SRU executive board chief Duncan Paterson last night denied that the sudden switch from four professional districts to two was a U-turn in Murrayfield policy.

Scotland's four district sides will become two as from next season, with marriage arrangements between Caledonia/Glasgow and Edinburgh/Scottish Borders already in place.

He insisted that the move represented a ''natural progression'' of the policy that was set down two years ago.

''Since the advent of professionalism and the open game 30 months ago, world rugby has undergone a dramatic transformation,'' said former Test scrum-half and Scotland manager Paterson.

''French and English clubs have invested huge sums of money in playing personnel with a view to success in the European Cup.

''Most leading English clubs now competing on the European stage are effectively international select sides, and that is the environment in which Scotland's district teams have to compete.''

He added: ''Eighteen months ago, I truly believed that, on a good day, our districts would be able to compete seriously with the likes of Leicester, but the game has moved on.''

While the two new districts will play in the European Cup, there was speculation that the Tennents Premiership champions could earn a place in the European Conference - the UEFA Cup of rugby. The Murrayfield masterplan is for:

lEach of the two playing pools to comprise 30 contracted players, meaning that 60 others will be free to rejoin their clubs.

lThe contracted players will appear exclusively for their districts, except for the odd occasion when they are returning from injury.

lThe club championship will be played from start to finish without interruption.

lContracted players will be involved in 25-30 matches per season, including Scotland and Scotland A games.

lA programme of ''high-quality'' matches against Welsh clubs and Irish provinces, as well as the European Cup.

lThe districts will play each other twice, with a third match to determine the pecking order for European Cup draws.

lMatches against Southern Hemisphere touring sides and other ''meaningful'' games against European teams.

lExisting district infrastructures will remain in place, with individual districts retaining responsibility for development up to Under-21 level

Reaction up and down the country was varied. Some of the leading clubs yesterday welcomed the reappraisal of the club/district conflict.

Speaking for Hawick, Robert Chrystie, the club's president, said: ''We are strongly in favour of the new development. We want to get clubs back to having a meaningful season. We'll lose a few players, but we think that it will be good for Scottish rugby.

''It will raise the profile of the club game considerably because we will be feeding directly into the top 60, and if players want to get to the fully-professional level then they have to prove themselves in the club game.''

For West of Scotland, president Jimmy Caldwell said: ''Clubs will lose a number of players for the whole season, and that is something we have fought against. But we accept that this is the only way to reach an accommodation that will allow the representative scenario to go ahead and still make for a viable club game.''

Coach Brian Edwards added: ''I welcome the fact that this should make more players available to the clubs more frequently, which will make the domestic game more meaningful. At the same time, it should create a real elite group at the top. However, several questions still have to be answered, such as: ''Who exactly are the two districts going to play against after Europe and which team will be rated Scotland's No.1.

''A lot of players were obviously not up to scratch in the original districts - but, if they are going for two, how many Scottish players will actually be in each district? And how much Scotttish money is going to be invested in bringing players back from England?''

However, Glasgow and District committee member Bill Nolan admitted: ''I am extremely suprised at the speed with which it has gone through, because we have never had the opportunity to discuss the way ahead for district rugby and how it affects us. In fact, there was a Glasgow committee meeting on Tuesday night at which two SRU representatives - Ken Crichton and George Blackie - were present and it wasn't even on the agenda. The reps didn't say anything or even hint that anything was on the go.''

Watsonians coach Andrew Ker said: ''This has huge implications because all the district coaches are on three-year contracts. In effect, half of them could be chopped, or there will be a few people being paid for doing nothing.''

Caledonia Reds veteran Dave McIvor hit out: ''All the blood-and-guts effort we've put in for the past couple of years suddenly counts for nothing. We laid our bodies on the line for the Caley jersey - and for what? They might as well just put Scotland and Scotland A into Europe.

''To me the whole matter is bloody sad and obviously done for financial reasons.''

Former Grand Slam captain David Sole declared: ''This proves yet again that to put the focus on districts was an ill-conceived and ill-planned idea which wasn't thought through.''