Interview: Allan Munro, departing SRU chairman

IT'S all change at the top of the SRU or at least it will be come the AGM in June when chairman Allan Munro steps down after almost six years in the post. A firm of head-hunters has been tasked with finding new candidates and an appointment is expected before the year is out. That would allow the new chairman to gain an insight into the demands of the post by shadowing Munro throughout the Six Nations championship before taking over the helm in the summer.

• Scottish Rugby Union chairman Allan Munro is convinced the organisation is in a better state now than when he took over but feels that a lot more could be done by politicians to improve participation in sport in general and rugby in particular

A selection panel has been set up to make the final decision. It is chaired by the current president Ian McLauchlan, with others co-opted from the board and the council, both of which still have to agree the appointment as and when it is made.

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The chairman is expected to work one day a week, although Munro puts in plenty of unpaid overtime, in return for something in the region of 35,000 per annum, which is nice work if you can get it. But some of the "perks" of the job may not be wholly welcome. While watching international rugby from the best seat in the house is an enviable happenstance Munro reckons that the strains of chairing the SRU may just have cost him his health.

"My only regret over the last five years is that I have had DVT (deep vein thrombosis) and a stroke. Whether it was a result of being here (at Murrayfield) or not I don't know. At the age of 58 I discovered I'd had a hole in my heart since birth. I was a physical fitness freak all my life but I can't no longer do those things. I used to play squash four or five times a week but I have no balance whatsoever now, but you get used to it."

"I've loved every minute I've been here. It's only in the most recent round of presidents' roadshows that you start to realise that you've done quite a good job at putting this business back together again."

Sure enough, Munro arrived at Murrayfield in 2005 when morale was at a low ebb and the Union's standing among its members was non-existent after Phil Anderson and David McKay had been forced out of office by the old general committee. Munro pays tribute to his predecessor - "in my opinion we lost at outstanding chairman in David McKay" - but makes no bones about the sorry state of the union when he took over.

He said: "The union was in a state of flux, we were on the verge of insolvency and we had gone through hell to get the governance changed."

Shortly after Munro's appointment Gordon McKie arrived as chief executive and the mopping up operation could begin in earnest.The rumour that McKie was appointed by Halifax Bank of Scotland, which had the dubious honour of holding Murrayfield's near 25 million overdraft at its branch on the Mound, persists to this day, although Munro has one final attempt to quash it.

According to his boss, McKie was "recommended" by the bank but not "imposed" by them. Make of that what you will.

There is no doubt that Munro leaves Scottish Rugby in a much healthier position than he found it. The debt is down around the 15 million mark, where Munro suggests it will remain. Playing numbers have risen from 24,000 to 38,500, the target the union set itself for 2012, so they are redrawing their strategic plan. Scotland has risen to an unprecedented sixth in the IRB world ranking under Andy Robinson and the SRU's governance is now the envy of Twickenham.

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"England, in particular, are very keen on our governance," says Munro, even if we have to take his word for it.

But, when he is asked what the biggest task facing his successor will be, Munro prefers to reiterate the achievements of the last five years rather than the raft of problems still facing Scottish Rugby so I offer a few of my own.

First, the fact that Scottish fans have remained unmoved by the joys of professional rugby, as borne out by the pro-team attendances and especially the 35,550 crowd number for the Springboks match which was 22,000 (38 per cent) down on the last time South Africa visited Murrayfield in November of 2008 when, coincidentally, Scotland had also been kyboshed by the All Blacks the previous week. Even given the economic climate, and ticket prices were not high, the attendance figures have fallen off a cliff. Why do the Scottish public uniquely in Britain refuse to buy into professional rugby either literally or metaphorically?

"I sometimes wonder the answer to that myself," replies Munro. "I wonder why some clubs want to play on the same day (time) as the international team rather than support them.

"It comes back to the piece I wrote in the chairman's statement. I think sport is treated abysmally in this country. I'm ashamed that this country is a world leader in heart attacks, strokes, cancer, drug abuse, obesity, drug abuse and alcohol abuse.

"I think that if a fraction of the health budget were directed back towards sport, I'm not just talking about rugby, I mean sport, then we as a nation would start to see the benefits. The facilities we have in this country compared to others, the number of kids playing sport compared to others, is dire."

Munro was formerly a director of the company that owned Hibs and his football contacts have enabled him to work with their authorities to pressure the Scottish executive into action on the basis that there is strength in numbers. He feels that he progress is being made, even if it's as slow and painful as drawing teeth.The "cashback" initiative is proving hugely helpful whereby the proceeds of crime are pumped back into street level sport to help those that Munro refers to as the "big fat wee hooligans who would be great on a rugby pitch" and, notwithstanding the less-than-diplomatic description, you know the type he means.

I also put it to Munro that rugby in Scotland is inextricably linked to the private school system and is seen as a posh boys sport. In order to increase the playing numbers as well as appeal to a broader spectator base doesn't rugby have to undergo the same sort of detoxification process that David Cameron applied to the Tory Party and, until that happens, the playing numbers will always be modest?

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"I'd like to say I disagree, but I'm not sure I can say that," is his studied response.

"Clearly it's factor but it comes back to what for me is the much bigger issue, which is a desire to have more kids playing more sport at a younger age and providing them with the facilities. A recent survey on facilities showed up just how poor Scottish facilities are. I don't think we, as a nation, taking sport seriously enough."

Munro has done sterling work for Scottish rugby but sorting out the governance and balancing the books may prove to be the easy part of the equation when compared with the task facing his successor, selling professional rugby to the masses in Scotland.