To those outside Scotland, Scottish football is a lot like one of those Japanese World War 2 soldiers found on remote Pacific Islands who still believe the war’s on. A once proud and noble thing now found wandering out of the wilderness half dead.
One of the biggest clubs in the country has imploded, threatening to take a number of other clubs with it, and the national side now sit 49th in the world rankings below such great footballing nations as Libya and only one place above the mighty Iran. In the last match the team were gubbed 5-1 by the U.S.A (although players might be forgiven for being adversely affected by the unique rendition of the American National Anthem prior to kick off).
I’m not here to get into an argument about whether rugby is bigger than football (I can easily favour rugby over football because that sport got me my sign up bonus pointsbet). I have no intention of bringing a knife to a gun fight. Articles on 7m report that attendances at some football grounds in Scotland are much higher than the number of people that turn up to see Edinburgh and Glasgow play rugby on a regular basis. But it’s important to remember that Edinburgh and Glasgow are both new teams. Unlike (old) Rangers, Celtic, Hearts et al. there is, as yet, very little attachment to either side because of some burning passion passed from generation to generation. I’d have liked to compare statistics on participation in both sports but neither the SFA or FIFA seem to have any (the IRB estimates around 217,057 registered and unregistered rugby players in Scotland).
The current cyclone of uncertainty swirling around Scottish Football at the moment seems as good an opportunity as any to re-evaluate our national sporting priorities. I’m probably preaching to the choir by posting this on a rugby blog but none the less it is a discussion that needs to be had.
The Scottish Rugby team have just returned from a successful tour of the Southern Hemisphere during which they beat Australia and sit within the world’s top 10. At home Edinburgh were within a whisker of making the Heineken Cup Final and Glasgow made the league play-offs. There’s good news off the pitch as well with the SRU announcing an increase in turnover across the board.
This is an opportunity to re-focus the attentions of the generally sport-loving public in the direction of rugby. With Rangers seemingly relegated to Division 3 football, as we know it, in Scotland is dead. It has ceased to be. It may re-emerge like a Norwegian Blue from the flames, but it may not be the same.
Change will not happen overnight and it won’t happen without some investments from both pro-sides and the SRU. Rangers season ticket holders aren’t suddenly going to start queuing up outside Scotstoun.
There has been much talk of heavy investment in grass roots rugby to try and bring through and develop the next generation of players (although as Alan D pointed out the current investment in grass roots rugby is dwarfed by investment in the pro game). However, another bonus resulting from grass roots investment is to bring through the next generation of fans. Getting young kids playing rugby from an early age is a great way to introduce them to the sport and get them passionate about the game.
The moral high ground can never be underestimated as a selling point either. This week saw events on a football pitch laid bare and whilst the odd “C-bomb” might be dropped during a rugby game it’s unlikely to be uttered within ear-shot of the referee and certainly would never be directed at them. The sight of players surrounding referees has become part and parcel of football and tiresome at that; each week managers stand in front of television cameras and moan about each imagined slight or bias against their team and good referees, making finely balanced split second decisions, are bounced down the leagues at the first sign of a mistake. That is not to say rugby referees are infallible, but the respect shown to officials by the players gives rugby much more credibility as a sport.
Of course there are lessons to be learnt from the demise of Scottish football. The sport has been killed by a lack of investment in youth development and an over reliance on foreign imports (sound worryingly familiar?) If rugby does take off then any income from television rights will have to be carefully managed ensuring money is properly invested for the good of the game. This is not something that is limited to Scottish football with a handful of rugby league teams now suffering financial hangovers as money thrown at them by Rupert Murdoch starts to dry up.
The SRU cannot afford to get complacent and work to boost the popularity of the sport within Scotland needs to start now. It may seem a little crass to capitalise on the apparent demise of football in the country but Scotland made hard work of getting past Romania and Georgia (18th & 15th in the IRB rankings) in the World Cup and the popularity of the sport, especially the 7s format, is growing fast in the USA. If the popularity of the sport doesn’t keep on the up in Scotland then there is a danger that rugby will eventually go the way of football. A once decent international side trading on past glories while the rest of the world passes us in the rankings.