Unsuccessful and unloved
April 19, 2011
For how much longer will Scotland international Richie Gray remain in a Glasgow shirt? © Getty Images
The great Welsh fly-half Barry John was pontificating the other day on the state of the Welsh regions and he was less than impressed at their prospects.
"My worry is the Welsh teams and, as things stand, I simply don't see a bright future in terms of strength and trying to be properly competitive in the Heineken Cup. I don't wish to be a merchant of doom and gloom, but the clouds have started to darken and there could be some desperate times ahead."
He should try living in Scotland.
Most Welsh regions play in new, purpose built stadiums in front of large and enthusiastic crowds who celebrate reasonably successful teams although admittedly not in the Heineken Cup.
Rugby has always had to work hard in Scotland, sprint to stand still against the all pervasive football culture which sucks up media interest and fans like a black hole, but rarely have we fallen so far behind our main rivals in terms of interest. An entire generation, maybe two, has been lost to the game and still the men in suits who run the game can't find the method or the means to turn a new generation of followers to the delights of pro rugby. Of all the major rugby nations professionalism has failed in just one...Scotland.
Sixteen years into professionalism the pro-teams are utterly unsuccessful and largely unloved. In sixteen years not one Scottish team has won anything although Edinburgh did contest the final of the Celtic Cup...a tournament so vital it no longer exists.
Edinburgh play at Murrayfield with all the atmosphere of a morgue yet they have just announced a five year extension to the deal. Glasgow play on a tiny mud patch of a football pitch which is several metres too narrow for their expansive game.
Last Friday Edinburgh played Aironi in front of 1,565 hardly souls, a figure that was dwarfed the following day when Melrose played Ayr in the final of the club cup competition in front of 4, 500 odd fans. Admittedly there were three cup finals going on that day but well supported clubs like Selkirk and Ayr attract numbers that are not far behind the pro-teams on a weekly basis. Overall Edinburgh attendances are down something like 30% in like for like terms against last season (ignoring the influence of the Italian teams).
The clubs are losing their best players and bizarrely the Scottish Rugby insists they are happy to see them go because it opens opportunities for young players coming through...or so SRU boss Gordon McKie claimed.
When Scotland winger Max Evans announced that he had signed for Castres, the headline in the local Glasgow paper trumpeted: "Difficult Decision for Max."
No. It was an easy decision for Max because Glasgow did not make him an offer. Nothing. The same is true of breakaway Richie Vernon. Andy Robinson invited widespread incredulity when he insisted to the assembled journalists that Glasgow coach Sean Lineen was happy to see the back of Vernon.
Last season Glasgow got to the Magners play-offs and I wrote at the time that all the young squad needed to become genuine contenders was time. They didn't get it. Kelly Brown, Dan Parks, Vernon, Evans and several other lower profile players were ushered out the door and the chances of keeping hold of a giant figure like Richie Gray when his contract ends in a year's time are almost zero.
The pro-teams spend £3.6 million on player salaries, which isn't a million miles off the England salary cap at £4.3 million and not many Aviva clubs operate at the limit of that cap in these straightened times. The overall spend on the two Scottish pro-teams is around £10 million which is a lot of money although the SRU is thought to receive something like half that sum back from ERC for its Heineken Cup participation...although goodness knows why because the Scots haven't exactly set the field on fire.
The one time the pro-teams attracted outside investment in the former of Bob Carruthers, it ended in disaster and recrimination in a manner that is going to dissuade anyone else out there from chancing their arm.
Edinburgh are currently looking for a new coach but one man is unlikely to turn things around when the culture of complacency is so ingrained in the club. Even when Andy Robinson took them to second in the Magners League back in 2008-09 Edinburgh still attracted crowds of just 2,550 and 2,750 for the home games against two of the league's top draws, the Blues and Leinster respectively.
The problems are structural and nothing will change until the underlying structure does. The SRU needs to continue to fund the pro-teams but it needs to offload them and step back from (mis) management. Edinburgh and Glasgow need to be run by independent boards because only then will the fans and financiers get behind the clubs in sufficient numbers to justify their existence.
After 16 years of abject, unadulterated, serial failure perhaps it is time to try something else...not that anyone in Scotland is holding their breath.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.