SRU Chief Mark Dodson defends overseas policy

Mark Dodson retains his belief that Scottish rugby is heading in the right direction. Picture: Jane Barlow
Mark Dodson retains his belief that Scottish rugby is heading in the right direction. Picture: Jane Barlow
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MARK Dodson held multiple press briefings, eight in all yesterday, which must have taken up most of the day for a man who has plenty of others things to keep him busy.

The current boss of Scottish rugby likes a scrap. He is something of a bare-knuckle brawler and comes out swinging from the start, robust in his defence of the policies he has pursued, from Alan Solomons signing a legion of foreign players to handing Scott Johnson the director of rugby post without even advertising it, poor business practice even if the Australian turned out to be the strongest candidate.

It causes grumbling at grassroots level, the fact that there is a lack of Scottish voices at the top of Scottish rugby. When coaches or players are hired the foreigner naturally looks to people he knows best and they are rarely Scottish. The Australian Johnson hires the South African Solomons who, in turn, hires a raft of fellow countrymen simply because he knows them. Surely we need Scottish solutions to Scottish problems?

“It’s a global sport we’re involved in, we play in a domestic, European and global context,” is Dodson’s first line of attack.

“If you look at the Irish example, they have just employed a DOR [director of rugby] who is Australian, four of their provincial sides are coached by three New Zealanders and an Australian. They have a New Zealand head coach and, I think, Australian assistants, so this is not something that is a Scottish issue alone.

“There is a full Scottish board and a full Scottish council in Scotland. As chief executive I report into them and they have oversight over what I do.”

Off-field activities are all falling into place – the RaboDirect has survived to play another season or two, while a new European accord will be announced in the next few days – but when it comes to the rugby side of the ledger it is not so healthy.

Dodson talks about pouring “sizeable amounts of money” into the four new regional academies in the hope that they will “revolutionise” youth development, helped by increasing the schools of rugby from 26 to 40.

He also promises a “fundamental reassessment” of the women’s game. Dodson promises missionary work in new schools, broadening the player base even if it is unlikely to have much impact on Scotland’s under-performing age-grade teams, at least in the short term.

Something needs to change. In his three years as chief executive, the senior women, national men and under-20 teams have managed a total of six wins in 45 Six Nations matches.

“The Six Nations was disappointing,” Dodson concedes. “I think that the England game was a catalyst for disappointment, it was the manner of that defeat that upset our fans and a number of stakeholders.

“Then we beat Italy away in a difficult place to win and then we should have beaten France here. Then we fell into the Welsh game where we lost our captain after seven minutes and we lost our main strike runner [Stuart Hogg] after 18 minutes and we were on the end of a convincing defeat in the Millennium Stadium.

“So in total, quite clearly the Six Nations was a disappointing period for us. We are working hard now to reflect upon that, learn lessons from it and also make sure that the next series of tournaments we play in, the summer tour, the autumn Tests and the Six Nations, are all well planned, well thought through, and our new coach will take us through into that new era.”

While most pundits are convinced new national coach, Kiwi Vern Cotter, will be a force for the good, the effect Solomons is having on Edinburgh is hotly contested. The South African has signed a raft of new players, yet Edinburgh somehow still lose to Treviso. Meanwhile, several Scottish players have been allowed or encouraged to move elsewhere including Greig Laidlaw, Ross Rennie and, most recently, the stand-off Harry Leonard.

“What I can tell you is that Alan Solomons has a clear role and responsibility because what he was charged to do was to make Edinburgh a competitive club, not just a team,” counters Dodson.

“To do that he has to do two jobs at once. One is to make the team as competitive as it can be, especially with this new European context, that it can be successful, that the fans have got something to go watch and see a team developing. And secondly, to bring through the next generation of Scottish talent, and we’ve signed all the best Scottish talent that we can lay our hands on at that level of coming into the two pro teams: Chris Deans, Dougie Fife, Sean Kennedy, Sam Hidalgo-Clyne. We’ve recaptured David Denton, Matthew Scott, Grant Gilchrist – these players are going to form the centre of the Scottish team for the next five years.

“On top of that we have brought in experienced players who are competitive, hard-nosed and played in a very hard league. The reason there are lots of South Africans there is two-fold. Alan knows the market extremely well, and secondly, they tend to be in large numbers and also available to afford. If you want the top end of English, Australian and French players they are out of our budget constraints.”

We argue about what constitutes “top end”, with many of Edinburgh’s recruits more used to club rugby than the “Super” version. Mike Coman looks a decent signing but is the Kiwi flanker better than Rennie and does Carl Bezuidenhout offer more than London Scottish stand-off Lee Millar? Or is it just that Solomons knows the South African better than he does the Scottish player?

“What you will see is a peak of foreign talent coming into the team this year and next year, and after that it will decline when Scottish talent comes through,” says Dodson. But the same man said the same thing to me two years ago.

“When we signed the talent that we signed last time, under the coaching group we had then, it didn’t materialise, the quality didn’t come through either the foreign signings that we made or the young Scots coming through,” he counters. “The Scots that came through when I spoke to you two years ago are moving on to pastures new, they are going on to the English Championship. They are going to other parts of the rugby world because they were not able to establish themselves in the Edinburgh team.”

Dodson is right about that much, the fact that a good few Scots failed to make the grade because they simply weren’t good enough. It’s a problem – arguably the biggest issue in Scottish rugby – and it is rarely mentioned for fear of offence. The country does not produce a vast surplus of outstanding talent. Tom Smith remains the last player to start a Test for the Lions and that was 13 years ago.

Whatever you think of Solomons’ foreign legion, and the Scottish Rugby Union insists that Edinburgh have just two “project players” (WP Nel and Cornel du Preez) who have been signed with one eye on the national squad, too many Scots have failed at the professional level and there aren’t hordes in the club game demanding a professional contract.

Food for thought given the current enthusiasm for the Caley Reds, who are being re-constituted for two upcoming charity matches. Surely we need a smidgen of success at Edinburgh or Glasgow before anyone with a spare £35 million even thinks of pitching the Caley standard in Aberdeen or Perth.