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SRU can no longer ignore social media

Almost nine years ago, at a time when his imminent appointment as Scotland rugby coach was the worst-kept secret in the game, Frank Hadden was asked to comment on the fact that contributors to various online message boards had been fiercely critical of his suitability to the job.

Hadden shrugged. "The internet is the toilet wall of the 21st century," he replied.

Maybe so, but it is the biggest and busiest toilet the world has ever known. And while much that appears there is ephemeral, ill-considered and factually suspect, it is still a pretty good barometer of the public mood. Which is not good news for the Scotland team, the Scottish Rugby Union or national coach Scott Johnson.

Time was when the Murrayfield establishment could dismiss media criticism of the performance of their team or their stewardship of the wider game as the dyspeptic grumblings of a handful of wizened hacks. Not any more (even if there is still some truth in the charge). Over the past few days they have taken a fair kicking in the press - but they have also been given a savaging by a Scottish rugby public who are as tuned in to social media as they are turned off by the efforts of their national team.

The outpouring of anger after Saturday's abject performance against England, which resulted in a 20-0 defeat, was both swift and ferocious. On Twitter and Facebook and various independent forums, supporters have vented their anger and dismay at a performance and a result that flattened the spirits of everyone who cares for the game in these parts.

Some responses have been staggering. Paul Hayward, the Daily Telegraph's hugely respected chief sportswriter, penned an article that savaged the Scotland team, the Murrayfield atmosphere, the pitch and just about anything else that strayed into his line of fire. He also suggested that Scotland should start taking the Six Nations seriously or risk being kicked out of the tournament. At the time of writing, Hayward's piece has received almost 1100 readers' comments - and this on a site that sits behind a subscriber-only paywall.

However, by far the most interesting development has been the establishment of a Facebook page entitled Change for Scottish Rugby. It sprang up in the immediate aftermath of the Calcutta Cup defeat, but it has tapped into the zeitgeist with a wide-ranging call for sweeping changes to the way rugby is run in Scotland, for the establishment of another professional team, for a more focused player development system and for the rejection of the policy of importing players to plug gaps or as 'projects' who might eventually become Scotland internationalists.

The page was set up by Ross Forsyth, a 25-year-old Borderer, as a way of venting his frustration over the way Scotland have been playing and how the game as a whole is being run. Within a few days, it has attracted more than 3000 likes. As that number, still growing rapidly, would be a decent attendance at an Edinburgh game, the SRU would be well advised not to rubbish it.

"I could see on Facebook and Twitter the amount of people sharing articles calling for change," Forsyth explained. "So I thought I should do something and remove the feeling of powerlessness. People care about rugby in Scotland more than we give ourselves credit for. From the comments on this page, it is abundantly clear that the majority of the Scottish rugby public agree.

"We do not question the commitment of the players on the pitch; they can only play with the hand they are dealt and the SRU are dealing them a bad hand. We want to change the whole mindset and plan of the SRU. With public backing they will have no choice but to listen."

Last night, the fledgling movement announced plans to produce a manifesto. "Stopping the awful governance of the SRU is the overall objective," their statement explained. "But our primary goals are, to increase in the number of professional teams, radically improve the youth development structure and scrap 'international scouting' or 'project players'. We plan to highlight how we can achieve these goals and what these goals actually entail."

Spleens were being vented on tournament sponsors RBS's Scottish Rugby Page as well. "Sorry guys but that was a pathetic display today . . . something has to change," was one of the milder contributions. "What a total and utter embarrassment! Every last player a disgrace to the shirt," said another poster. "Get Scott Johnson out now!" thundered another.

The SRU, to their credit, have take the line that social media has to be embraced, not battled against. "We see social media as part of our commitment to supporters to keep them informed and engage directly with them," said Dominic McKay, the Union's head of Public Affairs. "It is a powerful and positive tool and we actively encourage our players to be role models and interact with supporters - so that they can hear their views directly.

"Social media is an overwhelmingly positive tool for engaging with supporters and enhancing their interest in Scottish Rugby. As an example, our Twitter feed covers every facet of the game in Scotland - from results in club and school matches to the international game. We recognise, of course, that it [also] enables supporters and others to offer their views on all manner of rugby topics and we of course welcome this."

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