Scottish Rugby News and Opinion


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

Dundee vs Melrose
Dundee vs Melrose pic courtesy Moody Blue

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
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19 Responses

  1. 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. :-)

  2. 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.

    1. 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.

      1. 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. 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.

    1. 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?

    2. 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?

      1. 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.

      2. 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. 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.

    1. The District game was killed off not by the SRU or lack of money, but entirely by the Premier clubs wanting a longer league season, in order to get more home games. There was no space left in the calendar for 6 District games and anyway the Premier clubs were very lukewarm about providing their cherished players to the Districts, in fact rather hostile to the concept.

      A return of the District championship has been mooted several times, but each time meets the same brick wall. All very parochial, but that is Scottish club rugby for you.

      1. There was a District Championship for almost 50 years and it was the highlight of many a players career. The politics happened around the game turning pro. We’re past that now and with Super 6 as the alternative, it’s a far superior option. Super 6 will kill club rugby.

        Besides, seems the SRU just do what they want these days without asking the clubs. I wonder how much chance the Super 6 concept would have if it were actually consulted on with the clubs?

  5. 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?

  6. Fixtures – The teams will play each other 3 times plus 5 or 6 cross-border fixtures, most likely against the top 6 in the Welsh Championship.

    Supporter base – Will initially be what the club brings, which will be pretty much what it gets now. Merged clubs, say an Edinburgh North, will get a few more from the component partners. It is up to the clubs to attract support, by advertising, promotion, results etc, not the SRU.

    1. Merged clubs? Have you read the franchise info and then applied common sense to it? Why would any clubs merge over this? There’s nothing in it worth merging over – can only use single ground, it will require an investment of a lot more than £62k, if the competition falls flat, what then? SRU control the coaching appointments, squad and all rugby matters while volunteers do the donkey work. How any club can view this as a good proposal in the cold light of day is beyond me, never mind merging over it. Most clubs would require their members permission to do so anyway – not going to happen.

      1. What do you suggest? Can’t afford another pro team. Scottish rugby has moved on leaps and bounds, but so has rugby in other countries. We need to continue to adapt, keeping the status quo amd sticking heads in the sand is not the way forward. This at least looks like a viable option to develop players to a higher standard. The amatur Scots pro teams in the B & I cup got spanked repeatedly which shows the standard of Scots domestic rugby compared to the rest of the B & I.

      2. MK – See my comment above. Instead of having a ‘Super 6’ that runs in parallel with the club season, have a regional competition that players and coaches are selected for on merit that is played outwith the club season. Like we used to have. i.e. The Inter-District Championship. Far easier to implement and would be a true testing ground for promising players, late developers, etc. and the budget the SRU is committing would go a lot further over a shorter comp. Also, commercially it makes much more sense.

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Scottish Rugby News and Opinion