Club Success Deserves Recognition

While we round up the various Six Nations bits, here’s a piece from a new writer David regarding one of the unheralded success stories in Scottish rugby. Over to David:You may have noticed, Scottish rugby seems to be going through one of its regular slumps.

The national team may have avoided the wooden spoon but the Six Nations have left Scotland looking a lot less assured than they did before the tournament. Those wins in Argentina last summer and against South Africa feel a long time ago.

Meanwhile, the pro sides aren’t faring any better, sitting tenth and eleventh in the table. Or to put it another way, second and third bottom.

The other Scotland sides aren’t doing too well either. The Under 20s have struggled, scoring just twenty three points and suffering a whitewash in their Six Nations and the Scottish Women’s side have suffered heavy defeats.

However, there has been one bright light and it has come in the oft forgotten world of club rugby. Ayr Rugby Club has had its fair share of success in the past few years, winning Premiership 1 and the Scottish Cup. However, this season’s achievement of reaching the quarter finals of the British and Irish Cup, in my view surpasses both of these triumphs.

Their run included wins over Llandovery, Birmingham and Solihull Bees and Doncaster Knights before losing 29 – 19 away to Bristol in the quarter finals. To put that into perspective all the teams that they beat were professional outfits and Bristol were very recently a Guinness Premiership team and are in the play offs of the English Championship, looking for promotion back to the top tier.

It would be interesting to see how much different the score would be if it was Glasgow or Edinburgh taking on Bristol. Ayr have built their game around such redoubtable figures as inspirational and intimidating captain Damien Kelly and New Zealand born centre Mark Stewart. However, alongside the experienced, coach Kenny Murray has brought in talented youngsters such as Scotland Under 20s centre Mark Bennett and try scorer against Bristol Robbie Fergusson.

Considering that Ayr are a team of amateurs, the players and indeed the coaches had to give up work commitments to make the long trip to Bristol, this cup run is fairly remarkable. Which begs the question – why put so much of the focus on failing pro sides when there is so much potential in the club game?

Talented youngsters such as the afore mentioned Bennett and Fergusson are likely to attract the attention of the pro sides but how many times have we seen promising youngsters disappearing into the pro set up and not playing much rugby?

Wouldn’t they be better playing with our top clubs which, as Ayr’s British and Irish Cup run has proved, are of a good standard? In fact, maybe it would be better to simply pull the plug on the pro sides and put the money back into the club game?

The man who last captained Scotland to a win at Twickenham, Jim Aitken certainly thinks so.

“The grassroots have been neglected,” he said. “People thought they could make do with one or two professional sides and just pick who they thought could be able to fit into these sides and make a better Scotland team.

“They neglected the potential talent that comes through the old system from clubs to districts and into the Scottish team. They have managed to develop a ‘them and us’ attitude, whereby the international set-up is completely detached from the grassroots set up.”

Would it be so ridiculous an idea, putting the focus back on the club game?

That way, established professionals can go and play with teams elsewhere in Europe with a half decent chance of winning the odd match and there is a stronger club game in Scotland to develop potential stars. Ayr have shown that success is possible but the current travails of the Scotland team and the professional sides suggest that something needs to change.

The club game has been neglected for too long in favour of something that has yet to show much success. Why not change something?

We’re losing everything else anyway.

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David is a student journalist who also plays rugby for Cumnock in deepest, darkest Ayrshire.

11 comments on “Club Success Deserves Recognition

  1. Michael J Watt on

    I absolutely, completely and totally disagree with this. Kudos, of course, to Ayr for a remarkable achievement, but axing the pro teams will kill off rugby in Scotland completely. It will mean no Magners League funding, no TV rights, no Heineken Cup money, and not enough supporters involved in the game.

    To say that the amateur club league exposes our young players to a high enough standard of rugby is laughable – our U20 (club!) players just got hammered in their 6N tournament, particularly by an England team who had all had at least some professional game time with professional clubs. We need more players exposed to that level at an early age, not less. I want the club game to flourish too, but that onyl way our international side can flourish is with a good pro-team set up.

    The only answer is to invest money in marketing the pro teams, grow crowd numbers and revenues, turn them into two, profit-making enterprises and use that money to open more pro-teams in Aberdeen and Dundee. If Wales can support 4 pro-teams with a pop. of 2million, why can’t we do the same with a pop. of 5million? Just because the pro-team model hasn’t been that successful in Scotland so far, doesn’t mean it can’t be. It just takes vision, something that the current SRU management, apparently lack.

    This article shows that David Kerr cannot provide that vision, and it is, frankly, a poorly argued suicide note for Scottish rugby.

  2. Philip on

    Doesn’t really answer any question but merely makes a plea for some money.

    Ayr have achieved success at a lower level than the professional teams are playing. At their level, Ayr are more the exception than the rule in Scottish Rugby. The article would have more credence if all our teams in the B & I cup this year had qualified for the knock-out stage.

    By forcing our current professional players to move away from Scotland you are driving the last vestiges of top flight rugby from the country. There will no role models for our youngsters to look up to and lower level of commitment when Scotland gets stuffed on a more regular basis before being slung out of the 6 Nations Championship because we are just not up to standard.

    Argentina are only allowed to join the Tri-nations after they have set up some of their own professional teams.

    Currently, our age grade players play for clubs and when it comes to representative games they have been whitewashed by their contemporaries from neighbouring countries.

    Binning the professional teams is not the answer to our international woes. It would help a great deal if the SRU were to run them properly, have them properly structured to include a 2nd senior XV and an age grade set up.

    By binning the professional teams you are taking Scotland back to 1995 and in case you hadn’t noticed time and other nations have moved on since then.

    It is time to halt the slide, not increase it’s momentum.

    Congratulations to Ayr on their achievements and just as much recognition for Orkney RFC and their youth set up.

  3. Jim on

    “Why not change something?” or as its usually put, something must be done. True enough, but when organisations rush to do something, its often worse than the starting point.
    So what could be worse? Well at the moment, we have about 100 players, maybe a few more or a few less, playing professional rugby. We get an injury and suddenly we haven’t got a player playing that position professionally. We got away with S Lamont in the last couple of matches playing out of position, got away with it. He’ll go off probably back to wing for his club, where we have no control over where he plays. Similar for other positions, we simply don’t have enough players playing professional rugby. If our own 2 professional teams go, we will have maybe, if we’re lucky, 40 or 50 players playing pro rugby. A few injuries and you’re struggling to get a match day squad. And in a few years when the current generation retire, there will be even fewer available.
    From there the collapse of the national team is irreversible, and with it all the SRU’s primary income streams collapse. (ticket money, TV money, sponsor money will all be hard to come by).

    Where then?

  4. Nic on

    Ayr are an amateur club??? It is widely reported that they have a playing budget in excess of £250K per year. Damien Kelly isnt playing there because he always wanted to pull on the pink and black strip is he?

    In addition Ayr have had to be bolstered with several pro players.

    So a bit more accurate reporting and less wishful thinking please

  5. David Smart on

    I believe we have to get away from pro v amateur debates. I suggest the real answer lies in harnessing the best of both elements. IN my world we have pro team with clubs aligned to them. Quality amateurs develop in pro academies and get game time in the 1st XV of a feeder club.

    Pro sides have then a Constituancy who want to see them succeed , players get game time and and standards improve.

    Club and district competitions run in parallel to the pro teams.

    Someone please tell me what I am missing here and why this would fail?

  6. A.D. on

    If you read David’s words he never actually says this is what we should do, but ask’s if we could.

    What we do know is that we can’t leave things as they are; the clubs are slowly getting better while the pro-sides continually dilute their talent pool as the best flee to France and England. SRU could feasably continue on the same course they are going on if they had a huge cash injection from outsiders, but which investor would do this?! We’ve had people come in before, only to be chased out by the SRU closing ranks and they’ve also flatly refused investment before, too (shame we have seen gate receipts fall and we aren’t exactly beating off advertisers!).

    The clubs are seeking their own investment and have gotten this far on their own. If more people stepped in then money could pull the standards up even higher.

    I don’t think David is saying “scrap Gla and Ed and we’ll pump all that money into the top 5/8 club sides in Prem. 1. ” For one the hugely limited money would be spread too thin, because no companies or investors want to come in in partnership with the SRU, but mainly because the clubs who have their own accountants, bank managers, committees and infrastructures would not agree to be under the yoke of the SRU moneymen.

    We will probably have to stick with what we have but make some changes…

  7. Glass celing on

    I agree with the pro and amature set up, now no doute this will bring with it meny unhappy men how just think about there club but who can blame them for that.
    With all these young lads who are on academy contracts and what ever they call the one ip from it most don’t play in prem 1 because there are older guys in there all ready.
    Couldn’t we have a comp that runs on say every 2 nd wedensday night where we could get the best club players along with any full-time pros that were not involved on the bench to compete and blood these young lads around these good players and toughen them up if anything. it wouldn’t cost much to do I don’t think there will be meny how would say no. In not saying that the sane club players have to play every 2 weeks spread it around a lil it could also be seen as a good challenge for the guys who go head to head for the club Int spots

  8. Michael J Watt on

    I’d rather see the pro teams develop a 2nd XV and age grade set up teams that could compete on a weekly basis with their ML counterparts, or teams in the English Prem 1. That would get the back up and youth players involved more.

    As for our general problems, why don’t we focus on the simple things first, rather than propose grand, utopian (or dystopian, in this instance) restructuring ideas. From what I can see, the pro-teams’ financial positon would be greatly improved if they just got their marketing act into gear. I used to live half an hour’s walk from Murryafeld, and went to one of the local state schools, but none of my peers, and none of their parents, were even aware the Edinburgh had a pro team that played on Friday nights. Our school didn’t even run a rugby team, even though plenty of guys in my year would have loved to play.

    The pro teams should set themselves a target – a 50% increase in crowds every two years for the next 10 years. That would require some innovative and funky makreting ideas, and financial investment, but I’m sure even us idiots could come up with some cracking ideas if we put our thinking caps on for 10 minutes in our lunch break. More crowds = more money = better players = better results = more crowds. It’s a great big positive feedback loop. For those who say it’s ambitious, look at what Leinster did – they massively improved their crowd numbers and playing success in the last decade with aggressive and smart advertising. And they had more sports to compete with – football, GAA etc. Why can’t we replicate this? The only thing that is holding us back is a lack of entrepreurial nous from the SRU.

    As I said above, the long term plan should be to open a 3rd pro team by 2018 at the latest, say, and then plan for a 4th after that. If the current SRU management can’t be ambitious enough to start planning this future, they have to step aside.

    Apologies to David Kerr if my opening salvo was a bit OTT, but the idea of scrapping the pro teams needs to be knocked hard on the head. They are the only way Scottish rugby will stay competitive on the world stage. Italy are already catching up fast.

  9. Steve on

    Couldn’t agree more with this post. The club game has been thoroughly neglected in Scotland and in part in England. The gap between the amateur clubs and professional clubs is widening all the time and making it so much harder for talented youngsters to make a career of rugby. Also, especially in England the influx of money and professionalism is reaching further and further down the leagues which in my opinion is ruining the game for the majority.

  10. Kev on

    Change the season. Get better weather/BST rugby. Get the clubs (or at least the youth) having their skill sessions in good natural light and good underfoot conditions.

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