SRU chief Mark Dodson says gloomy end to the year won’t knock him off stride
A NEW academy structure that drives up the quality of Scottish players and fresh consistency for pro and international teams are the key New Year hopes of SRU chief executive Mark Dodson – but failure to achieve either is likely to lead to more heads rolling out of Murrayfield.
The Mancunian businessman who took over at the SRU helm in September, 2011, has spent his second Christmas and New Year period reflecting on the failures of the national side.
Only this year, he has also lost his rugby chiefs, director of performance rugby Graham Lowe and national coach Andy Robinson, and looks into 2013 without the excitement of a Scottish team pushing into the Heineken Cup knockout stages as Edinburgh were a year ago.
However, Dodson remains upbeat and bullish. In an exclusive interview with The Scotsman, the CEO insisted that while the extra £2 million investment in the professional teams in 2012 had failed to bring instant rewards in Europe, he is confident the structure is coming together and the squads are now strong enough to take significant strides this year.
Dodson did not hide the fact either that he made no attempt to persuade Robinson to think again before quitting as Scotland coach after losing to Tonga in November, revealing the head coach would not have been given the opportunity to stay despite having three years outstanding on his contract. He has since embarked on a “global search” for both a new head coach and director of rugby, but agrees with the comments of former Scotland internationalists recently in The Scotsman that home-grown coaches must also be promoted and room found for more Scottish voices within Murrayfield.
“It has been another tough year in many respects,” he began, “but I don’t recognise our game from some of the wilder comments I have seen that say we’re at rock bottom, the game’s dead and that kind of thing. Yes, the national side under-performed and so we’ve reached a world-ranking low point, and, of course, we’re not happy with that, which is why there have been changes. Everyone came to the same conclusion about Andy [Robinson] – Andy, the players and myself – so there was no need for me to take a decision, but let’s say we’re right at this point to move on.
“We have made quite a number of changes over the past 18 months, off the field to benefit supporters, and we have seen full houses at Murrayfield again, and we have invested significantly in making our professional teams stronger than they’ve ever been. When you listen to the players, as I do, there is a lot of positive feedback about the difference that is making to them, the benefits they feel from the improved facilities, particularly in Glasgow, and increased competition for places.
“These are the things we need to keep the core of our talent in Scotland, and improve it, and what the players and coaches feel is required to be competitive in the RaboDirect and Heineken Cup. It has also helped attract good quality players to Scotland, the likes of Josh Strauss, Willem Nel and Sean Maitland, to help us strengthen our game.”
He added: “I’m not pretending we’re happy with the results so far. The results have to improve. Both of the head coaches know we need to see an improvement in the second half of the season, targets we have set met, and while I won’t go into them here, the people responsible know exactly what their targets are.” Dodson stopped short of discussing consequences, insisting he preferred not to be quoted in the first days of the New Year on the potential for firing people, but it is clear if the picture does not improve in 2013, and one imagines Edinburgh’s coaching team, led by Michael Bradley, are more vulnerable than the management at Glasgow, changes will be made.
But, first, to the national team, where change is on his mind. In a little more than four weeks Scotland will be at Twickenham, trying to win for the first time in 30 years against a side that finished 2012 beating the world’s No 1 team – New Zealand.
Then it is Murrayfield for three home games in a row, against Italy, Ireland and Wales, before ending the RBS Six Nations Championship in Paris.
For six years, Scotland have finished in the bottom two – and had Italy not joined and the tournament moved from five to six nations in 2000, we would have the wooden spoon every year of the past decade, bar 2003 and 2006. A sobering statistic.
The combination of a more exciting side starting to trouble defences and score tries, and improved marketing ideas, helped to fill Murrayfield in 2012. Scotland needs a quick boost to carry that into 2013. Dodson insisted assistant Scott Johnson was not appointed interim head coach as the easy option, but because he can swiftly inspire players and could be a long-term candidate.
“Scott is a high-quality interim coach and he’s in a great position to make a stand for the job, no question,” said Dodson. “But, equally, I want the very best person for the job and the very best coaching team that can take Scotland forward. I’ve got a very open mind.
“There is also a need to develop Scottish coaches and that is something we are addressing as a high priority. It was a key task set for Scott when we brought him here. We want to bring a Scottish flavour to the national group because we are Scotland, and while it’s unfortunate at the moment that there are not a lot of Scottish coaches with the requisite international experience [to become head coach] we have to have Scottish influence and voices at national level.” As for the director of rugby role, he said: “That, again, will be about finding the best person we can. It won’t be the same job Graham [Lowe] began. When he came he was more focused on strength and conditioning, the athlete side, and when he left he was much more on the rugby side, contracting players and looking to develop players, and it’s that we need to develop.”
While names such as Wayne Smith, Graham Henry, Nick Mallett and Jake White have been mentioned, it should not be taken as read such figures would want it after the country’s woes through professionalism, and ongoing challenges of playing numbers and finance. Dodson did not say who applied, but did say SRU costs were stable and revenue increased by around £3m last year, largely by full houses at Murrayfield, so money should not bar a top name.
But, of more interest to fans who watched player errors cost World Cup advancement and Six Nations wins, and fear Scotland, now 12th in the world, slipping further behind, will be how the quality of player improves.
“That is a huge part of how we move forward,” Dodson agreed. “We’re looking seriously at what academies really mean to us, looking at the grassroots and how we develop players from playing rugby for the first time through age-groups and clubs.
“The second thing is looking at how we create consistency in the national team. There will be ups and downs, and we’ve seen in 2012 the kind of rollercoaster ride we get in Scottish rugby, but we want to see a narrative developing in our consistency of play and results [Dodson mimics a plane taking off] and our pro teams pushing on in the business end of the season, competing hard in the play-offs and latter stages of the Heineken Cup.
“We need that as that’s what drives the whole game in Scotland forward, and in 2012 we started building squads that can achieve that. I accept that it takes time to get the best out of a new squad, and, in Glasgow, with new coaches, and that is part of rugby. And we’ve seen some progress, which is why I’m not as downbeat as some might be at the start of the New Year.
“But, they should still have done better this season in the Heineken. We’re moving forward and we need to see progress in 2013 as we build to 2015 [World Cup]. The players and coaches understand the expectations we now have.”