Scottish Super League plan to raise rugby quality

Melrose, black, play Ayr in the Premiership. Both clubs could feature in a Super League. Picture: Robert Perry
Melrose, black, play Ayr in the Premiership. Both clubs could feature in a Super League. Picture: Robert Perry
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THE Scottish Rugby Union has unveiled radical plans to overhaul the way that the game below full-time professional level is organised.

The most eye-catching proposal is a plan to create a semi-professional, eight-team “Scottish Super League” which will bridge the gap between the current Premiership clubs and the professional game.

The intention is to raise standards across the board, with five key areas – academies, coaching pathways, clubs, schools and the women’s game – identified as being in need of attention.

Other proposals include a new academy structure made up of four regional centres and a plan for a fully-funded high-performance coaching pathway to allow more Scottish coaches to reach the professional ranks.

The policy initiatives have been approved by both the Board and the Council of the SRU after input from independent management consultants Collinson Grant.

At a Murrayfield meeting on Wednesday night, SRU chief

executive Mark Dodson presented a paper outlining the proposals to representatives from the nation’s top 40 clubs, as well as

women’s rugby and referees. The consensus of that meeting appears to have been cautiously positive, although there is clearly a long way to go before the plans become reality – with the issue of finance a key concern.

The first page of the document stated: “These proposals, if implemented fully, would represent a significant additional annual investment on the part of SRU, for which funding has not yet been fully sourced.

“Implementation is therefore, in some cases, subject to additional funding being secured. Further discussion with government, local authorities and interested parties, will commence in the early part of 2014.

“Wherever possible existing resources will also be reorganised and allocated to assist in making a start, including a phased approach, as soon as possible and in some cases for the 2014/15 season.”

The proposal for a Scottish Super League is almost certain to be the most contentious and any debate on league reconstruction at an SRU annual general meeting would risk turning into an unseemly squabble.

The SRU will be hoping that the clubs who are not likely to be involved in the new semi-professional tier are able to reach a decision based on what is best for the whole of Scottish rugby and not just their own constituency.

According to the document, the SRU would fund an elite game group (EGG) of clubs who would use some contracted semi-professional players (who will also provide coaching). EGG clubs would remain self-governing and autonomous but would enter an “extended participation agreement that recognises the close relationship with the SRU and its investment in them”.

The eight clubs would play 22 fixtures including play-off matches and cross-border games in the British and Irish Cup. Relegation from and promotion to the Super League would be through a play-off between the bottom team in the division and the top team in the National League.

Clubs in the Super League will have to meet a range pre-agreed criteria which are likely to include having competitive A, under-18, under-16 and women’s teams.

The SRU hope to have the new league structure in place by the beginning of the 2015-16 season. It would be preferable to have an even geographic spread of clubs in the top flight, but introducing a protocol that explicitly legislates for this is bound to be fraught with difficulties.

The new academies would continue to be owned and operated by the SRU, with an executive coach as head of each, reporting to Director of Rugby Scott Johnson, currently the interim national team head coach and who was not at Wednesday’s meeting because he was attending a Rugby World Cup venues meeting.

The four regional centres will be located in Caledonia (north of the Forth), Border and East Lothian, Edinburgh, and Glasgow and West. The specific locations of the bases have yet to be identified.

The would be split into three stages, starting with skills camps for 1600 youngsters in the under-14 and under-15 age grades, from which 40 new academy entrants will be selected. Between under-16 and under-20 age-grades there will be a total of 120 players working in the four regional centres. The final stage will replace the current Elite Development Programme with 32 Academy members moving onto professional contracts based at Glasgow Warriors and Edinburgh Rugby.

Academy teams will play regular representative fixtures at home and internationally, while members wil also be expected to play regular school and club games.

The first Academy will be established in the 2014-15 financial year with others following as and when “proof and concept of infrastructure are established”.

The issue of native coaches getting opportunities in the professional game has been a hot topic in recent seasons, hence the proposals for a high performance development path.

The programme will be overseen by the academy heads, with two enrolments each year making a total of four coaches within the programme when operating to full capacity. Coaches will also take part in an academic course at Stirling University.

The SRU believes that the fact that only 57 out of 340 state schools in Scotland currently offer extra-curricular rugby illustrates the need for a pro-active plan to reinvigorate the game at that level.

The existing “Schools of Rugby” scheme, which provides schools with a package of resources to enable more staff to deliver rugby programmes, will be expanded from 26 members to 60. The terms of membership will also be made more rigorous so that rugby is more central to the everyday life of participating pupils.

A further “Super” School of Rugby is also planned, which would increase the time that pupils give to sport in general and rugby in particular through funding for extra staff time. In the long term, the SRU want a new tier to the schools structure with a limited number of schools directly linked to the Academy so that promising pupils can be fast-tracked.

Finally, the SRU have pledged to increase annual investment in the women’s game with a further review in two years’ time. A new body, the Scottish Women’s Rugby Advisory Board (SWRAB), while a new Head of Women’s Rugby will report to Johnson. Financial incentives will encourage clubs to have women’s teams, and a pathway for developing talent is to be set up based around the new academies. The fixtures for the Scotland women’s side will be carefully managed and aligned with the relative competitiveness of the team.