Having attended several Annual General Meetings of the Scottish Rugby Union in the past, I can assure you they were mostly borefests when such decisions as were made were rubber-stamp jobs as the blazerati at Murrayfield usually got what they wanted.
Not always, though. Back in the 1990s, amateurism had ruled rugby union for two days short of 100 years when the game was declared ‘open’ in August, 1995. The SRU was among the stoutest defenders of the amateur ethos and was caught on the hop. Several AGMs and SGMs in the following years were quite tasty, in fact, as issues such as the number of districts dominated the agendas.
I am not suggesting that there is any likelihood of a return to AGMs that actually mattered, but on Saturday there is an opportunity for the member clubs to seek answers to the questions mainly raised by the latest annual report of the union.
The first question should be how does the SRU see itself? Is it a governing body or an autocratic owner and employer? That question arises from the issue of Scotland and British and Irish Lions scrum half Ali Price being ‘loaned’ by Glasgow Warriors to Edinburgh Rugby for the rest of the season, a move sanctioned by the Murrayfield executive and said to be in the interests of the national team.
Imagine the reaction if the Scottish Football Association had called up Celtic and asked them to lend David Turnbull to Rangers to bolster the Ibrox midfield and ensure he would get the game time to be in national team manager Steve Clarke’s squad for Euro 2024. Nah, Celtic and Rangers tell the SFA what to do and not the other way round…
Part of me thinks ‘well done’ to the Murrayfield bosses for ensuring that a vital player for Scotland who is only 30 is going to be competing – albeit against club co-captain Ben Vellacott - for the No. 9 jersey at Edinburgh instead of being third choice at Scotstoun. But most of me thinks about things like sporting integrity and I wonder, for instance, will Price be able to play in the 1872 Cup matches?
The SRU has now been shown to grossly interfere in the affairs of our two fully professional clubs which are about as independent as, ahem, Scotland. Perhaps someone might care to ask is this situation now permanent or is there any possibility of Glasgow and Edinburgh being sold or having that much promised private investment? Answer: no. In which case how can sporting integrity be achieved?
At the outset can I say that the new governance structure seems to be working or at least needs more time to bed in, and I am glad to say that the recent involvement of people like Lorne Crerar has brought some much-needed intellectual rigour to the SRU, so I’ll leave aside those issues.
However…the annual report shows that while earning record revenues of £68.3m, the SRU ran up a deficit of £10.1m. I am well aware that Covid and the cost of living/hyperinflation crisis has impacted on all sports and I am prepared to accept the explanation that much of the deficit was due to one-off costs such as the investment into the professional game which did indeed see extra playing resources for the national team – an absolute necessity given how internationals generate so much of the SRU’s income – but is the new reality sustainable?
I am also anticipating reasonable income for 2023-24, given the pre-World Cup matches and a small dividend from the World Cup coffers, but only two home ties in the Six Nations means other revenues need to be found this year – more concerts at Murrayfield perhaps?
The SRU has around £20m in cash, but the question still remains Is the SRU living beyond its means?
Remember that the SRU has no employees, but the operational entity Scottish Rugby Limited (SRL) saw its employee numbers rise by more than ten per cent in a year, though that includes the first tranche of contracted women players. What other reasons for that increase were there and is that new figure sustainable?
Though bonuses were not paid, executive salaries also rose, mostly by less than the rate of inflation, so can someone explain why chief executive Mark Dodson received an increase of more than £100,000 (to £676,000) in the last year?
There are 28 employees now earning in excess of £200,000 per year made up of 25 players and three ‘core employees’, a rise of nine in a year. Again, is that sustainable?
I expect there will soon be a big announcement about developing Murrayfield, so maybe that will be answered before Saturday’s AGM.
My chief concern as always, however, is the community level of our sport, and I note that there was an increase in the amounts invested in community clubs and the women’s game, but one question which should most definitely be asked is just exactly how will the grassroots be treated in years to come? Not too much to ask, really.