SRU’s Mark Dodson weighs up plan to expand Pro14 to 18 teams

Chief executive sounds note of caution over proposal to add four more sides from South Africa

There have been suggestions that South African teams such as Sharks and Stormers could leave Super Rugby to join an expanded Pro14. Picture:Steve Haag/Gallo Images/Getty Images
There have been suggestions that South African teams such as Sharks and Stormers could leave Super Rugby to join an expanded Pro14. Picture:Steve Haag/Gallo Images/Getty Images

It may not be the most pressing issue in the Scottish Rugby Union chief executive’s in-tray right now but Mark Dodson believes expanding the Guinness Pro14 to a Pro18 with more South African teams, when feasible, could be one engine for growth when the sport finally emerges from this current dark period.

There have been reports, which Pro14 sources have confirmed to be a possible avenue, that the remaining South African Super Rugby sides – Stormers, Sharks, Bulls and Lions – may view their future in the northern hemisphere following the move in 2017 made by Cheetahs and Southern Kings.

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If deemed a financial boost in the wake of the current shock it could well be a goer but Dodson did note the caution that has been expressed about overreach, dilution of the brand and logistical issues presented for the five-nation championship.

SRU chief executive Mark Dodson sees pros and cons to the idea of an expanded Pro14. Picture: Gary Hutchison/SNS

“I think what you’ve got there is everyone around the world is looking at their own domestic competitions because rugby is going through this period of change,” he said.

“South Africa perhaps wanting to look more north than south seems to have fuelled those conversations. Pro14 has been a success because we’ve embraced change and we’ve delivered huge growth inside that league, and we consider expanding still further, but that’s a Pro14 matter not just a Scottish issue. But, again, we’d have to look at all the details.

“Sometimes, as in Super Rugby, over-expansion can create its own problems, so we have to embrace change but we don’t do anything that undermines the success we’ve currently got.”

For the time being, Dodson has plenty on his plate dealing with the current crisis and, while as bereft as everyone by the devastating health and financial impact the pandemic has wrought, insists he is steeled for the fight.

“If you’d got to look at our accounts before the end of the financial year, we were trading great, it was another year of record sales, and it’s gone – that’s just the way it is.

“But this is a moment where, as a CEO, you face down the challenge. You don’t welcome it, but it comes on to your toes and it is how you are defined – how you are defined by your staff, it is how you are defined by other people and it is how you are defined by you guys [the press].

“We’ll deal with this. We’ll deal with it properly, we’ll deal with it sustainably and I won’t flinch anything. Anything that comes our way, we won’t duck – we’ll deal with. We’ll make sure we get through this crisis, Scottish rugby will still be intact, our pro teams will be there and competitive, so will our national team, and for our employers and all our stakeholders, we will work endlessly and tirelessly to make it work and make it happen for them.

“We’ve got values, and we’ve got a very hard-working team, and it will be what it will be, and we’ll deal with it. I’d rather not be dealing with it, I’d rather be dealing with positive problems, but I don’t walk away from difficult situations. And I’ll be there when everyone else has gone home for their tea, put it that way.”

Dodson accepts that major financial decisions will need to be made in the coming weeks.

“It’s not just the professional game,” he said. “We’re not only a commercial business where we have to keep our pro-teams and our international team competitive, we’ve got a responsibility as a governing body to the whole domestic scene, clubland and youth sport across Scotland.

“That’s a pretty difficult balancing act at times. But what we’re going to have to do is look at our business, and reset it. We’ve got a four-point plan: respond to the crisis, reset, recover and rebuild.

“We intend to go back and grow the business again once all this is through, but you can’t have just a growth strategy. There will be periods in any kind of business where you’ll hit recession or some kind of problem in your sector.

“You have to stop, retrench, reset and go forward again. That’s what we’ll do and we’ve got the skills inside the business to be able to do that.”

A large chunk of SRU staff have been furloughed but a small team has continued to work through the lockdown and Dodson stressed that, at some point down the line, these people will need to be given a break.

“It is something you don’t really think about at the time. You are in a crisis, you respond to the crisis and then you realise the same people need some time off. So [SRU doctor] James [Robson] has chosen to take this week off because it is important to him that he recharges his batteries so that when the players come back in on 22 June he is going to be really needed at that point after the longest period of no-conditioning ever and he wants to make sure that all the medical staff are in the right place.

“So, we are trying to take time back as we go, but for some of us it has been impossible and we need to work right through…

“We’ve had the most amazing response from our staff. They are desperate to make sure we get through this crisis intact, and I owe it to them as CEO to personally make sure that I protect them and the game as much as possible.”

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