Agenda 3 and the Super Six – learning the lessons from the past?

As the tender process opens on 20 November for obtaining a “Super 6” semi-professional rugby franchise from the 2019-20 season, it is to be hoped that Scottish rugby will heed the lessons
learned from both Ireland and Wales and not just from its own history, writes Geraint Powell.

Irish rugby managed a successful transition into the professional era, under the central oversight of Syd Millar and Tom Kiernan in particular, the limited historical four provincial teams were
successfully utilised as the full-time vehicles for commercialised professional rugby.

History is not usually particularly kind when it comes to Ireland, but up to four professional rugby teams could be afforded and many rugby fans had a natural affinity towards Leinster, Munster,
Ulster and Connacht. Populations have cared about these Irish provincial identities long-pre dating any form of organised rugby union. And they still did in 1995.

With the flourishing of these professional provinces and the subsequent major growth in their home crowds, entering their “A” teams in the British + Irish Cup was both logical and uncontentious.

If Irish rugby successfully managed the transition from the amateur to the professional era, then Welsh rugby gave a masterclass in failure. If Irish rugby was a union of provinces, aligned with historical political and geographical provinces, then Welsh rugby was very much a union of clubs and with no such natural provinces. And even at the top end of the club game in viscerally tribal South Wales, the clubs were very diverse with 18 in the ring-fenced top echelon as late as 1990.

The Welsh Rugby Union did not take charge in 1995 and set about establishing an order for a new professional game, and the vacuum was filled by businessmen acquiring ownership of the biggest
clubs. We were still trying to run nine professional clubs as late as 2003, haemorrhaging money and long overdue a resource concentration in terms of players and financials down to four teams.
When the resource concentration into “regions” came in 2003, a fresh start was frustrated by the pre-existing major club vested interests. An intended region for North Wales was thwarted, and the four South Walian “regions” were effectively by 2004 just the Cardiff, Newport and Llanelli clubs plus a more meaningful coming together between the Swansea and Neath clubs to create the Ospreys.

With the demise of the superfluous fifth team (Celtic Warriors) in 2004, an ill-suited amalgamation between the Bridgend and Pontypridd clubs, the South Wales valleys – the Welsh rugby equivalent of the Scottish borders – were left unrepresented and mostly alienated from regional rugby. The poor crowds attending regional rugby in Wales has become a source of open ridicule.

Welsh rugby has in recent seasons entered embryonic “A” teams in the British + Irish Cup, so-called Premiership Selects, but the performances in terms of results and attracting fans have been dismal. The player development pathway requires four full-time regional “A” teams, whilst the slow pace of evolution towards true representative regional rugby in Wales prevents it.

Scottish rugby had the opportunity to replicate the successful Irish provincial mode, utilising the four historic rugby districts of Edinburgh, Glasgow, the South of Scotland and the Midlands/North (Caledonia), but sadly blew it and despite the best efforts of Jim Telfer amongst others.

There were undoubtedly complications.

The SRU is a union of clubs, some wary of the power of such districts. Some leading clubs wanted to be the vehicles for commercialised professional rugby themselves. Aberdeen and Perth are
geographically separated, in terms of alternating home matches, and there was and still is ferocious club tribalism in the Borders. The SRU was still heavily in debt from redeveloping Murrayfield, and regulated private investors were required from the outset, but nevertheless…

The upshot was that the Midlands/North professional district (Caledonia Reds) was folded into Glasgow by 1998. The South of Scotland (Borders) professional district was also folded into
Edinburgh in 1998, was independently resurrected in 2002 and then closed again in 2007 in the aftermath of the disastrous Carruthers investment at Edinburgh.

Having lost two of the four professional districts sides, with serious implications in terms of the number of professional teams domestically supplying the national team, two “A” teams were and
are not a realistic option and the “Super Six” semi-professional franchise solution is clearly an attempt to seek to improve on the pathway job that has until now been delegated to the ten team Scottish Premiership league.

But the warnings from Irish and Welsh rugby, as well as from Scottish rugby history itself, need to be heeded in relation to this resource concentration. Player development in a commercial and cultural vacuum increases the financial stresses, as any lack of self-generating revenue will see either underfunding or resource diversion from elsewhere.

Who and what will these teams be? If each of the four historical districts has a team, will that team represent the entire district? Or might it just see one partisan club from within the district?
If there is a representative team from each of the four historic districts, how will the other two teams be constituted?

In terms of sports clubs, there is nothing more difficult than getting individual fans and wider communities to switch allegiance to a historic rival. This is especially so if done in connection with
their own club being downgraded. To use a football analogy, having one Glasgow professional district football team would come with its unique challenges. But as nothing compared to requiring Rangers fans to go and support Celtic at Parkhead, or vice versa asking Celtic fans to go and support Rangers at Ibrox.

As an outsider looking in, I would be surprised if there is any great enthusiasm amongst – for example – the rugby communities of Hawick, Gala, Kelso, Selkirk, Jed-Forest etc to go and support a
Borders semi-professional team that was in fact just Melrose RFC playing at the Greenyards.

That’s not to say that the same fans would support a more inclusive district franchise either, but great caution should be exercised before obviously limiting a resource concentration to a product
appealing to a single club’s fan base.

Scottish rugby could do well to look at the warfare on Welsh rugby social media and be very careful to avoid the same mistakes.

Identity, inclusiveness and affinity matter.

Geraint Powell
Welsh rugby writer & blogger
Read more at: thevietgwent.wordpress.com/

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Created using the combined powers of the Scottish Rugby Blog team.

13 comments on “Agenda 3 and the Super Six – learning the lessons from the past?

  1. Newhaven Boy on

    Being a city lad I dont know the answer to this but is there really any model anywhere which would get people in the Borders to support a club in another town?

    I grew up in Goldenacre but didnt go to Heriots so have no love for them. I’d potentially be willing to go to Goldenacre to watch a decent side, but perhaps not in blue and white, eh. Red, black and yellow would be much better. :-)

    Reply
  2. Scrummo on

    They should just leave it as it is and save up for a third pro team. The academy pathway is churning out an increasingly high calibre of players already.

    Reply
    • Stu on

      Glasgow don’t have a functioning front row and Edinburgh don’t have a single 9 or 10 of any quality. What chance would a third team have?

      It staggers me that people think a third pro side would be anything other than an utter disaster which would drag down the other two by depriving them of money and players.

      Reply
      • Scrummo on

        Utter bilge. Glasgow don’t have a functioning frontrow? It may have escaped your admittedly limited attention but Edinburgh have four international looseheads on the books.

        You’ve also missed the point massively. A third pro team wouldn’t be playing next week. You save up and plan it properly. You get the best of our academy players, the best depth players who aren’t getting the minutes they need at the other two teams, you tempt a couple of well known Scottish exiles back and you add a sprinkling of good quality imports. Would it be fighting at the top straightaway? Clearly not but the WHOLE POINT is develop more players if we had ones ready to go we wouldn’t be talking about it. Again you’ve shown your dense brain by talking about what crowds a new team would get? Clearly a short memory and you’ve forgotten the paltry handful that used to show up for Glasgow before they ‘got good’.

  3. Ritchie on

    Enjoyed that. Not just us having difficulties. Can’t help feeling that we should have gone with and persevered with the four districts. Copied the Irish. Too late now. I would prefer a third professional team to this and leave the BT Premiership alone.

    Reply
    • FF on

      The districts died because we couldn’t finance them. We don’t have a third pro side because we can’t afford to finance it. The super 6 is a fair attempt to make the best of what we have at the moment – the prem does virtually nothing to prepare young players for pro-rugby. Maybe the super 6 will give those academy graduates without a pro deal another chance and we’ll lose less talent from the game. Maybe not but worth a shot?

      Reply
    • Stu on

      Copying the Irish wasn’t and isn’t an option. The Irish had the advantages of a ready made provincial identity fostered by GAA and no rival full time professional sports on the island.

      Glasgow and Edinburgh are the only logical locations for pro Rugby teams in Scotland. Well established football clubs in Dundee and Aberdeen struggle to attract crowds, what kind of crowds do we think newly established pro Rugby teams would draw?

      Reply
      • Ritchie on

        It’s too late now for Borders/Caledonia. So we have to try something to develop young players. Let’s see how this goes. I have my doubts.

      • FF on

        I think the article focuses too much on crowds and not players. The purpose of the Super 6 is to create a better environment than then prem for player development – I don’t think anyone expects them to be attracting thousands of punters every week. The welsh and Irish models referred to were for the pro tier – we have a pro tier and the super 6 is a feeder league not a rival.

  4. James B on

    The Super 6 is a disaster waiting to happen. No consideration has been given to the knock on effects on the club game. 210 players pulled into a pseudo semi pro set up, with massive downward implications. Where are these players going to come from if not from the current Premiership clubs? Lower league clubs already struggling for players will be killed off by the knock on effects as the bigger clubs are forced to find players to replace the squads of boys they are about to lose, it’s the single worst proposal ever muted and if you don’t see the risks, you don’t fully understand the proposal nor appreciate the wider picture.

    The solution? Well, the SRU could start by properly investing in promoting club competitions. The Scottish media provide pitiful coverage of the Premiership and if it weren’t for the excellent coverage provided by the independently run Offside Line, there’d be no publications anywhere covering the league in it’s entirety.

    Second, rather than an intermediate club/pro competition that runs concurrent to the club game and thus competes with it for players, sponsors and supporters and at significant cost, why not do what the greatest rugby playing nation in the world does and run a Regional/District competition at the conclusion of the club season that players are selected for from the club game? Give players something to aim at, something to aspire to, and then give them a chance to exhibit their talent in a true semi pro environment which our pro teams can use to scout the best up and coming or late developing talent. This would strengthen the club game and, if using our traditional Districts as the vehicle for which 4 of these teams are set up, would get immediate buy in from players, supporters and sponsors. Giving the competition the best chance at being commercially sustainable. If we need more than 4 teams, include a 5th ‘franchise’ of ‘exiles and foreign nationals’ currently playing in Scotland. Basically any player who doesn’t ‘qualify’ for one of the District sides, whatever that qualification criteria might be.

    It’s not all about the pro game, any proposal needs to take into account the game as a whole. The Super 6 will be disastrous if it is implemented in it’s current guise.

    It’s an old adage but it’s true – a strong tree needs strong roots.

    Reply
  5. Tom Jamieson on

    Really enjoyed reading the above article. Could somebody please explain to me where the fixtures are coming from for this Super Six initiative and where is the supporter base coming from?

    Reply

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