DAYS after the most depressing Murrayfield experience since Scotland were beaten 44-0 by the Springboks in 1951 during an 18-match losing streak, the well-heeled Edinburgh suburb of Stockbridge in mid-February seems like a strangely appropriate place to search for the answer to the deep malaise that has swept over Scottish rugby. After all, as we wait at Raeburn Place for the arrival of Aberdeen Grammar, the atmosphere is overcast with sudden squalls. The place is inescapably dog-eared and with its comically small stand and Portacabins is crying out for a root-and-branch overhaul. This is the home of international rugby, a venue of past glories and current decreptitude, a ground which was once at the centre of the rugby world but which is now undeniably peripheral. Just to emphasise the point, the Aberdonians arrive and then promptly declare the wet but playable pitch unplayable. It’s a false start. The similarities with the national side are everywhere and inescapable.
However, there is one major difference between the owners of Raeburn Place, Edinburgh Accies, and the mandarins up the road at Murrayfield. Accies have an ambitious but achievable plan to restore the club’s lustre, a scheme that all of its members have bought into. By contrast, while everyone in Scottish rugby would love to swallow the Scottish Rugby Union’s wishful thinking – at its AGM in 2012 chief executive Mark Dodson unveiled a four-year plan whose pledges included winning next year’s World Cup (an aim he reiterated on Friday) and winning the Six Nations by 2016 – you’d need a time capsule to actually locate anyone of sane mind who thinks our high heidyins have hatched an achievable or sensible way ahead.
Certainly the mood at the grass roots is black, with no appetite for the SRU’s faux targets. The chat in the bar at Raeburn Place and surrounding pubs is still dominated by Scotland’s appalling Calcutta Cup showing, with the suppressed apoplexy laced with gallows humour. Most of the verdicts on the Calcutta debacle are unprintable, but “embarrassing”, “depressing” and “heartless” all feature prominently. But once the bile has been expended, there’s a widespread acceptance that this is not merely a blip, that Scotland’s decline since the advent of professionalism has been profound, ongoing and systemic. The only question is whether this downward spiral is one that can be reversed or whether, as one English hack suggested, Scotland will eventually become so uncompetitive that it’s only a matter of time before they are ejected from the Six Nations.
“The England game will come to be seen as a watershed and as a catalyst for real change in Scottish rugby,” says Accies’ director of rugby Bob Easson. “Redeveloping Raeburn Place and bringing club rugby closer to the professional sides is one possible blueprint for rejuvenation. We’re building from the grass-roots up, not the top down. Our seven-year plan is about becoming a high-performance club that is ready to play at the highest level available to us, whatever that is.”
Accies’ plan is more ambitious than many realise. They believe that the £12.9 million redevelopment of Raeburn Place and the installation of a stand that can seat 2,500 and another 2,500 standing will provide the means to fund a semi-professional side with the ability to either support the pro-teams or to step up to the plate and become one of the frontline sides should the RaboDirect Pro12 implode, so that Scotland has no choice but to fall back on a domestic league.
“The world has changed from 20 years ago, and we can’t put the genie back in the bottle,” says Frank Spratt, the club’s executive chairman. “We can’t stay amateur when the rest of the rugby world has gone pro. Last Saturday was 20 years of chickens coming home to roost and if we want to save our game then we have to start now because it could take another 20 years to catch up.
“We believe it is realistic to have a professional or semi-professional league, and we’re planning to be part of that. We’ve proved that people are prepared to put their hands into their pockets and put money into a club as long as they don’t think they’re throwing it into a black hole. We’ve looked at clubs south of the Border and have used their example to build a sustainable strategy where we do things on the other 350 days a year to support the 15 match days, not the other way around. We’re also focused on working on our junior section, because it may well be that the next generation which is truly competitive is the one that’s coming through our minis right now.”
Accies’ plan has been years in the making, but their desire for a change in the status quo is certainly reflective of the mood of the country since last weekend. As well as the irate rants of the Twittersphere, there’s also a more focused momentum for change, with a Facebook page called “Change for Scottish Rugby”, which was set up by 25-year-old Borderer Ross Forsyth, now boasting well over 5,000 “likes” for its aim of “changing the awful governance of Scottish rugby”.
While it’s easy to blame the SRU, it’s also fair to say that those at Raeburn Place are puzzled by the behaviour of the governing body towards this highly symbolic opportunity to kick-start a renewal of the game’s grassrooots. Although no one from the club would ever say so publicly, the Union’s refusal to wholeheartedly support Accies’ redevelopment plans sticks in the craw. “You’ve got a genuinely ambitious and dynamic club occupying one of the game’s iconic locations and trying to persuade people to stump up millions for the good of Scottish rugby, and the SRU seemed to be more worried about offending a few nimbys in Stockbridge than really exploiting this opportunity,” said one backer of the redevelopment.
Others believe that the only people who can rejuvenate Scottish rugby are its clubs. “Our current governance structure simply doesn’t work and the SRU is not fit for purpose,” says outspoken ex-Scotland lock and former Accies coach Ian Barnes. “The Rabo and the Heineken Cup will eventually implode – which will be a good thing – so we need to look to our clubs. We need a 12 or 16-club domestic league with a good geographical spread, which is entirely possible because we already have 80 professional rugby players in Scotland. Let those players who want to go to England and France go, as they already are, and have a league of professional and semi-professional players who are connected to communities throughout Scotland. We need a complete overhaul of our rugby culture if things are ever to change.”
As I’m leaving Raeburn Place I tell one supporter that I’m doing an article on the woes of Scottish rugby and what can be done to fix them. “That’s not an article, that’s a bloody great book the size of War And Peace but written by a horror writer like Stephen King,” he said. He wasn’t laughing though, and nor is anyone else.