A Keen Contest on a Dreich Afternoon

29th January 2018

Scottish Rugby has announced a significant set of changes to the structure of club rugby from the 2019-20 season. There will be six semi-professional clubs in a tier below the two current fully professional outfits (the Glasgow Warriors and Edinburgh Rugby). Below the “Super Six”, all the other clubs will participate in amateur leagues, at the head of which will be a 12-team Scottish Championship.

The principal aim of the changes is to smooth the pathway for players graduating from the leading Scottish club sides into the professional ranks – currently something of a chasm.

The existing clubs (or syndicates of clubs) have until 30th March to submit their bids to Scottish Rugby to become one of the new elite group. The franchises, which will be announced on 1st May, will run for five years at a time and there will be at least one Super Six team in each of Scottish Rugby’s four regions.

The new system will face a number of challenges. For example, much will depend on whether Scottish Rugby can also negotiate with one or more of the other Unions for a suitable competition in which the Super Six could participate. (There would be little attraction in them just playing each other all the time). I wonder, also, about the extent to which Glasgow Rugby and/or Edinburgh Rugby might use their Super Six “partners” as convenient teams in which to ensure that members of their own squads have the opportunity to gain playing time when not in the first team or returning from injury. (This issue is not dissimilar to that in rugby league, when Super League sides use the “dual registration” arrangements with lower league clubs to parachute in players for certain matches, thereby risking team morale and continuity within the recipient sides). And, not least, history suggests that the policing of the amateur status below the Super Six – indeed “wholly amateur”, according to Scottish Rugby’s press release last autumn – might be a combination of the difficult and the casual.

On Saturday, I went to watch Peebles visit West of Scotland at Burnbrae in the National League Division 2. This is the third tier of the present club hierarchy and so their respective positions of 5th and 9th in the league placed the two sides at 27th and 31st within the overall nationwide standings. We can probably assume that neither club will be one of the selected half dozen.

It was evident from the first scrum that West were in for a tough afternoon. Their forwards were shunted yards backwards at the set-piece: a pattern that was to repeat itself throughout the game. West’s sources of possession were more productive from the line-out and from a continual stream of Peebles infringements at the breakdown, but they were not sufficient to stem the tide. Peebles ran in their first try after six minutes and, aided by a strong breeze on a damp afternoon, were 26-0 ahead at half-time.

West did not give up, however, and kept scrapping right to the end: literally so, as some fine handling in the match’s last passage of play led to their second try and a reduction in the final deficit to 12-36. (This had been immediately preceded by an anguished cry by one of the Peebles players – which seemed to echo around the main stand – when one of his colleagues had kicked the ball down the middle of the pitch instead of safely out of play over the touchline to end the match: “What the f… are you doing?”)

I enjoyed the afternoon. For part of the second half, I joined the handful of spectators on the banking behind the lower touchline, where the sharp gusts of a swirling wind would occasionally blow into our faces. We formed a small group of camp followers close to the action as the play moved back and forth down the field. I had a good view of the commitment of the players and of the many small-scale examples of their courage and skill.

It is unlikely that either Peebles or West of Scotland will move out of Division 2 this season. As one of the league’s sides (Aberdeenshire) has dropped out, there is only one relegation place and West seem to be comfortably clear of the Whitecraigs side currently occupying 11th place, whilst Peebles will probably fall just short of the two promotion slots. As the new Scottish Championship will presumably be comprised of 12 sides drawn from next season’s Premiership and National League Division 1, this means that both clubs would remain within the new National League structure at its inauguration in 2019.

Scottish Rugby has stated that it hopes the absence of player payments will allow Scottish Championship and National League clubs to build stronger community ties and invest in developing their infrastructures. In the cases of both West of Scotland and Peebles, it could be argued that the local ties are already strong, as given, for example, by the former’s extensive commitment to providing facilities and coaching for “micro”, “mini” and “midi” rugby – i.e. from pre-school to the Under 16s of Bearsden and Milngavie – on a Sunday morning.

I wonder, therefore, how much club rugby at this level – as revealed by the competitive action on the pitch – will be affected by Scottish Rugby’s bold plans. Relatively little, perhaps. And for this casual spectator looking to attend a keenly contested match on a dreich afternoon, that would be no bad thing.

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