Vital Aberdeen pools resources if it wants piece of Super Six
Aberdeen has long been viewed as Scottish rugby’s great untapped well waiting to be struck but oil provides more than just an easy metaphor when examining the game’s fortunes in the Granite City over the past few years.
Scotland’s two most fertile rugby grounds on paper have failed to yield professional success, with the Borders cut a decade ago and Edinburgh still struggling to build an identity. So, it has been the northern lights which have lured some to speculate if Aberdeen could be roused to replicate something like has been achieved in Glasgow.
The city hosted four Scotland internationals at Aberdeen FC’s Pittodrie Stadium, the last of which was the loss to Tonga in November 2012 which led to coach Andy Robinson’s resignation.
Back in 2014, SRU chief executive Mark Dodson had talks with Aberdeen Asset Management boss Marin Gilbert about the prospect, although always stressed that it remained a long way off. Three years on and Dodson still refers to a third pro team as the “Holy Grail” of Scottish rugby but has switched his strategy to the semi-professional Super Six franchise competition which is due for launch in 2019-20.
There has been speculation about where the franchises will end up, with some obvious candidates but surely the entire concept is inconceivable without a presence in Aberdeen.
Rugby in the city has mirrored the troubles of its primary industry in recent years, with its top club of the modern era, Aberdeen Grammar, out of the top flight for a number of seasons.
Not long ago, they were the coming force but have been buffeted by North Sea winds as the collapse in the oil price and knock-on effect on off-shore employment led to a big drop in player numbers and quality. “We had a steady supply of guys in their early 20s arriving in the city to start careers but that changed and we felt the squeeze,” said Aberdeen Grammar chairman Mike Cox.
The club have not paid players for several seasons now and, out of the top flight and in National League 2, have become a less attractive destination for ambitious players from further south. In the other direction, one young hooker travels down to play for Melrose 2nds in hope of having a better chance of catching the eye of age-grade selectors.
More detail is awaited but the appetite for a franchise seems to be strong, although there is an acceptance that it will require a united city effort. That hasn’t been helped by a spat between Aberdeen Grammar and Aberdeenshire after a collaborative deal to pool playing and coaching resources hit the buffers last week.
National League 2 side Shire have had a shocking start to the season, conceding 447 points in their first six games, including a 133-0 beating at Hamilton and, most recently, a 78-21 home defeat by Howe of Fife.
Shire have accused Grammar of using the tie-up to poach their best players, while Grammar insist all they have done is no longer compel their fringe players to turn out and bolster a badly struggling third-tier side.
Cox insists that the open training sessions between the two clubs will continue. The Grammar chairman hopes the disagreement doesn’t deflect from the push to bring a franchise to the city, or from other shoots of recovery after a few years of gloom, such as Gordonians’ promotion back into the National League and Aberdeen Wanderers’ impressive youth set-up.
“We absolutely couldn’t do it ourselves,” said Cox of the potential franchise. “We haven’t seen the document to see what we would need yet. It would need to be a city wide bid across a group of clubs and not just one, which is why this [row with Shire] is not the best timing.
“We’ve got a number of established clubs, a couple of universities, a good strong private school [Robert Gordon’s] that’s rich in rugby. There should be a franchise here if we can create the environment.
“t would be a harder sell saying it would be an Aberdeen Grammar franchise. Having it as a Granite City concept is attractive. There are intelligent capable people who might not fancy sitting on the committee of a club but would fancy this. Guys in the oil industry from the Borders or Edinburgh or Glasgow, rugby guys who would be interested in getting involved.”