SRU faces tough task to convince clubs of semi-pro plan

Leading clubs like Melrose and Ayr will listen to the SRU's plan with interest.
Leading clubs like Melrose and Ayr will listen to the SRU's plan with interest.
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The SRU faces a challenge to convince clubs over reported plans for a six-franchise semi-pro league which would represent a huge shake-up of Scottish rugby.

Reports emerged over the weekend of proposals for union investment of at least £100,000 annually in each of the “franchises” over the first five years from season 2019-20, a total of over £3million.

Chief executive Mark Dodson will provide more information on the strategy at Saturday’s SRU AGM at BT Murrayfield.

The six teams would contest a league, with play-offs to follow.

There is likely to be one team based in Glasgow, one in Edinburgh, one in the Borders and one in the North and Midlands district, plus two others.

While there is definite interest from some leading clubs, The Scotsman understands that there is also a good deal of scepticism from other quarters after the idea was first floated at Premiership Forums, and many await with interest further clarity from the union on Saturday.

Currently, the Scottish club structure has ten-team top-tier BT Premiership, which is effectively semi-pro already, with a draft of Glasgow and Edinburgh players also made available to the clubs.

The concept of an eight-team semi-pro club league was raised a few years ago but these new reported plans go further in the long sought for bid to bridge the wide gap from the club to professional game.

That chasm has been the ever present elephant in the room for Scottish rugby as the professional era has progressed, with the fact Scotland only has two pro clubs putting it at a distinct disadvantage compared to other leading rugby nations.

Scotland Under-20s achieved a best ever fifth-place finish at this summer’s junior World Cup, with many of the squad part of the BT Academy system, which is heading into its third season. The question has always been where these young prospects can progress their careers within the Scottish system if not yet ready for the Glasgow Warriors
or Edinburgh first teams. Various schemes have been undertaken, including a link-up with London Scottish, the deal to send Edinburgh lock Lewis Carmichael to Australia to play for Western Force in Super Rugby and the recently revealed partnership with French fourth-tier club Stade Nicois.

It is expected that the presentation at Saturday’s AGM, which follows input from external consultants, will seek to explain the broader joined-up strategy behind all these elements, including the semi-pro league plan.

The six franchises would need to meet criteria, including quality of facilities and enter a partnership agreement with the SRU.

Meanwhile, there could be more clarity in the professional tier today with rumours circulating yesterday that the now Guinness Pro14 could be set to give details of this 
season’s structure and the inclusion of South African sides Cheetahs and Kings.

It is expected that the 2017-18 championship will be split into two conferences of seven, with Glasgow and Edinburgh in separate sections but still facing each other during the season.

One big name set to be involved in the new-look Pro14 is Wales and Lions full-back Leigh Halfpenny, who is reported to be on the verge of a move to champions Scarlets, in a deal partly funded by the WRU.

Halfpenny is out of contract after spending three seasons with French club Toulon.

It was expected that the 28-year-old would stay in France but last month Toulon owner Mourad Boudjellal said that his contract would not be renewed because he had missed too many games through injuries and international commitments.

Halfpenny previously played for Cardiff Blues.