Simmers lines up an unlikely conversion on road to pro rugby

GLASGOW could follow Edinburgh into private ownership within a month if Brian Simmers and David Mackay manage to turn offers of support into the cash they believe could make the city a European rugby power.

Glasgow supporters finally discovered yesterday where their team will play this season, a new one-year deal being struck by the Scottish Rugby Union with Hillhead Sports Club. But with the union reiterating only last week that unless Glasgow improve their supporter base and income they will again be under threat next summer, the uncertainty associated with union control is not dimming.

Simmers and Mackay hope to change that in the way Edinburgh have with a five-year deal signed last month with Bob and Alex Carruthers, and in as short a time.

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"We were heartened by the Edinburgh move, because it confirmed the union were serious about franchising," said Simmers. "We believe we can move as quickly as the Carruthers and have something in place by the end of September if we hear the right noises soon.

"There has been a lot of interest, and sponsorship is not a problem, but not quite the major financial commitment yet that we need with this kind of venture. We have brought it down to about four serious partners really, and we need to know in these major meetings in the coming weeks whether the commitment is there. It needs to happen now I believe."

We are witnessing an unlikely conversion. Simmers, once an arch-critic of the SRU, is now ready to go along with the governing body's vision for the future of professional rugby, and wants to become part of the set-up. In the not so distant past, that would have seemed only marginally more likely than Jim Aitken being named president of the Murrayfield Appreciation Society.

Simmers comes across as a quiet-spoken, thoughtful individual, but, with the right promptings, is easily transformed into an angry, frustrated soul, furious at the manner in which the sport he loves has been directed since the onset of professionalism in 1995. He might term it as the "passion" born of a decade of strife between clubs and the SRU as he sought to form an ambitious new club, Glasgow Hawks, and lead them to the top of the Scottish game and into Europe - putting him on a collision course with the SRU that saw no love lost between the warring sides for several seasons..

After a lengthy civil war, the union declared that district teams, not clubs, were the vehicle for professional rugby in Scotland. The pro teams are still struggling to convince, but Simmers believes Glasgow Warriors could now offer the west coast of Scotland an opportunity to join Europe's elite.

There are few people better placed to discuss Glasgow rugby with authority than the 66-year-old. He grew up in the city, was schooled both at Glasgow Academy and Loretto in Edinburgh, and is the son of Max Simmers, the legendary Scotland internationalist who won 28 caps.

As a cultured but determined fly-half, Simmers junior captained Glasgow and won seven caps for Scotland, first in the No10 jersey and then at No12.

When his playing days were over Simmers became a well-known face at Glasgow Accies as coach, president and long-serving administrator before the Hawks creation. In terms of association, it is natural that he was the first man in the west to jump when franchises were sought and that he is spearheading this bid to take Glasgow to a higher level.

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"I have always had this real wish to make Glasgow rugby a success; a passion, I suppose, that has refused to go away.

"It's not a romantic idealism, but a confidence that we can and should be better. I believe that David and I have the commercial ability to take this opportunity the SRU is providing and make it work. We are both known in the rugby world and I would like to think we have the integrity which is very important. We're not in this for the ego trip or the short-term.

"It's not that different to ten years ago. The opportunity came at the start of professionalism with Glasgow Hawks to take a major step forward and make an impact. We saw over 5,000 watching Melrose and Watsonians contest a league decider, and felt that the Hawks could pull together the strength in Glasgow district and grasp the chance to represent the area and Scotland at the highest level. That's what we want for Glasgow now."

A key question remains, however, about Glasgow's ability to be serious about its rugby. The late Brian Gilbert once castigated his own players at Glasgow High/Kelvinside, who joined with Glasgow Academicals to create the Hawks, with the infamous line: "When the going gets tough, the tough go skiing." That remains a favourite branch with which Borderers, in particular, like to beat Glasgow's rugby community. But even Kenny Logan, the former Stirling County, Glasgow and Scotland winger, questioned the future for a pro team based in a city with two big football teams.

"Brian's comment was fair," shrugged Simmers, "But Kenny's was way off the mark. In terms of going skiing, I think there was a touch of 'former pupil' about that at an amateur level; a bit of misplaced arrogance.

"But Hawks changed that I think. We held our own and more, up front, and we have made an impact on Scottish rugby at club level. That is exactly what I'd like to see happen with Glasgow in Europe.

"To suggest that Glasgow doesn't have the passion for rugby, or enough people interested to make a pro team successful is nonsense. Our aim, if we are fortunate enough to be given the chance, is to win the Heineken Cup inside five years.

The obvious response of asking 'how realistic is that?' brings a steely Simmers glare. "Completely; absolutely no question."

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He adds: "I've spoken at length with Brian Kennedy and his chief executive about what they have done at Sale, and they have both been very helpful and encouraging. Remember they also have two big football clubs in their city. David and I would not be going down this route if we thought that target was not achievable. It is not good enough to just get a bit better; our target is to be the best in Europe."

So how does this change occur? Recent crowds of around 2,000 in Scotland's largest city do not inspire, nor does the lack of sponsorship over the last ten years. Simmers bats away such concerns.

"There was a massive switch-off to how professional rugby has been managed and we're still paying for that," he said.

"There was a ludicrous belief that if you put 15 guys on the park people will simply turn up and watch them. The nonsense of that has been proved, sadly. Look at the Irish sides who did grow out of their communities - they have developed and grown into strong identities. We could do the same here.

"We have to work through schools, clubs, the corporate sector and the entire rugby community down the west coast to Dumfries and north to Aberdeen, because essentially, without a Caledonian side now, this team fulfils the professional aspirations of a massive area.

"I can hardly remember a game I have watched where I didn't have an interest in one team or the other. I watch Scotland, Glasgow or my club side because I have an interest in them. Glasgow has a strong rugby community who feel similarly, but they haven't been given any reason to feel part of the professional team. That is what we would seek to change."

Simmers' passion is unquestionable and his rhetoric convincing, but as things stand he cannot yield much more influence than any other hopeful supporter without serious cash. It is now up to others to back his ambition with serious investment and prove professional rugby has a future in the west of Scotland.