Comment: SRU does the hokey cokey over London Scottish

As Winston Churchill probably didn't say, America always does the right thing but only after exhausting all other possibilities. So, just two weeks after walking away from the deal they had forged with London Scottish, the Scottish Rugby Union is jumping into bed with the exile club once again like an excitable newlywed.

Scottish Rugby Union chief executive Mark Dodson performed a U-turn on the London Scottish deal. Picture: Lisa Ferguson

The latest deal will see up to eight rather than 14 young players sent south from Murrayfield to turn out for London Scottish in England’s second tier Championship next season, with Sean Lineen co-opted as a part-time director of rugby. The London Scots may conclude the new deal is better than a slap in the face given they were left in the lurch when the SRU withdrew its workforce two weeks ago, leaving the club scrambling around to find adequate replacements.

This extraordinary hokey cokey by the SRU has occurred despite them releasing a statement on 30 May insisting that the “performance environment in place was not sufficiently developed” at London Scottish.

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Admittedly the ramshackle Richmond Athletic Ground that London Scottish call home is due for demolition but the “performance environment” the SRU complained about was the one that had been put in place by… er, the SRU in January. According to the original agreement, Lineen would be retained as director of rugby, Roddy Grant as forwards coach, some medical backing was agreed in the form of a physiotherapist and 14 Edinburgh and Glasgow players would join up with London Scottish who would have the use of the upmarket Lensbury Club, with the cost of the facility split 50/50 between club and union.

But almost every statement from Murrayfield these days needs to be treated like Pravda propaganda and, whatever SRU chief executive Mark Dodson, pictured, may claim, nothing of substance has changed in two weeks.

The press release heralding yesterday’s news was a case in point with the SRU claiming benevolence and wisdom while, and this is the Orwellian bit, London Scottish issued a mea culpa. Rod Lynch, the club’s president, was quoted as expressing his “regret that our recent statements and media coverage of them may have cast a cloud over such an exciting opportunity”. Lynch was also “grateful that Scottish Rugby was still willing to continue a dialogue with us”.

This after the SRU ended the original deal amid an unsubstantiated report that the decision was motivated by concerns “about the business model and commercial viability” of London Scottish.

London Scottish officials were not returning calls yesterday which could be open to the interpretation by some that they have been blackmailed or bullied into silence.

The question as to why the SRU did the hokey cokey is a cloudy one but one thing we can say with certainty is that former SRU chairman David Mackay had a hand in matters. He is now president of the “Friends of Scottish Rugby” and Mackay acted as an honest broker between club and union, getting them around a metaphorical table.

The rest of the story is lot more opaque and, whatever the diplomatic skills of Mackay, you suspect that something else has been going on behind the scenes for Dodson to make such a humiliating climbdown.

It is possible that the chief executive of Scottish Rugby quietly contemplated his actions after the initial decision and arrived at the same conclusion as almost everyone else… that he had acted a little rashly.

Alternatively the London Scottish chairman Sir David Reid may have picked up the phone to his old friend Sir Moir Lockhead, the SRU chairman, and, following what was sure to be an animated conversation, Sir Moir may have kicked his chief executive in the pants.

There was also the small matter of the lease on the Lensbury Club, with a three-year contract already in place, albeit with the possibility of a one-year break clause. Dodson may have reasoned that, if the cash strapped SRU was shelling out £54,000 per annum for the use of the Lensbury facilities, London Scottish matching that sum, someone had better use them or he’d look petty as well as petulant. It may not have been a coincidence that Dodson stated the deal was for 12 months.

The whole omnishambles will have long-term repercussions, not least for the chief executive. Much of what the Mancunian has achieved in five eventful years at Murrayfield is admirable. Most notably, he brokered the BT deal which saw the communications giant pay a reported £20 million for the naming rights to Murrayfield. But the good work is undermined by an impetuous streak; this is the third time Dodson has drawn a line in the sand only to effect a reverse ferret when his feet are held to the fire.

Firstly he backed David Davies after revelations that the former Edinburgh Rugby managing director had alienated the playing squad with his high-handed sacking of the club’s long serving manager Lynsey Dingwall. It wasn’t until five weeks after the story broke that Dodson bowed to the inevitable and Davies left the club.

One year ago Dodson was about to pull the plug on the Scotland Sevens squad. The players were told to take any contract they could get their hands on as there was no money set aside for the short game in the original 2015-16 budget. When a brouhaha kicked up Dodson again effected a hand brake turn because the Board voted unanimously to keep the Sevens squad… and they were handsomely rewarded with a tournament win at last month’s London Sevens at Twickenham.

Now Dodson has reacted to the backlash from his decision to walk away from London Scottish by clutching them to his bosom, at least for the time being.

It is a sign of strength when the boss displays the flexibility required to change his mind but Dodson is getting the big calls wrong far too often for comfort. Sir Moir Lockhead has one year of his term as chairman of the SRU remaining and you wonder whether he will grasp this particular nettle or dump the problem in his successor’s lap?