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Berwick RFC vs Orkney RFC - pic © David Boyes
Berwick RFC vs Orkney RFC - pic © David Boyes

The Scottish Rugby Union is the clubs.

That shouldn’t be a contentious statement. It is a statement of fact. The Scottish Rugby Union was founded by the clubs and is made up of its member clubs. And yet, a few months ago, it was suggested to me on Twitter that Scottish Rugby could survive without the clubs. Professional rugby was the way forward and players should be brought through academy systems and private schools. There are a number of problems with this.

Firstly, it wouldn’t be possible to have the SRU without the clubs. The SRU would have to be dissolved and all available assets “distributed amongst the Full Member Clubs”. Any new governing body would be starting from scratch including having to find a new national stadium.

Secondly, both professional sides are owned by the SRU and so, in turn owned by the clubs. It might be upsetting for a Glasgow or Edinburgh fan to hear their team described as an “asset” but that is precisely what they are. It was put to me in the same discussion that fans of the professional teams should have more influence on their future than the clubs. As someone else pointed out, you don’t get a say in how McDonald’s is run just because you buy a Big Mac. Sure you can fill out a customer feedback survey and you might be invited to take part in the odd focus group but unless you’re a shareholder you have no ability to influence the strategic direction of the organisation. 

Thirdly, followers of Scottish rugby are often guilty of overestimating the popularity of rugby within Scotland and even the wider world. Rugby is a minority sport. In terms of participation it lags behind football, tennis, golf, martial arts and gymnastics amongst children. In terms of an audience, both Edinburgh and Glasgow’s attendances are comparable to a bottom end Scottish Premiership and top end Championship football side. 

Attendances for big European games and 1872 Cup ties are higher. The accusation from regular attendees is that these are “fair weather fans” who only turn up for the big games. Even worse things are said about those who only turn up to watch Scotland play. 

The truth of the matter is that these fans are more likely to follow their club side. They have a passing interest in the fortunes of the professional teams and may prefer one over the other. But professional rugby to them is more a means to an end. It provides an outlet for international players to play rugby between internationals and utlinately international rugby is where the SRU makes its money.

So why, some may ask, are the clubs unhappy with the way the SRU is run if they are its owners? Using the earlier McDonald’s analogy, the clubs are the shareholders. They are not involved in day to day decisions affecting the running of the SRU and their ability to influence the strategic direction is limited. That is not necessarily a bad thing in principal. It means the SRU is able to function and operate without being paralysed by the need to constantly consult with a large number of parties who may have conflicting and disparate views. 

In practice the member clubs elect representatives for their particular league. These league representatives along with the President and Vice-President make up the SRU Council. The Council meets five times a year and as part of its role, according to the SRU bye-laws, it is supposed to be able to hold the CEO and Board to account in terms of performance and to advise on matters of policy and strategy.

The issue clubs have is that the Council’s ability to hold the Board and CEO to account has been eroded over time without their apparent knowledge or consent. There is little argument that the SRU’s financial position is reasonably sound compared to the other unions or that performances of both professional teams and the international side are much improved. However, decisions such as investing in teams overseas don’t sit well when domestic clubs are working flat out to raise enough funds just to keep afloat. Whilst most clubs might employ a small number of staff, the majority of work is done by volunteers giving up their time to make sure pitches are maintained, changing rooms painted, youth teams are coached, teas are served and fundraising events run smoothly.

The question some have asked is why not invest in clubs overseas to provide better player pathways and invest more in academies and private schools in order to produce a higher standard of players. 

But players rarely arrive at private schools having not touched a rugby ball before. Most players produced by the schools system have come through on a scholarship based on their sporting abilities with their early experiences of rugby being formed within a club.

The same is true of the academies. Every player that arrives at an academy does so as a result of hours of support and input from volunteers at their local club or clubs. 

The clubs in Scotland are the lifeblood of Scottish rugby. The clubs produce the players. The schools and academies might hone and finesse their skills but only after a considerable investment of time from clubs and volunteers across the country. That investment not only produces players but it also produces the next generation of fans whose love of the game is forged through experiences of youth rugby, which is a really popular sport that people love to watch and even gamble on in sites like w88 online.

I have Berwick Rugby Club to thank for my ongoing love of the sport. I had a hard time at school. Outside of playing for the club I was a member of the school debating society and I played the tuba. So it wasn’t easy mass debating my way through school with my massive instrument. But playing rugby gave me confidence, even though I wasn’t very good, and that’s because no one ever told me I was crap. Not my teammates and not my coaches. There was never anything other than encouragement. I even got an award for “best trainer” in my first season.

And that’s the wonderful thing about this sport. It’s generally inclusive and it’s welcoming. Perhaps more so than other sports where the focus is on those who naturally excel. The RFU have introduced a rule that every player up to under 18 level will be guaranteed at least a half of rugby and the SRU have adopted a similar approach for games up to under 14 level.

The future of rugby in Scotland is dependant on the success of its clubs. Success should not be measured in trophies but in healthy youth set ups and good player retention and progression at all levels. That’s why we’re holding our Big Club Dinner on Friday 24 July.

Many clubs rely on their annual club dinners to raise vital funds to keep the club going and most have been unable to host their dinners and other fundraising events such as 7s tournaments. Anything you’re able to give will be greatly received and help towards ensuring your community club survives the impacts of coronavirus.

The event is free but in return we will be asking those that are able to donate the normal cost of a club dinner or night out to their local club. If you don’t have a local club then we’ll be asking for donations to the My Name’5 Doddie foundation. 

You can find a list of all clubs in Scotland and their websites by following the link below:

There is a growing unease amongst clubs in Scotland about the direction of travel the SRU are taking. Quite rightly, clubs are looking to take back some control of the strategic decisions which have been made in their name. That should not be at the cost of progress and maintaining an ability to adapt quickly to an ever changing economic situation. However, investment in the club system is key to ensuring the future of Scottish rugby. The next Darcy Graham or Stuart Hogg is already playing in Hawick not Nice or Washington DC.

2 Responses

  1. Its not *that* inclusive! In the UK as a whole, it remains something that middle class children are exposed to. Yes, the clubs are important but so is outreach. At the moment the sport in Scotland is fishing from a small pond of private schools (and state schools in better-off areas) and the Borders. I don’t see the clubs doing a lot of that – the SRU is doing a little (but could do a lot more).

  2. A lovely piece Mr Black and one I whole heartedly agree with. My love of the game came later than school but the welcome was the same and I only wish my state school had access to rugby in the way they do now. I know that more needs to be done but a lot of Clubs now employ school development officers who go into state schools in a way they never did during the 80’s. The SRU support this and are actively encouraging Clubs to do more. The funding for community clubs is spread very thinly but speaking for my own club they try to make the investment work in the best way possible.

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Scottish Rugby News and Opinion