A press release from the United Rugby Championship tells me that BBC Wales, S4C and BBC Northern Ireland will all be showing URC matches on free-to-air TV, the first two broadcasters showing matches involving Welsh clubs, BBC Northern Ireland those involving the Irish Provinces. There is no mention BBC Scotland, not even a suggestion that it might show Glasgow’s and Edinburgh’s matches on its Alba channel, as indeed it used to do.
Why not? Why should Scottish rugby fans be denied what will be available to Welsh ones for games in Wales, Northern Irish ones for Irish matches? Perhaps the SRU doesn’t care? Perhaps it assumes that Glasgow and Edinburgh supporters and other Scottish fans will, unlike Welsh and Irish, all be happy to fork out a monthly sum to the subscription channel that shows all the URC matches. No doubt many of the fully committed will do so, just as tens of thousands of football fans pay subscriptions. But there’s a difference. Rugby is still, despite Murrayfield being full for international matches, a minority sport here, and it is an obvious and well-demonstrated fact, that confining a sport to a subscription channel attracts only the already converted – and by no means all of them. If you want to attract new supporters, go free-to-air.
Perhaps I do the SRU an injustice. Perhaps there will soon be an announcement that matches at Little Murrayfield and Scotstoun will be available free-to-view on some BBC channel. Let us hope so. But if there isn’t, many Scottish fans will conclude that the SRU doesn’t care about them - except as purchasers of Murrayfield tickets.
Meanwhile, to give the SRU some credit, its semi-pro Super6, after its stumbling start in season 2019-20 and the Covid-caused blank year in 20/21, has been going rather well this last month, even justifying Jim Telfer’s old demand that rugby in Scotland should be played in the summer months if we want to raise its standard. Of course the composition of the Super6 still seems wrong, indeed daft. To have three of the clubs based in Edinburgh and none in Glasgow makes little sense. More schools in Glasgow and the West play rugby now than ever before. In the old days when rugby in the cities was dominated by closed FP and academical clubs Glasgow nevertheless made a big contribution to the international team, while in the 1970s and 80s, the early years of league rugby, West of Scotland vied with Hawick, Gala and Heriot’s at the top of the Scottish game. Obviously the Warriors pro team fosters the game in the city, but having one of the Super6 based there would also help.
Next week sees the return of the amateur game after the blanked-out season. If the SRU is able to make good its intentions, it will be truly amateur, though we all know that this is something difficult to police, even if clubs are required to submit accounts of income and expenditure for audit. Things like helping a player or new recruit with lodging or employment, and getting a well-off member to line the odd boot with bank notes, may well escape notice. Still the more truly amateur the club game can be, the better.
The tables and fixture lists this season have an odd look, because none of the clubs that gave birth to the Super6 is now in the Premiership. So, no Melrose, no Heriot’s, no Watsonians, no Boroughmuir, no Ayr, no Stirling County. Exactly what the relationship is between these clubs and the semi-pro ones they have spawned is not clear to me, any more than the Super6’s season calendar is.
But then everything is a bit murky still after a year’s hiatus. My club membership card gives me the list of Tennent’s Premiership fixtures. This takes us up to February 19 and March is a blank. Meanwhile the Regional Reserve League fixtures go up to the last Saturday in March. No matter. At least the game is coming back. Normal life can resume.