Iain Morrison: Murrayfield arrogance leads to calls for change

Scottish Rugby Chief Executive Mark Dodson at its Annual General Meeting. Picture: Paul Devlin/SNS/SRU
Scottish Rugby Chief Executive Mark Dodson at its Annual General Meeting. Picture: Paul Devlin/SNS/SRU
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In the early months of 2015, when David Davies was in the final act as Edinburgh Rugby’s managing director, he sacked the club’s popular manager, Lynsey Dingwall, much to the fury of the players.

Davies had alienated the Edinburgh players and, when they complained to Scottish Rugby chief executive Mark Dodson, the man who had appointed Davies, he was less than sympathetic.

So Edinburgh’s senior players reached out to the then president of the SRU, Ian Rankin.

According to one intermediary – who, to be fair, was not actually present at the meeting – when Dodson discovered that the players had gone over his head he called them together and tore into them using language that would have shamed a navvy and underlining that there was only one boss… him.

Last week, the outcome of an industrial tribunal brought by former director of domestic rugby Keith Russell, father of Scotland stand-off Finn, following his dismissal in May 2017, revealed accusations against Dodson which cast him and his management style in a poor light. And the fallout from Dodson’s sacking of Russell from his post – and the latter’s successful unfair dismissal case – will be widespread. The Scottish Rugby Council held a meeting last Friday evening and they will release a statement either today or tomorrow on the whole sorry business, with the possibility of an apology from someone.

Everyone is tight-lipped on its exact contents but the statement is likely to reiterate the council’s place in the governance hierarchy. Sheriff Bill Dunlop’s 2005 recommendations require the council to oversee the actions of the board, something which Dodson, if Russell is to be believed, made strenuous efforts to avoid.

“I have advocated for some time now a root-and-branch review of our game,” said former Scotland Rugby president Eddie Crozier, a dyed-in-the-wool club man, ex-referee and well-kent character. “A modern updated Dunlop-type sub-committee, which the executive arm within Murrayfield are consulted on but don’t form any part of the official body.

“This group should be chaired by a wholly independent, respected individual, who has no axe to grind and he or she will be tasked with arriving at modern, fit-for-purpose and balanced governance structure.

“The fundamental impression is that the executive consult [the clubs/council] only after a decision is reached and public relations work with the clubs has to be undertaken to alter this impression.

“The balance of power has moved too far from that advocated by Sheriff Bill Dunlop and some sort of realignment needs to take place. The clubs are the stakeholders /shareholders, we employ the executive and appoint them... not the other way about.”

Crozier goes on to argue that the minutes of the board and council meetings should be published on Scottish Rugby’s website with any commercially sensitive information redacted. Any additional openness and accountability from Murrayfield is to be encouraged and governance is under constant review but perhaps the Dunlop report is sufficiently robust. It stated: “We believe that effective governance can only be secured if one body is given the authority to run the business of the SRU subject only to its accountability to the major stakeholders in the Scottish game. These stakeholders are principally the clubs, but also include other interested groups.”

It’s a narrow path to negotiate, leaving the executive to run the business while still fulfilling the oversight role. The imbalance that Crozier and Keith Russell both allude to comes down to the main characters in the drama. If the president is strong then the chief executive is under effective scrutiny. If the chief executive is an overpowering character then the clubs/council can be sidelined.

You already know what type of boss runs Murrayfield.

Reading through the tribunal ruling on the Russell case the most worrying aspect of the findings was not the flouting of employment laws in showing Russell the exit but what occurred earlier in the chain of events when Dodson mentioned that one of Russell’s line managers could be difficult and then said, “we can get rid of him”... like Murrayfield’s answer to Tony Soprano.

I am not the first to note this but there is an arrogance running through the upper echelons of Murrayfield executives that sits ill with their public role as the governing body of the game in Scotland. They should be as open and accessible as possible when instead they seem to proffer as little information as they can.

“Dodson’s problem is that he can’t compromise,” said one insider last week. “He sees that as a weakness.”

Another Murrayfield insider simply suggested that any effective chief executive is by nature a bit of a bully, echoing an American survey in 2016 that infamously stated that one in five of the breed displayed clinically significant levels of psychopathic traits which could have a toxic impact on colleagues.

Even his critics concede that Dodson has done a good overall job with Scottish Rugby after the old committee structure almost bankrupted the place. He has made good use of an upsurge of interest in the sport to carry Scottish rugby to new heights, with the national team, pro-teams and age-grade sides more successful than at any time in the professional era.

But the whole brouhaha of trying to buy Worcester Warriors, a business losing £4 million per annum within a league losing £30m per annum, suggests that Dodson has jumped the shark. At what time, you wonder, was that decision placed before the council?

There have been rumours of disquiet seeping from Murrayfield like Chinese whispers for some time. One former employee wrote about a “network of bullies”. Employees have been sacked and their silence bought and while a “non disclosure” clause may be common practice in business circles, why is a public body like Murrayfield utilising the tactic to stop whistleblowers?

There is talk of a vote of no confidence, although that seems unlikely, questions remain over Super Six funding and the clubs are particularly exercised by the extraordinary five-year extension to Dodson’s contract. But, in the end, these things almost always boil down to personalities and it’s not obvious who within the council or the clubs has the stomach for a fight. Dodson has a five-year contract and looks set to stay unless, of course, he was to land the Six Nations’ post recently vacated by former chief executive John Feehan...