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THE BREAKDOWN, STEVE SCOTT: Mark Dodson as bullish as ever as Scottish Rugby sees a pathway through pandemic

Scottish Rugby CEO Mark Dodson.
Scottish Rugby CEO Mark Dodson.

Even the struggles of the pandemic, the confirmation of the “doomsday scenario” of no fans at the Six Nations and the impending loss of his right-hand man Dominic McKay hasn’t changed Mark Dodson’s bullish mood.

The Scottish Rugby chief executive actually seems to have relished the challenge of the pandemic. And he’s very confident the organisation has successfully negotiated it, despite the fears last summer that no fans at three home Six Nations games this spring could be a disaster.

“We’ve learned a lot about ourselves and our people, how resilient they are,” he said. “We’ve also realised that the business is quite strong.

“When two out of your three revenue streams are turned off overnight and there’s no prospect of being able to get them back, you have to go into crisis mode.

“It took us some time to come to terms with the fact that this is an emergency, but once we did so then found that the planning we put in place is pretty well founded.”

Surviving the doomsday scenario

Trading through the pandemic seemed impossible last June, but it’s the option they took, and there is credit due to all, says Dodson.

“The players’ union have been really helpful and constructive partners,” he continued. “I can’t speak highly enough about our staff, whether they’ve been working flat out or helping us by staying on furlough.

“It’s been an amazing effort by everybody. We’ve also had some great support from our sponsors and broadcasters. They haven’t had the exposure that they’ve paid for but they’ve stuck with us and taken alternative packages.

“It’s been a real eye opener to see how well things have gone, and I do feel more confident. We were a strong business going into the pandemic and we’ll be a strong business coming out of it.”

The credit is due…

Dodson’s departing lieutenant Dominic McKay was instrumental in Murrayfield’s strong relationship with government agencies.

The biggest credit is…well, credit. A £15 million grant from Scottish Government and the £5 million loan about to be delivered has effectively saved the organisation, it seems.

Rugby’s deal from the Scottish Government has been generous – prompting the usual utter guff about “posh people’s sports”.

The truth is that Murrayfield carefully built strong relationships with successive administrations at Holyrood over years – Dominic McKay at the forefront – and they cashed in that goodwill. They weren’t entitled and demanding like other sports one could mention.

Ready to go when fans are allowed

A pilot in August saw 750 fans inside Murrayfield.

This was also why Scottish Rugby was first through the gate with a plan to bring back fans, as they did for 750 or so Edinburgh supporters in a pilot back in the heady, naïve days of last August. But that plan has them ready for when the lights turn green.

“We’ve just heard the UK and Scottish Governments talk about the potential of crowds coming back, but we’re going to have to wait until people are more categoric,” said Dodson.

“I hope we have crowds back towards the end of this season but in real terms it would be sensible to plan for the start of the 2021-22 season.

“But as soon as government is ready to allow crowds, we’re ready to go. We had a very successful test event, we know how to put these games on and we’re trusted.

“Safety remains our paramount objective here, it’s not about our finances, it’s about making sure we keep people safe in our stadia.”

‘Players have had a really weird season’

The first game that could see fans back in is the Lions test against Japan scheduled for June 22. Murrayfield would be interested in a further test from a home Lions “tour” against the Springboks as is being mooted. But Dodson is wary of “cash-in” games to replenish lost revenues when the gates re-open on Roseburn Street.

“We don’t know about a Lions Tour yet, and until options are on the table we can’t get into the detail,” he said.

“A large number of our players will go (with the Lions). We’ve also got summer tours which we don’t know if we can get away at the moment. Finding opposition is not the easiest thing even if we can find the weeks.

“But also players have had a really weird season – almost a season and a half back-to-back. They’re going to need their rest weeks and pre-seasons.

“I take the point that it would be really nice and expedient to be able to put some games on to ease the financial burden. But I think it may spill over into other areas such as player welfare and the ability to find opposition.”

…and that’s a really good point about the Lions

Scots Sean Maitland, Richie Gray and Stuart Hogg on the 2013 Lions tour to Australia.

Regular readers know I’m ambivalent about the Lions , but I can’t see much in favour of this “home” tour proposal.

The Lions are a touring side, that is, touring OTHER COUNTRIES. That’s the whole tradition. It’ll be like the Autumn Nations Cup was. We were all excited about having a double Six Nations this season, but it was a damp squib.

This “home tour” will have fans, possibly, but it won’t be nearly as exciting as some suggest. The Lions are special because they travel, and they take the Red Army with them. To Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.

Plus, we’ve knocked the pan out of the players this past year to keep the game alive. They need and deserve some respite.