DESPITE the lack of heartfelt rancour, uproar or revelation, yesterday’s Scottish Rugby Union annual general meeting was about as constructive as it gets.
Indeed, there were genuinely important decisions made on the vexed subject of league reconstruction, while the thumping majority by which new vice-president Ian Rankin was elected indicated a renewed emphasis on the club game. There was even good news on the financial front.
The figures were trumpeted by chief executive Mark Dodson, with record turnover of £39.3 million, surplus of £900,000 and debt down to £11.2m, the lowest in over a decade. That allowed an extra £1.8m to be ploughed into the pro game, with the SRU investing £20.9m in pro rugby compared to £19.1m last year.
Despite the replacement of national coach Andy Robinson since the last AGM, the parlous form of Edinburgh, the club’s search for a new coach, and the controversy surrounding the staggered appointment of Vern Cotter and Scott Johnson’s move upstairs, this AGM was dominated by club issues. These centred around the vexed issue of league reconstruction, specifically Haddington RFC’s motion to abandon the present pyramid structure for Championship Leagues A and B and move to a linear structure, while also expanding those divisions to 12-club leagues.
The current structure has only been in place for two years and was itself a source of controversy when introduced, so the rearguard from those in favour of the status quo was fierce. Alistair Farquharson from Aberdeenshire RFC suggested that the change was “premature, outrageous and beggars belief” before adding that “this is the tail trying to wag the dog; we all know what’s behind the tail and it’s nasty and smelly”.
Nevertheless, the vote was carried comfortably, leading to 12-team linear leagues from the next season.
The other key vote was the election of Dundee HSFP’s Ian Rankin as SRU vice-president, succeeding Selkirk’s Donald Macleod – who takes over as president. Both men were elected on a manifesto of focusing on club issues, with Rankin’s emphatic victory over Heriot’s Jock Millican and Lenzie’s Archie Ferguson – he was the first vice-president to get a straight majority on the first ballot in living memory – sent out a powerful message.
“I put my head above the parapet because many people out there said they wanted someone closer to the club game,” said Rankin. “It’s the first AGM I’ve come to and you get a sense of how far some people have come to get their point across. The club game is the foundation of our game and we mustn’t ignore that.”
The former professional coach has been vociferous in his demands that Scottish coaches should get more opportunities in professional rugby, a stance he reiterated yesterday.
“I have no problem about the best guys for the job getting it but there’s been a raft of [Scottish] guys who haven’t been given an opportunity. A lot of them have applied for jobs and I’m impressed that they’ll put their heads above the parapet. Scottish coaches can hold their own and just need to have the opportunity and the confidence to be given that chance.”
Macleod left no-one in any doubt that the clubs will have two powerful new voices at the top table. “Ian knows the professional game but his election epitomises the fact that the clubs know that we need to strengthen the coaching structure,” he said. “We need to grow the game and recognise the huge amount of hard work that will be undertaken by club volunteers because it’s the clubs which grow the game, not the SRU. We cannot survive without the professional game because it brings in the money, but my heart lies with the club game, the amateur game.”
To that end he promised that he would ensure the new academy structure will be in place this winter, and promised to push for a full club Six Nations tournament.
Rankin will be vice-president during the Commonwealth Games and revealed that professional players will be released to ensure a competitive Scotland Sevens side. “There is no way we are not going to be throwing everything at a tournament that’s in our own back yard and which could grow the game out of all recognition if we do well,” he said
Rankin will also be president of the SRU in the following year during the World Cup, but dead-batted a question about whether the Scotland team could live up to last year’s AGM pledge to win the next World Cup with a smiling “no comment”.
Macleod was, however, entertainingly forthright when asked whether he believed Scotland could fulfil the other 2012 AGM pledge and win the Grand Slam by 2015. “In 1984 we went out and won the Grand Slam, whereas in 1990 we had a talented group of players but England lost the Grand Slam. Today, we’re like 1984: if we can get the blend right and show enough heart then of course we can win it again.”
It might just be a very interesting year.