Scottish clubs have a tough life in the URC and fans are being forgotten - Allan Massie

It is hardly unkind to suggest that both Edinburgh and Glasgow start this new season more in hope than expectation.

Of course Edinburgh should beat the Dragons this afternoon, and (I write this on Friday morning) Glasgow may have secured what would be a very welcome victory in Treviso – which would be a good start. Nevertheless there is precious little to get excited about, and the fact that none of the three players who made their debut in that match is qualified to play for Scotland doesn’t lighten the spirit.

Life has got tougher for both clubs. Look back a few years and we had an Irish, Scottish, Welsh league – the Pro12 – that made sense, in historical, geographical and rugby terms, though it might have been a poor relation to the French Top14 and the English Premiership. It was reasonable to think that with the right selection and preparation the Scottish clubs could hold their own or indeed do better than that – and indeed Glasgow did win the title once.

Then the two Italian clubs were admitted. So 12 became 14. Frankly the League had little need of them, but, given that Italy was the only one of our Six Nations partners and competitors not to have a League for their two professional clubs, admitting them to what had been often called the Celtic League was generous and sensible even if it made for a still more congested season and more travel. Though both Italian clubs have had their moments, they haven’t in rugby terms added to the strength or popularity of the League. Still it mightn’t, one thought, be long before they did so.

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Now things are very different. The southern hemisphere’s pro club SuperRugby competition, though highly praised for its adventurous high-scoring matches, ran into trouble. A competition with clubs from New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, then Argentina and even eventually Japan was in trouble even before Covid. It was too scattered. It lacked identity and lacked also that desirable feature of rugby, a visiting support mingling with home fans. South Africa became disgruntled, and not only because, with the domestic economy and currency weak, more and more players elected to join European clubs, especially French and English ones. So South African administrators looked North. They might, it was reckoned, hope, even intend, to be accepted into the Six Nations, but, whether this was so or not, forcing their way into a northern hemisphere club league might be a means of getting one foot in the door. Moreover, with a Private Equity firm getting a slice of the action, money began to talk very loudly.

And so we have arrived at where we are today. The Guinness Pro14 is no more. Instead we have the United Rugby Championship (URC) with four South African provinces (all with silly PR favoured and provided names rather than honest provincial ones). A fourteen club league has become an 16 club one, and 16 clubs are too many, given the need to balance club fixtures with international ones. So instead of a clear and easily understood league, we have a conference structure which is murky and not easily understood.

Everything now indicates that money rules and the shots are being called by Ireland, where the league’s head-quarters is based, and South Africa. Given the change this was probably unavoidable. These are the two big battalions. Wales, with its deep and often glorious rugby history and its four professional clubs, should perhaps have more influence than it does, but then Welsh clubs have been much less successful than the national team in the professional era. Meanwhile, Scotland has been pushed further to the margins. Indeed one has the impression that when it comes to decision-making the SRU is not even in the room, but lurking in the corridor waiting to hear what’s to be done, where and when.

As for the poor bloody foot-soldiers, those who love and follow the game, who cares what they think? What matters is not their comfort or convenience, but selling TV rights; that’s where the money is. In this connection one must again – yet again – remark that while free-to-air coverage of home matches is provided in Ulster by BBC Northern Ireland, in Wales by BBC Wales (and SC4), there is no such thing available here, the SRU, so ready to trumpet its commercial successes, having once again failed to do a deal with BBC Scotland, or indeed STV or Border TV. Who cares? Only the fans. And who cares what they think?

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The United Rugby Championship replaced the old Pro14 at the start of the 2021-22 season. (Photo by Ross MacDonald / SNS Group)
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