Irvine ready to answer his country's call

LIKE the return of a long-lost brother, the news that Andy Irvine is preparing to rejoin the sport he graced with such verve is being greeted with warmth and enthusiasm by the rugby family.

His absence from the game has been keenly felt and his decision to stand for the presidency of the Scottish Rugby Union is being seen as hugely significant. If elected, it is hoped Irvine can provide the unifying influence required to end the strife that has erupted over the last five months.

The 53-year-old, voted Scotland’s greatest ever player in numerous polls of the last 20 years, says it’s been a "horrible time" for the game recently and admits he shed few tears when Scotland’s first overseas coach, Matt Williams, was removed from his post last month. Irvine brands the Australian "an expensive failure" and was delighted to see a Scottish coach, Frank Hadden, handed the reins for the national team’s next two matches.

Nevertheless, there are tough times ahead and Irvine is under no illusion about the size of the take ahead of him if he wins the presidency election.

"There isn’t a feelgood factor in Scottish rugby at the moment," he points out, "and if we don’t get big attendances at the autumn internationals and next year’s Six Nations Championship, then how will we fund the pro teams? We are already well behind the likes of England, France and even Wales.

"I used to enjoy playing England in my day, and the other top nations, but now you have to be realistic - the chances of Scotland against England, with the difference in resources now, is like the chances Raith Rovers have of beating Rangers or Celtic. One of Scotland’s pro teams playing against Toulouse is like Portsmouth playing Chelsea. And yet, despite it getting harder and harder we are still competing, with poor resources and what I believe has been a misuse of finances.

"Some of the players we’ve brought in have been very expensive failures, and you could argue that Matt Williams was an expensive failure. Putting Scottish coaches in charge was pretty sensible because going overseas is often reliant more on reputations than reality. Personally, I don’t know how good our own guys are, and others will decide on the long-term appointments, but Frank has done a good job with Edinburgh of late and if he does well in the next two games then it puts him in serious contention to be there full-time.

"I’m pleased to see the coaches now empowering each other, and that is the kind of unity we haven’t had but which we need across all rugby in Scotland. You look around and it’s disappointing to see clubs like Hawick Trades disbanding, to see Heriot’s and others fielding just two or three teams when they once had six teams out every week.

"You have to generate a lot of time and effort to the pro teams and international side - they are the shop window and generate most income - but we have neglected the club game. We have to try to get more people playing rugby because that will create better players and, in turn, will generate better professional and international sides."

Before the opportunity to be SRU president arrived, Irvine was quite happy with his career as the Edinburgh-based chairman of Jones Lang LaSalle, a global property consultants firm. While it entails some foreign travel, it also allows him the freedom to put on his tracksuit and boots and spend Saturday mornings and Sunday afternoons coaching school-children. But then the clubs came calling and asked if he would become Scottish rugby’s new figurehead, and he couldn’t turn down his country.

"What can you do?" he says, quite seriously. "I was approached by two or three people from clubs and to be honest at first I didn’t fully understand the new governance structure and how I could be president.

"I also have to be honest and say I am a bit worried about the time commitment, because I do work full-time with Jones Lang LaSalle. But there has been such turmoil that I feel we have to be seen, as a country, to rally round and help each other and when you’re asked to make a contribution, particularly having been critical from the outside, then you can’t say you’re too busy."

Irvine’s sole opponent in the presidency election will be George Blackie, a current vice-president of the SRU and one of the general committee members who helped engineer the coup which led to the resignations of David Mackay as chairman of the union’s executive board and Phil Anderton as chief executive.

The former Heriot’s, Scotland and Lions full-back is favourite to win the vote at the SRU’s agm on 24 June as the game strives to make a clean break from the political strife of recent months which was sparked by the ousting of Mackay.

Irvine feels it is time for a fresh start. If elected he would serve for a year, but he believes there is a willingness to grasp the opportunity of a new beginning which can have a long-term benefit.

"It has been a horrible time for the game," he acknowledged. "I don’t know the full background to the sacking of David Mackay, but I always felt that Phil Anderton was a fantastic marketeer - someone with tremendous enthusiasm and energy, who was very well- connected - and that David Mackay was a very good businessman and very committed.

"There are two sides to every story and I know some of the committee men, who are also very able individuals who put a lot of work in. They take flak for mistakes they make but rarely get any credit for the good things they do. The sacrifices they make, as family men, to work for the good of their district, clubs and Scottish rugby goes unnoticed and so they didn’t deserve to be pilloried the way they were. The system was wrong in allowing committee men to be there for years, but with frequent elections, now proposed, you will get only the good people elected.

"The whole thing was dealt with so dramatically and suddenly that it caused massive ructions, but if there is any good to have come out of it is that we now have a governance structure much better suited to taking the game forward. There is no point dwelling on the past. As a country we are seriously struggling in rugby, in terms of results at international level, our finances and more importantly the lack of numbers playing and watching the game, so we have to look forward."

Irvine was one of the few Scottish rugby players truly revered worldwide for his playing ability and even now he remains one of the most recognisable and popular figures in Scottish sport. Yet, he has shunned the limelight, having walked away from the game to forge a business career. He was involved briefly seven years ago during the SRU’s early attempt at introducing an executive board, but he and John Jeffrey felt the organisation was undemocratic and resigned in protest. But the will to help Scottish rugby runs deep and despite his anger and frustration in 1998 he has rediscovered his enthusiasm. He also believes the current Scotland squad is capable of better than the three wins achieved in 17 Tests under Williams.

"It’s becoming tougher because of the low numbers we’ve got, although I don’t think Matt got the most out of our players, or made the right decisions on selections.

"I’m a realist and we’re not going to win the Grand Slam next year or the next World Cup - seriously improving Scottish rugby will take some time. But we have a fresh start and clean sheet of paper to begin the move."

In being put forward as a new ambassadorial-style president, Irvine is being cast in the role of pied piper: one whose presence will encourage all in Scottish rugby to come together with a new, stronger commitment.

He concluded: "We have a governance model now that, while not yet perfect, is an awful lot better, and is workable. I feel a mixture of excitement and trepidation, but I’ve spoken with a lot of people recently and sensed a real enthusiasm to restore credibility to Scottish rugby.

"It can be done, but it’s a very tall order. It’s like playing, when you’re up against a far better side on paper. You have to take every single opportunity that comes along - you have to take a drop-goal, kick a penalty, and you can’t drop the ball when a try chance beckons.

"It’s the same with the organisation: we’re at a point in Scottish rugby where we can’t afford to make any more mistakes. It’s going to take a lot of work and people coming together but a new harmony is the only real answer to moving forward."