Allan Massie: Vital that South Africans add stiff competition

It's been a summer for action off the field, in committee rooms and on the surgeon's table. Nothing remarkable about that, but some may think it would be nice if we had a period of settled calm.

Allan Massie says the new structure looks a little 'odd'. Picture: Alastair Watson.
Allan Massie says the new structure looks a little 'odd'. Picture: Alastair Watson.

It’s only a year since the
European Cup structure
was revised, and now the
ever-changing Guinness Pro12 appears to have become the Pro14 with the admission of two South African clubs. This would have seemed improbable, even daft, only a few years ago. One remembers, after all, with what difficulty the original Celtic league with clubs from Ireland, Scotland and Wales was put together.

The structure, with its two conferences, and other matches tacked on subsequently, looks pretty odd to me. I suspect that the conference idea always appeals more to the game’s bureaucrats than to fans, who tend to find it a bit baffling. Nevertheless, everyone seems to agree that the league was much in need of new money – much more money – if the clubs were to compete on anything but very unequal terms with the much richer French and English ones.

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The South Africans are bringing that money, some of it at least, though obviously travelling to South Africa is going to add to the costs of the clubs. The Cheetahs and the Southern Kings have been among the weakest Super Rugby clubs, but we must hope they have been strengthened and will be competitive. As Tom English has remarked, the league really doesn’t need two more weak clubs. In which context, an improvement from Treviso and Zebre would be a good thing.

One mustn’t exaggerate. Every league – in football as well as rugby – has its disparities. Indeed the richer the league, the greater the disparities tend to be. Though Leicester City won the English (football) Premiership, this was generally recognised as a delightful fluke. More usually, there are only four or five teams with a hope of ending the season on top – which leaves 15 also rans. Unlike the 
English one, the Scottish Premiership isn’t overflowing with money. Nevertheless, nobody expects Ross County or Hibs to finish this Scottish football season ahead of Celtic. In fact, the Guinness Pro12 has been very competitive at the top. This time last year few would have backed the Scarlets to win it – and even fewer Connacht the year before.

Meanwhile, the SRU has come up with its latest suggestion for a semi-pro league (of only six clubs). The report says it plans to put £100,000 into each club. Given the cost of a truly professional club, semi-pro seems an overstatement; ten per cent, or even five per cent pro a more realistic description. Sounds more like the old boot-money to me.

Actually the term “semi-pro” has always puzzled me. Part-time pro might be more accurate. There’s nothing wrong with that. Most footballers, in Scotland anyway, used to be part-time. That’s to say, they were professionals, in that they were paid for playing football, but many, even most, had another job, which in some cases would have paid them more than they earned from football.

The Aberdeen team which I used to watch as a boy included a dentist, PE teachers and a journalist, while the great George Hamilton had a newsagent’s shop in Rosemount and could, I believe, be found behind the counter before or after his day’s football training. As late as the 1960s, one of 
Celtic’s Lisbon Lions, Jim Craig, doubled as a dentist.

No doubt the so-called semi-pro league – if it is approved at the SRU agm – will concentrate talent and provide a bridge for some of the many talented young players we are now producing. But any players beyond university or college age who turn out for these “semi-pro” clubs are going to need a job outside the game, and the same may well be true of coaches.

This will surely be the case unless the semi-pro clubs find benevolent investors – though here again the word “investor” is a misnomer, since anyone putting money into semi-pro rugby is not likely to see a financial return. Of course that’s true of the very rich men who finance English and French clubs; they are benefactors rather than investors, rewarded with pleasure and perhaps glory, rather than profit or hard cash.