David Ferguson: Clubs reveal their blueprints for change

THE push for change in the Scottish club rugby season is gaining ground with leading coaches and the SRU now working closely together to thrash out a plan to be put before the country's voting masses at the annual general meeting in June.

The SRU's first director of performance rugby, Graham Lowe, met club coaches again last week and insisted he shared their desire for a more ambitious, semi- professional Premier set-up that would provide a better platform for young players to push their claims to the professional teams.

The New Zealander is not yet pushing a change from the 12-team league system, but does like the idea of a mid-season split along the lines of the SPL, where the top six teams break from the bottom six for their remaining five games.

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There is little doubt that Scottish club rugby needs a major shot of ambition, the tinkering of recent years having made no real impact across the swathe of the club game, at least in terms of crowd sizes, sponsorship and ultimately income. In most areas the crowd numbers and income figures have continued to slide.

Craig Chalmers, the Melrose coach, has listened to talk of change for the past decade and more, but believes there is a groundswell of opinion now being driven by players and coaches that makes a more ambitious move more realistic.

He said: "We have been looking at a lot of different ideas for a while now and I think we're all getting to the stage of realising it has to happen now; not next year or a year later or more endless talking.

"I am a great fan of club rugby and love seeing good games, but I have to admit that the club game and our structure has got boring. Almost every league in the world has play-offs now, for example – England, Super 14, Magners League, the French Top 14 – and I think it would be great for us.

"I'd like to see play-offs at the top but also at the bottom, between the second-bottom team and the second in Premier Two. It would bring an exciting climax to the season and for the teams at the top it would also provide an opportunity to blood players during the season because you wouldn't have to win every single game to get into the top four, which is an important part of developing players."

Glasgow Hawks produced a paper which proposed an eight-team league, where criteria would be set in areas from facilities to youth development that teams gaining entry to that had to match. There appears to be greater support for ten-team leagues than cutting from the existing 12 to eight in one fell swoop, but the discussion over how many teams are in a league is one side of the debate and has to go hand-in-hand with the wider issue of when club rugby is played.

This year has underlined how ridiculous the current structure is, with the league now threatening to run into late May.

Clubs are desperate to try and claw back revenues lost over the past decade through dwindling crowds, sponsorship and union funding, but many now seem to be realising that the answer does not lie in stretching the season out and wringing the game for every last drop.

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Stirling County have now produced a paper, championed by president Ray Mountford, which calls for a new season structure launching the club game in April.

He explained: "The players told me they didn't like the idea of a two-month mid-season break in the winter, but liked the idea of not starting the leagues until April, using February and March for pre-season while all the attention is on the Six Nations.

"That would take away the conflict between club and international rugby, particularly us losing age-grade internationalists, and so we have proposed running the leagues from April to June, just home or away, with a six-week break for the summer holiday when families tend to go away, and then returning to play in August to November, in programmes tailored to each division and culminating in cup finals, play-offs or whatever the majority like before the autumn Tests."

There are similar plans being discussed throughout the club game. The key, however, and what we have proposed in these columns, is re-structuring the season in such a way that is most attractive to players, supporters and sponsors, with a shortened league championship at its core but enhanced by other competitions.

A reduction in the number of league matches, by cutting league sizes or going to home or away games, with new play-offs is fundamental, but the introduction of an inter-district championship and regionalised – Glasgow, Edinburgh, Caledonia, Border – district leagues have a proven attraction to those three key groups. The other important factor now is getting it through the SRU agm in June which, with a setting-aside of the by-law against immediate change, could bring a new system in as early as 2010-11.

Crucially, Lowe has been quick to stress that he views the 'performance' end of Scottish rugby as including the top echelons of the club game, not solely the pro and international teams, but he also agrees that Scottish rugby needs a strong, vibrant and ambitious top tier of clubs if the pro and international teams are to remain part of the top table globally.

The SRU will not permit any interviews with Lowe at present, insisting he wants time to engage across the game before speaking publicly, but there is a growing hope that his involvement can strengthen links between the club and pro tiers, sooner rather than later.

Ian Rankin, who coached and managed Caledonia Reds and Edinburgh Reivers, and is now director of rugby at Dundee HSFP, told The Scotsman: "I've been very impressed by Graham. He is not coming in telling clubs what to do, but listening, looking at the game for himself and making his opinions."



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Previous set-up of three Premier divisions and nine National divisions replaced by three Premier and four National divisions, each of ten teams. Regional leagues below.


Three Premier divisions, each of 12 teams. Four national divisions, each of ten teams. Regional leagues re-shaped.


Ten teams in P1; 12 teams in P2 and P3; 12 in national leagues, but fourth division dropped into regional leagues.


Three Premier divisions, each of 12 teams. Three National divisions, also each of 12 teams. Regional leagues.