Loss of league sponsors casts dark cloud over Murrayfield agm

THE SCOTTISH Rugby Union's 2010 annual general meeting proved to be a largely positive affair on Saturday, but a desire for change and the loss of another leading sponsor kept club members' feet firmly on the ground.

The union revealed publicly for the first time that Scottish Hydro have walked away from their sponsorship of the club game in Scotland, ending a three-year association and adding their name to a list of backers that Gordon McKie, the SRU chief executive, and his team have been unable to hold on to over the past five years.

McKie spoke of his enthusiasm at posting a near-600,000 surplus and the achievement in reaching a target of 38,500 players two years ahead of schedule. However, he acknowledged that the struggle to attract a broadcaster for Scotland's autumn Test matches and loss of title sponsors had brought a black cloud to the horizon. Budget expectations for next year have, consequently, been lowered.

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He said: "The broadcasting and sponsorship are huge issues for us. Scottish Hydro felt the deal had run its course and there are other things they want to do in terms of sponsorship. We had hoped, or thought, it would be renewed, but towards the latter part of the season they decided they were not going to renew it.

"We are in discussions with other brands and hope to be able to turn around something positive in the coming weeks, but in the meantime we have told the clubs that we will underwrite the money they receive next season until a sponsor does come on board."

The main debate at this year's agm surrounded a lengthy first motion and while it was comprehensively defeated it did seem to crystallise opinions around a need for change. Preston Lodge's Shona Brash, one of only two female presidents in the Scottish club game, delivered a professional and passionate presentation on the motion's call for more regionalisation of the club game, behind just two national divisions, in time for next season.

The Scottish Rugby Council's Jim Fleming spoke against it, arguing that there were too many aspects of the proposals needing more thought. But he insisted the SRU agreed with some of the ideas, and urged club members to allow the union's 'season structure working party' to launch greater consultation across the country over the next six months and draft another report.

Mrs Brash said: "I think we were perhaps a bit ambitious with what we put forward, and had we condensed it and proposed just the restructuring option we might have been more successful, but I'm not at all disappointed.

"There is a strong feeling that change is needed and I am confident now that it will be listened to. We have always had tremendous support for the SRU and have great faith in them. I do believe we're coming from the same direction and I am confident that working together the change our club game needs will be delivered."

The straightforward success of the second motion, for Premier One and Two to have a mid-season split after 11 games, into three groups of eight teams to determine titles and promotion and relegation, indicated the benefit of going through the league forums and working party channels.

McKie said: "There was a very positive message that the game is growing and there were a lot of good things in that proposal, but it came in through the back door as a bit of a curve-ball really.

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"I accept that there is a bit of work to be done by us in terms of communicating the system we now have for clubs to come through with such positive proposals, which allow proper discussion, debate and development.

"We have the various league forums, which should meaningfully engage the clubs within its remit, the season structure working group, standard working party on governance, which is all a bit of a mouthful, but I think clubs are beginning to see the benefits of working altogether to create change and if clubs wish it that is what we will get next year."

The SRU was defeated on motions to tighten the substance of agm motions themselves and to allow council members to remain as co-opted representative on the council even if their club rise or fall from the league they represent, but the clubs did back a similar call by new president Ian McLauchlan to allow the council to co-opt any number of people to act as SRU representatives on international bodies, such as the IRB, Six Nations Committee and Celtic League, irrespective of whether they have been elected, for the sake of "continuity". Clubs voted also to restore the position of vice-president, with an election at next year's agm and ratification only of him or her taking over as president in 2012, to widen player loan rules, and to increase from two to 11 the number of seconders needed for a motion to stand.

The meeting concluded with a ninth successive plea for a Murrayfield museum from George Russell of Moray House RFC. Allan Munro, the SRU Chairman, detailed an exhibition to be staged in the stadium around November's launch of a new 'Hall of Fame', but had no promise of money nor a permanent space to showcase the vast array of Scottish rugby memorabilia, most of which remains carefully logged and stored in library boxes.