The year ahead promises to be an interesting one for rugby. The best two teams in world rugby will meet for the first time since 2014 and either New Zealand or England will get a huge boost one year out from the 2019 Rugby World Cup.
Closer to home Scotland fans will see whether the undoubted promise of the autumn can be translated into something substantial in the spotlight of the Six Nations, where it is devilishly difficult to win. And the top echelon of the club game in Scotland may undergo the biggest shake-up it has ever experienced bar none with the awarding of the “Super Six” franchises.
Applicants must have their paperwork in order by March, the selection will be made in April, presuming they have enough candidates, and the announcement of the teams is scheduled for 1 May.
Here are the basic details of Murrayfield’s proposal:
1 Every franchise will have an executive board of five, three of whom will be appointed by the club. One of these comes from Scottish Rugby and the final member is the coach, chosen by the other four members but “subject to the agreement of” Murrayfield’s director of rugby Scott Johnson. The board makes decisions on the franchise but not the underlying club.
2 Scottish Rugby will support each franchise financially with £75,000, which is earmarked for coaches and support staff, plus £62,500 which is a contribution towards players’ wages. The franchise is required to contribute £62,500 which gives a minimum players’ wage bill of £125,000 per annum. The Union is in a hole for £137,000 per annum or a total spend of £822,000 over the six franchises.
3 The franchise is expected to contract a total of 35 players with a cap of £12,000 being spent on any one player. If a player is injured such that they would miss one third of the season that player can have his contract ended at the discretion of the franchise coach.
4 The Super Six season is expected to last 20 matches, which will entail five games home and five away against the other franchises plus play-off matches plus other unspecified cross-border games.
5 The head coach is responsible for building the 35-strong squad of players but they must “keep the confidence” of Scott Johnson.
6 Full time professionals will be made available to the franchises on occasion. An open ballot will determine who goes where in the first year, three franchises will be aligned to Edinburgh, three to Glasgow, and after that there will be a draft system favouring the weaker franchises.
7 Each franchise is expected to align themselves with a university or college.
8 The Super Six is expected to start in the season after next, 2019/20.
There is a lot to digest and, like a good many others, Melrose’s long-serving director of rugby Mike Dalgetty is still chewing on the small print. Melrose are one of the leading lights in club rugby, unbeaten in 12 matches this season with a strong history of producing both players and coaches. They have the most to lose if the Super Six fails.
“We are still considering our position,” said Dalgetty last week. “There is a lot to think about because these are massive changes. We have aired some concerns with the Union. Melrose Rugby have been here for a long time and while we are not against change for the sake of it, whatever comes next must offer something better than what we already have or it isn’t worth doing.
“We are an ambitious club but this initiative isn’t being driven by Melrose, it came from Murrayfield. The financial requirements are quite taxing and that is high on my list of concerns. No matter how good an idea is, if the numbers don’t add up then it simply won’t work.”
Dalgetty points out that the recent Melrose-Gala match on Boxing Day attracted something like 1,500 fans, which is good going even if some of that number were advised to step away from the turkey for their own health.
As the Melrose man points out more than once, his club have a model that works pretty well for them and whatever decision they make he promises to ensure the club’s supporters are on-side.
While some declare the Premier League is ‘not fit for purpose’, that begs the question as to whose purpose.
Ambitious clubs like Melrose want to be part of the ‘elite’ game and, as Dalgetty suggests, they do produce “bloody good players”. However, 95 per cent of Scottish rugby is community based and there may be an element of tail wagging dog with the club game being co-opted to shore up Scotland’s professional rugby – but at what cost?
An eight-team Premier League with £100,000 of central funding, half for players, half for support staff, would achieve many of Murrayfield’s goals without causing potential chaos to the club community and undermining the identity of the existing clubs who already have sponsors, supporters, players and everything else that establishes their identity in place.
Peter Wright is another club stalwart, currently coaching at Boroughmuir, and he believes that the tabled proposals would be good for the professional arm of the game but potentially ruinous for the amateur game below.
“You have already taken something like 100 of the best players out of club rugby (for the pro-teams) and now they want to take the next best 210 players out,” he says, because franchise players will not be allowed to drop down to club level.
Wright adds: “If we lost a lot of players to a franchise then a club like Boroughmuir will go to the local junior clubs and recruit players from there which will have a devastating knock-on effect.
“Clubs are already struggling just to survive and this would be another nail in the coffin of club rugby.”