Most people would admit, even the most ardent aficionados of Premiership rugby, that the standard gap between the top of the club game and the professional environment is too large and getting larger all the time as elite rugby advances.
The BT Sport Scottish Rugby Academy system, which was launched with great fanfare a few years ago, needs somewhere for its graduates to progress into and SRU chief executive Mark Dodson was blunt in a recent interview when he branded the BT Premiership “not fit for purpose”.
Stephen Gemmell, the SRU’s technical director who is overseeing the current application process, takes a slightly less forthright approach than his boss, but just as evangelical in his faith that Super 6, with a strictly amateur game below, is the best way forward for the sport in this country. That is where broad agreement ends and debates begin. The SRU insists talks with seven Premiership clubs plus others have been “positive” and are confident six robust franchises will be launched as planned on 1 May.
Of course, the SRU wants to paint as optimistic a picture as possible but it is also undeniable that there have been serious misgivings, even from within clubs who are viewed to be the most keen to get involved.
Money isn’t the be all and end all in this but, as with much of life, a lot does come down to it. The initial proposals as laid out in the bid document foresee that there would be a £62,500 investment from the union for part-time player salaries, a further £75,000 to pay for a head coach and support staff, with the franchise to match at least the £62,500 input per year. There would be a £12,000 cap on an individual’s annual salary.
A five-man board would be formed of three from the franchise, one SRU representative and the head coach, who would be appointed subject to approval from Murrayfield.
Gemmell estimates squads of 35, with the head coaches tasked with assembling them within the budget available. Players contracted to the franchise will not be permitted to play in the amateur set-up below.
There have been fears expressed that the proposed investment underestimates the costs involved, on salaries and also taking in other expenses involved in running a club. Gemmell, pictured, freely admits there is a current lack of consensus on the financial model proposed in the bid document but refutes suggestions it is a significant stumbling block to progress. “Those conversations are ongoing and the figures are not as far away as portrayed. There is a difference but we don’t believe it is insurmountable. It comes back to ‘how do we make this work?’ How does it look in reality? We’re effectively saying to clubs they need a £62,500 investment from them to match what we will be putting in to pay players. We are not naive, there is other money involved, but, in terms of what the top clubs are currently doing and the investment they are putting in, we don’t believe it is significantly different. We know they still need to run an amateur team, with costs associated but I’m also not convinced that they need to be two separate entities. There can be some sharing of resources and therefore cost.
“The financial discussions are critical to the thing working.”
Beyond the aspect of cold, hard cash comes the more intangible element of soul, identity and the question of what happens to those clubs, some of them you would consider “big” in the context of Scottish rugby, left behind in what some may view as an amateur wilderness. Gemmell is adamant that the aim for any who do opt to run a franchise is not to wipe out “150 years of a club’s history”. If the franchise comes from a single club then the badge, colours and identity will remain. There is, though, the question of what, say a Melrose supporter, would rather watch – Melrose v Hawick in the amateur Championship or, for whimsical argument’s sake “Melrose Meerkats v Granite City Oilers” in the Super 6? Dodson has made it clear that the question of who will be interested in watching the games is secondary to the quality of rugby they provide. “Build it and they will come” is his mantra.
In some ways that is fair enough, because rugby below the international level in this country could never claim to be a mass spectator sport. The successful Glasgow side have been an exception of late but even an in-form Edinburgh pro team couldn’t tempt more than just under 5,000 for a big European game last Friday.
As to the question of what happens below the Super 6, Gemmell is bullish in saying that the re-imposition of amateurism, 24 years after it was lifted, is simply following the wishes of most clubs in the country. “We are responding to requests from our member clubs around creating an amateur game,” he said.
“This is about providing opportunities for all clubs to achieve where they see themselves and what they want to be. If they want to be in the Super 6 they can make that decision. If they want to be the best amateur club in Scotland they can make decisions and put structures in place to go for that. If they wish to be a community club, developing opportunities for young players and providing a social aspect then they can do that and not have to be concerned about generating funds to keep their best players because a club down the road at the same level or a level below are enticing them by offering them incentives to go and play.
“Are we saying 100 per cent believe in Super 6 and amateur rugby below that? I can’t sit here and say that’s the case but that is the directive the Council and the Board were given. How it’s going to be policed needs to be worked on. We are going to be saying as a rule of our competition you’re not allowed to [pay players] and you will be signing up to that in the participation statement. We’re not going to run about the country playing cops and robbers but if Club X comes to us and says ‘we believe Club Y are doing this’ then we will investigate that, and there will be consequences for the first time. Whether those be for the three signatories of the participation statement or docking of points.”
Some may view this blanket move as self-protection for the SRU’s Super 6 baby by eliminating any competition for players from a club with means. “I don’t see it that way,” said Gemmell. “I see it as a way of protecting a situation where players are playing at an appropriate level and protecting clubs in an area from losing players to a club that’s willing to pay them.”
Gemmell stressed that a cross-border element to the season will be critical to provide difference from the status quo and drive up standards, not to mention, you would think, to ease the tedium of playing the same five teams over and over. The British & Irish Cup has now folded but the SRU has approached the Welsh union and will also discuss proposals with England and Ireland. Of course, the situation in Wales is volatile at present with threats that the WRU may pull the plug on funding their Premiership clubs and move instead to create regional A teams.
The SRU would naturally like this all to progress smoothly but any observer of Scottish rugby politics down the years would consider that to be optimistic. The benefits for the SRU in having a level of control on what it envisages to be a higher level tier below the fully pro game, which players and coaches can be funnelled into, is fairly obvious. It is now up to clubs to decide in the next two-and-a-half months if they view it to be sufficiently mutually beneficial.
There is no doubting the determination of the powers that be, though, and Dodson has been clear that if the clubs don’t get on board, an outcome that Gemmell’s positive appraisal does not countenance, the union will press on with any other interested parties. As it comes under the performance sector, it won’t be subject to an AGM vote by clubs. Quite simply, Super 6 is coming. How it looks, what impact it has and how the rugby public react to it and its knock-on effects remains to be seen.