There are ways to start a sports-related barney in a Scottish pub, without mentioning Rangers or Celtic. For example, you could openly suggest that the way professional rugby has grown in the country has been brilliantly effective.
To this day it almost impossible to walk into a rugby club and hear the fish heads and bufties waxing lyrical about how much they support one of Edinburgh or Glasgow Warriors. Both of these sides have a die hard core of fans, but this core is in the hundreds, rather than the thousands.
Those same old campaigners who infest clubs and talk about the days when rucking with your boots was not a carding offence will tell you why they feel no affiliation with the two sides. Many do not even think the four district sides of the past were fantastic, but they prefer them to what has ended up on offer.
Professional rugby in Scotland began with a kernel of an idea: ‘let’s consolidate our forces in four districts where rugby is strong.’
Four became three; became two. The numbers did not add up and neither did the attendances. Fiercely proud supporters of a team in one town or city were told to focus on a conglomeration point. When this was mixed up with whole other districts –for example, Glasgow Caledonia emerged after the team representing the north of Scotland was forced to join with those in the most populous area of Scotland, Glasgow in the west –several switched off.
To this day it is still difficult to persuade the nostalgic to come to games. This is the entire reason that the advertisers at Murrayfield have finally clicked that they must appeal to the younger generation. They need the sexy European competitions to win over those that have not yet developed strong ties with a club.
This in itself creates problems. Problems of longevity and grass root progress.
So why is this old issue relevant?
It becomes relevant when the powers of European rugby meet to discuss the fate of the Heineken Cup and, potentially, the fate of many RaboDirect Pro12 clubs.
The current shouting match over the Cup is that the Union funded Pro12 sides can rest players due to the lack of relegation in their league, while privately funded English and French sides compete in fiercely competitive leagues where blood, guts and dignity are spilt for a bonus point.
This is not brought up to nurture an argument over the value of developing youngsters in the Pro12 whilst seniors are rested, nor the hamstrung coaches who march to the fife of international coaches, nor the lack of finances and exposure in the league itself forcing clubs to rely on the milk and honey of the Heineken.
This is an introduction to a warning against rushing towards something that calls itself ‘meritocracy’.
In his latest lucid and logical piece, David Flatman talks of the changes that could make the Cup fairer.
He says: “Reducing the number of teams in the first-string European Cup will serve to make every game bigger. This means more spectators and bigger TV audiences. Forcing every team to earn their place will change the face of the competition by making it a true “best of the best” tournament. At the moment, it just isn’t. This in turn will make the Rabo more competitive and therefore more commercially attractive, and level up the playing field. The French will still have tons of money and at some point that might need addressing, too.”
This is a noble sentiment. Indeed, this blog has been a platform from which to suggest one of Scotland’s two pro sides drops into the Amlin competition to maintain some exposure abroad, while having more of a chance of success. Success could bring more fans.
I concur that the current Heineken Cup is not the best of the best, but the assertions that “wealthy unions provide a safety net of sorts which offers a systematic advantage to one section of a competition,” must be looked at.
Glasgow Warriors cannot currently attract a shirt sponsor, despite being one of the best teams in the Pro12 in the last four seasons. Their Union still needs fan money and they are not coming in the droves. The Welsh regions are wailing out. The wall is looking for a viable place to go for some as it is, and professional sides in Italian rugby will not get off the ground if they do not experience some stability.
If we adopt a purely neo-liberal approach of ‘this is my club, as long as they are there forget all else and to hell with those from other countries’ then the system is scuppered. The problem is that pure meritocracy of the kind that sees the most competitive with bigger squads swat away the sides with resource issues doing well in the Rabo. The Amlin would have to offer much more incentive.
Flatman’s idea is not wrong; it just takes into account too few factors.
There is a review of English rugby going on. Some, like Sir Ian McGeechan have floated the idea of a relegation freeze in England. If this is taken on the meritocracy argument is blown apart.
A dialectic must be sought now, one which can answer to questions of financial imbalance and the advantage of huge squads or rested stars.
Shelve the fanfare of merit until after the English review. Issue a cap to all teams, now. Not a salary cap, but one which demands a certain number of home-grown players and youngsters in every Heineken squad. Enforce it.
The teams who have the best infrastructure and coaching will do the best in the meantime, and then after a review it can be seen if the system –which certainly needs changed –should go one way or another.
It would not be sexy, but it would certainly be fairer than rushing to set up a system where French money can still dominate and a few years down the line the English benefit from resting just as much as the Pro12 teams are said to.
This biting, bidding and general disagreement bubbles up every year. BT are forcing the issue by throwing so much money at the Aviva Premiership, but calm heads are needed. Do not rush into a call which may need reviewed again in a year or two.
The question must be asked: do we want better rugby throughout the Northern Hemisphere for all fans, or do we just want one of our teams to do well?
Increased standards over a period of time may just bring more people. Even the Bufties.