Of the four home nations, only Ireland can claim to be in a good place financially. In England, the RFU has implemented cost-cutting measures. And the Welsh Rugby Union is looking to slash budgets for its regions. Meanwhile, Scottish Rugby has a different problem. It can’t afford another professional team so is investing in what it sees as the optimum route for player development. But its actions are dividing the grassroots community.
The problem is not confined to Scotland. What’s occurring there could also happen elsewhere. Rather than spend money on developing the domestic infrastructure, the Scots have taken a broader view.
The governing body has invested in French outfit Stade Nicois and Old Glory DC, which will join the MLR in America next season. It also has links with other clubs. Among them are Western Force in Australia and London Scottish, as well as Lille Metropole and Loughborough for women.
So far, there have been generally positive outcomes. Dave Cherry signed for Edinburgh after a successful season with Stade Nicois. Bruce Flockhart and Charlie Capps followed the same route into contracts with Glasgow Warriors. Elsewhere, Edinburgh lock Lewis Carmichael had a loan spell with Western Force.
Jade Konkel, Scotland’s first female professional, blazed a trail when she joined Lille. Fellow Scots Chloe Rollie and Lisa Thomson later joined her. Others have also signed professional contracts and moved away from Scotland. They include Sarah Bonar at Loughborough Lightening and Helen Nelson at French champions Montpellier.
Those moves have broadened the experience of players who would otherwise have had limited opportunities. That’s particularly true for the women who would have no exposure to professional rugby at home. It’s certainly cheaper than creating a third professional men’s side. That’s a key factor. The two currently in place would fail if left to their own financial devices. That’s the positive news.
On the negative side, critics have questioned the benefit of investing in Old Glory. The fledgling American outfit needs help to get off the ground. It has welcomed the injection of Scottish money. No Scots players have yet been allocated to the Washington-based set up. And, when that happens, it may not necessarily be a good thing as Old Glory look likely to struggle in the league. Indeed, they were hammered by Scotland in a warm up game for the Under 20 World Cup. That tournament ended in Scottish disaster, suggesting Old Glory were no great shakes.
Meanwhile, Stade Nicois operate in the third tier of French rugby. Many question whether that’s a better breeding ground than new Super6 semi-professional competition in Scotland, or the ten-team Premiership. The latter has been a development tool for many youngsters now playing at Edinburgh and Glasgow.
Super6 has drawn criticism for being too limited as a competition, but is touted as a halfway house to professionalism. Most people in Scotland hope it will work. However, sceptics suggest it will suck talent and money away from traditional clubs. Those further down the pecking order are already struggling to survive both in player numbers and money.
Premiership clubs are also under pressure. Clubs are now competing with the Super6 arrangement for sponsorship money. Losing that could be a fatal blow to the grassroots. There has also been a suggestion that clubs will have to pay for video coverage previously provided free. And, the cost-cutting measures could include having no neutral assistant referees. That would save costs. But it would also undermine the credibility of the club game. The risk here is that lack of funding will eventually force clubs out of existence.
Scotland is certainly not alone in struggling to make ends meet. These are worrying times for the sport in general. The greatest concern is that the professional game will kill off amateur rugby. If that happens, recreational players will be driven away. There will be fewer routes to develop youngsters. And people with life-long connections to local clubs will drift off.
Written by Colin Renton