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Mark Dodson tells SRU delegates money can bring semi-pro dream closer to fruition

THERE was almost a stunned look to the delegates as they emerged from the Scottish Rugby Union's annual general meeting at the weekend.

Melrose celebrate winning the RBS Premiership, but a semi-pro league in Scotland has been deemed a step too far by the clubs. Picture: SNS
Melrose celebrate winning the RBS Premiership, but a semi-pro league in Scotland has been deemed a step too far by the clubs. Picture: SNS

No rows, no bad news, no real debate over anything. Was this really the fractious union that had dominated the sport in Scotland for the last 20 years?

Well, yes. When the chief executive talks about record income and how large chunks of that money - plus the extra that is expected once things like the £20m deal to add BT's name to Murrayfield kick in - are destined for the member clubs; when there are no significant changes in the playing structure; when the only things for delegates to vote on are a series of mind-numbingly technical changes to bye-laws and articles of association . . . what is there to argue about?

What Mark Dodson, the chief executive who delivered the upbeat assessment of the Union's financial performance, failed to acknowledge is that this does not mean everything under his care is rosy. Far from it; in some cases, such as women's rugby, it is not even rosy when looked at through rose-tinted spectacles.

What he did say is that there is money available that can be used to start looking for ways of solving the structural problems that are undermining the game. That includes £750,000 to go on schools and youth rugby and Dodson is busy arranging meetings with the independent schools, who have often resisted change, to get them integrated.

"What I want is to help all sectors of the game," he said. "I don't want to see the independent sector not connected to the state sector which is not connected to club rugby. I have to find an umbilical cord that connects all those sectors together.

"The promises only mean something if we fulfil those promises. In the past, there has been a lot of talk and not much action. One of the benefits of the BT deal is that it turns initiatives into programmes - that is key. These are no longer ideas or plans but programmes that are being implemented.

"When people see academies blooming, when they see schools rugby blooming and they see the women's game being recalibrated and the clubs in the Premiership more robust so that they have the foundations to compete, they will maybe say that we have reached the time we can take a semi-professional tier forward."

That for Dodson, is one of the developments he believes is essential. He accepts that the Premiership clubs and the ones with ambition to reach the top level of the domestic game do not yet feel strong enough to take that radical step. However, until they do, too many Scottish players will fail to reach their potential because they are not getting enough high-quality, intense rugby to drive them onwards and upwards.

"The semi-pro league was a step too far for clubs at this time, so what they asked us to do was prepare for a future that would give them the infrastructure they need to work towards a semi-professional future," he said. "That is one of the biggest challenges. The biggest is to get more people playing the sport; the second is making sure we capture every talented individual and push them through a system that can make the most of their talent and give us the conveyor belt of talent that most countries have.

"The reason Edinburgh are reliant on players from outside Scotland is that we don't have a conveyor belt of strong enough local-grown players to keep us competitive in the PRO12. We are the only rugby-playing country of any note that does not have a semi-professional layer that sits underneath the pro structure.

"If you look at what happens in England, Ireland and Wales, the depth of quality is much greater than it is in Scotland. We have to catch up a 15-year gap, we have to supercharge all our efforts."

The only other development of note was that Ed Crozier of Glasgow was elected as vice-president, which means he will inherit the presidency from next year and be the Union's figurehead during the World Cup.

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