The Professional Era – Not All Progress is Forward

bill mclaren

Having had my say on attitudes within the RFU and on the scheduling of World Cup fixtures to suit those who believe another country lies beyond the boundaries of the M25 it got me thinking about a fascinating book I read last year – ‘Southern Comfort – The Story of Borders Rugby’ by Neil Drysdale, The book was highly recommended by Rugby World magazine (great value at £4.30) for traditionalists like my very good self.

The book traces the evolution of the game in the South of Scotland from the birth in 1871 of Langholm followed by what were to become the powerhouses of the likes of Hawick, Gala, Kelso and Melrose who, over the decades to follow entertained some of the greatest international touring teams. Neil Drysdale has been intimately acquainted with some of the Borders legends and, not least, with the voice of rugby, the legendary Bill McLaren who, sadly, passed away in 2010, and this comes through clearly in the detail he provides of a massively community based sport.

It meticulously charts the glory days through to the long decline which ushered in the professional era and the completely cack-handed management of the regional game to the present day – this latter phase is no doubt compulsory reading for all members of the WRU and the 4 Welsh regions who have their own particular set of mismanagement issues to address and, like Scotland with the dominance of Celtic and Rangers in football, I worry for the sustainability of four regions with Cardiff City’s elevation to Premiership football.

Scottish professional rugby set out with 4 regions as well, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Caledonia and the Border Reivers in 1997 when the SRU confidently predicted that the 4 regions would draw average gates of 15000. This didn’t happen, the club circuit nearly died, the SRU’s finances went down the loo  and the regions were reduced to 2 with Caledonia merging with Glasgow and the Borders with Edinburgh. Bizarrely, the SRU then revived the Borders in 2002 only to apply the bullet, finally, in 2007. Since then Scottish Rugby has been in a slump although Glasgow have had an amazingly good season, and long may it continue – note to Steve Diamond, a new ground can be a positive thing.

Really the point I am trying to make is that, whilst the game is still hugely exciting to watch with the players so much stronger and fitter than their earlier amateur counterparts, once the beancounters and ‘business managers’ take over under the auspices of professionalism, the interests of the fans get sacrificed. The loyalties of players become strained although there are still many loyal club servants out there and the more peripheral geographical areas will become abandoned. Bill McLaren would most certainly not have approved.

This book will not appeal to the sensation seeker but, for a wander down memory lane to a time when the sport came first and rugby lay at the heart of so many communities, this book is a fascinating reminder of much that has been, and more that may yet be, lost.

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