU spokesman denied any involvement insisting: “Clubs were strong in their opinion against the Super League and so we have moved on and are now directing investment and support in other ways.”

Which is odd because the Premier One forum that met in May of this year voted 7-3 in favour of an eight-team league. The SRU wants clubs to lead the charge and may be adopting “nudge theory” to steer them in that direction. Despite Murrayfield’s denial, Aberdeen Rugby are gearing up in anticipation that their geographical placing and the size of the Granite City will see the National One side receive an invitation to the Super League ball.

By morphing from Aberdeen Grammar to a limited company (Aberdeen Rugby Ltd) the club is setting itself up for membership of the new elite, if and when it comes into being. With just eight teams in the Super League, the new Aberdeen Rugby franchise needs to appeal to players and fans from much further afield than just former pupils of Aberdeen Grammar School.

Hard facts are hard to come by, but the whispers have an eight-team league with an even geographic spread that would see two teams in Caledonia, two each in Edinburgh and Glasgow/Ayr and another two sited in the Borders. This may require some sort of merger or close co-operation between the likes of Melrose, Gala and possibly Kelso who could provide one team, while Hawick/Selkirk and Jed Forest feed the other Border side.

In the cities, Edinburgh might be split North/South. Boroughmuir are said to have held exploratory talks with Currie and Heriot’s are situated just around the corner from Stewarts-Melville, while Ayr, one of the clubs said to be pushing hard for change, may well represent the West Coast along with Hawks.

The proposals are said to include a five-year moratorium on promotion and relegation to and from the “Super Eight” and the SRU is said to be offering funding of approximately £100,000, to be drawn down in streams, to help professionalise the clubs along with under-utilised fringe players from the pro-teams. That figure may appear a giant carrot, but, since Thomson says that it takes at least £300,000 to run a Premier One club these days, the additional £100,000 should be kept in perspective.

There is a debate about what “semi-professional” even means, but SRU president Ian Rankin, a stalwart of the club game after many years as Dundee HSFP boss, makes the point that you have to professionalise the clubs before you even think about paying the players.

“I think that 18 months ago the clubs were not ready for this,” says Rankin, hinting that they may be more receptive now. “But it is clear to me that the SRU has to spend on professionalising the clubs, in terms of medical back-up, coaching staff and equipment, facilities and conditioning, rather than just handing out money to players.”

When asked why the whole issue is back on the agenda now, Rankin replied that, like flared jeans and facial hair, it never went away, but the recent urgency may be connected to the SRU’s new academy structure. If the four regional academies live up to expectation, and the proof of that pudding is some way off, their string of graduates will need a high standard of rugby to keep them in Scotland, as only a few will be snapped up by the pro-teams, a point Rankin concedes.

“A lot of the papers are linked,” he says. “There is a road map of sorts and, if there are going to be all these players, then where the hell are they supposed to play? This is all for the greater good of Scottish rugby. I think Premier One rugby has improved massively, but professional rugby has jumped ahead in leaps and bounds and it’s about trying to narrow that gap.”

The SRU president insists that Murrayfield is not foisting its proposals on to the clubs, some of whom are a bit keener than others of taking a step into the unknown. The problem many have is one of details, or rather a lack of them. Almost everything above about the proposed “Super Eight” is hearsay, nothing more than Chinese whispers. Possibly because the SRU, having had its fingers badly burned when the idea was last shot down in flames, has been a little more circumspect about raising its standard until they have gauged which way the wind is blowing.

“I admire much that the SRU has done in recent years,” says Heriot’s stalwart Iain “the Bear” Milne, who was speaking in a personal capacity, “but I would just like some clarity about 
what they mean by 

“If the £100,000 is to put together a semi-professional squad of 25 players and train during the day, then that sum wouldn’t touch the sides of what is required to run a semi-pro club. You would need half a million.

“If the £100,000 is to do what we are doing, only improve the coaching, conditioning, nutrition and all the peripheral stuff, then great. We’ll get on with it and, hopefully, we can provide a stepping stone for players from the academies before they move to the pro-teams.

“Heriot’s are not against these changes, but we have to protect the 125-year history of the club and that legacy must be left standing long after these changes. If someone will simply sit down and tell us what they propose then we will have the debate and do what we feel is in the best interests of Scottish rugby.”

The lack of openness from the top of the tree is a recurring theme. One other prominent club spokesman, who was broadly in favour of the changes, also spoke about the “confidentiality culture” within Murrayfield which stifles debate, although the SRU may have good reason for keeping a low profile this time round.

If the SRU is agitating sotto voce for a “Super League,” Murrayfield must first garner the support of the Premier One clubs and then beg the blessing of the remaining Scottish clubs on the plan to splurge almost £1 million on just eight entities before pulling up the drawbridge, so no one else can join the party.

It promises to be an interesting debate, presuming, of course, that we have one 
at all.