Mark Dodson, the chief executive of Scottish Rugby, had done a pretty good job avoiding the Scottish rugby press during the coronavirus pandemic.
We had a brief conference on Zoom – yes, we’ve embraced that like everyone else – when the PRO14-CVC partnership was confirmed. But the session was restticted to that subject and that alone, when there were manifold other matters that could be discussed.
There followed a few weeks’ hiatus with two further Zoom conferences postponed or cancelled. Clearly Dodson had considerable issues on his plate, but one or two of the more sensitive in the Scottish rugby media were beginning to take it personally.
But if Dodson had been saving himself for a battle, he came out energised and swinging when we finally pegged him down last week. He didn’t soft soap the crisis, but offered a square-jawed response and a clear determination to see it through.
He also suggested a consensus approach to the issues in rugby both on a domestic and global scale, squarely against his prevailing image of a “my way or the highway” sort.
“We can’t go about talking about #AsOne (Scottish Rugby’s present hashtag) and not acting `as one’,” he remarked, in maybe the most memorable soundbite from the session. We’ll hold you to that, Mark, in the same way we did to “my door is always open”.
But might this crisis be the challenge that finally wins over the many sceptics about his bullish style?
Probably not entirely, as shifting opinion in Scottish rugby at all levels is often like turning around that muckle great container ship that arrived on our shores this week.
But you often find out the best (and worst) of leaders in crisis, as we’re discovering in other walks of life right now.
And while counselling that there isn’t a bottomless pit of resources and Scottish Rugby could run out of funds if the pandemic extends or a second wave arrives, he pounded a more optimistic beat.
“We’ll make sure we get through this crisis, Scottish Rugby will still be intact, our pro teams will be there and competitive, so will our national team, and for our employees and all our stakeholders, we will work endlessly and tirelessly to make it work and make it happen for them,” he vowed.
Still rugby’s Gordian Knot
Dodson even sounded optimistic that a breakthrough in getting all of world rugby singing from the same hymn sheet was upon us.
The evidence of what’s leaked out from Monday’s forum meeting of unions, clubs and leagues was that while they may be on the same sheet, we still can’t agree on which language, which arrangement or even which song we should sing.
Dodson said he felt the mood for compromise meant a fully joined-up world calendar was upon us, adding as an afterthought that the English and French clubs needed to be fully onboard.
Guess what? They’re not. The French club representative Paul Goze does not appear to have entered any spirit of compromise, suggesting that their 10-month Top14 season was an immovable monument.
Well, we’ve discovered in the last few weeks that mounuments are movable, even when very strange people stand around them to try to “protect” them.
French rugby had played a strong hand in recent years because of the windfall of cash from their TV deal with Canal Plus. Nothing quite that windfall is likely when the TV deal comes to be renegotiated in the next year, however, and the French are going to have to trim their sails like everyone else.
But it shows that while there is general agreement to expedite the unfinished season and next, any “reset” of the game beyond that and a structure that works for the benefit of all rugby still faces the old prejudices and narrow self-interest.
A delight, and a warning
It was, for any fan of any sport, a thrill and a delight to see full houses – sweet normality – at the opening games of Super Rugby Aotearoa in New Zealand last week.
They were two decent games – the players will hopefully get up to speed on the new breakdown campbdown as we go on – and what a story it was for Bryan Gatland of the Highlanders drop a goal to beat Dad Warren’s Chiefs. Sport does this crazy, unlikely, perfect story thing ALL THE TIME, unless you’d forgotten.
Just three days later, however, a sobering rejoinder – two cases of Covid-19 in New Zealand where it seemed to have been eradicated.
The NZ authorities said they knew there would be occurrences at the borders and sure enough, it was two people who’d come from the UK let out of quarantine too early on compassionate grounds.
What’s scary is that they could have infected over 300 people in the short time they were at large. And that could bring the whole triumph of New Zealand’s successful pandemic response crashing down.
It’s a warning – this pandemic is not going away anytime soon. Anywhere.