According to reports in the Sunday Times and BBC Scotland, the SRU are planning major changes to the level of the game just below the pro-teams.
Currently that level is occupied by the BT Premiership but there is a noticeable drop-off down to that level from what is required to prepare players for European and test match rugby.
Scottish Rugby executives are now looking to fill that hole with a league of 6 semi-pro sides that can compete in the British and Irish Cup (actually compete) and provide performance pathways for the academy players coming through. It wasn’t so much of a problem before the academies started to bear fruit, but now there is a steady stream of young players who can’t all fit in at Edinburgh and Glasgow.
While there is a massive issue with game time for young talent that has already been identified, there is also a severe lack of opportunities for players who may have the potential but for whatever reason haven’t made it through the traditional pathways – the late developers, the exiles and the Rory Huttons of this world.
Last season some were farmed out to London Scottish but with that deal seemingly now a failed experiment and the new version placing players with Allianz-backed Nice who play in the French 4th division, an opportunity for the young talent to play in front of home fans would be welcome.
According to the reports each team would be centrally funded to the tune of £100,000 beginning in the 2018-19 season. It is most likely the sides will be set up along the traditional district lines to mirror the regional academies, currently based in Aberdeen (Caledonia), Cumbernauld (West), Edinburgh (East) and Galashiels (Borders).
Certainly taking advantage of existing pathways and facilities would seem to make sense, but that would only be four teams.
Would it be possible for two clubs to fill the remaining slots?
While you are unlikely to see any agreement from the 10 clubs in the Premiership as to who steps up and who stays down it is possible that larger clubs who are already semi-pro in some senses, like Melrose or Ayr, would fancy a shot.
In the areas where there aren’t currently “big” clubs, there is also an issue with making up the numbers. The Caledonia academy currently has 14 players, 5 of them women. To sustain a semi pro squad they are going to need another 30 odd bodies to come in for a men’s squad, which is presumably where the money comes in with academy players already funded. Are a club like Aberdeen Grammar (National 1) going to provide those players from local ranks? The biggest issue with “regional” type setups as we have seen with the pro-teams past and present is a lack of local identity.
If the new semi-pro league hoovers up all the likely talent out of necessity, then we’re left with the same problem of a gap between the top flight and the next level down.
A positive move from the SRU to float this at the AGM on Saturday, but it asks a lot of questions. It’s an interesting problem and sure to create some debate in the committee rooms across the country.