Money is killing a noble game

<em>New Statesman Scotland </em>

When Scotland lost their opening match of the rugby World Cup to South Africa by 46 to 29, it was not a disaster. In fact it was, more or less, the predicted result. In 1950 South Africa defeated Scotland by 44 points to nil. Now that was a disaster. Then there were only three points for a try compared with five now and, translated into modern values, the score would have been getting on for 100 to nil.

The Kelso centre three-quarter, Oliver Turnbull, won his first and only cap on that fateful day in 1950. On the Monday following, his comment to the public bar of the Black Swan was succinct. "Aye," he said, raising a pint glass to his lips, "we were lucky to get nil."

Another time, another place. Very sadly, since rugby turned professional north of the border, the only joke has been the Scottish Rugby Football Union. Even though Scotland are the reigning Five Nations champions, and even though they were likely to win their most important match for some time - against Samoa - only 15,661 people turned up at Murrayfield to watch them gain a place in the last eight of the World Cup. Which, in another expected defeat at the hands of New Zealand (30-18 was about par), was as far as they got.

That result is no reflection on the players; they did as well as possible in the circumstances. But since these circumstances included the pathetic statistic of 15,661 people to support them against Samoa, the aftermath of defeat by the All Blacks casts a much longer shadow. Even five years ago, such a disgraceful turnout would have been unimaginable.

What has happened to rugby in Scotland is depressingly simple. Money, very large amounts of money, has entered into every decision as a prime factor, and it has destroyed the wonderful, passionate game beloved of so many. Only 15,661 people turned up at Murrayfield (now a soulless concrete cavern where half the crowd are seated so far away from the pitch that they get a better view on television) because the ticket prices have been set beyond popular reach at £35 and £40. Because ITV did not want to allow midweek international rugby to get in the way of Coronation Street and the lucrative peak-time schedule, the kick-off was at 3.30pm, when most of the people who could afford £40 a ticket were at work.

But the most compelling explanation for why so few people came to watch Scotland is that the organisation of the game is in ruins. In order to compete in British and European tournaments, the Scottish Rugby Football Union has created and marketed two so-called super-district teams. The bizarrely named Edinburgh Reivers take the best players in the east of Scotland and the Caley Reds have everyone else.

Despite several snazzy name changes, both sides play to pitifully small crowds and have some difficulty beating whatever opposition appears in whatever meaningless competition is cobbled together. Real, numerous and passionate support for rugby in Scotland used to follow the famous clubs. Hawick, Melrose, Kelso, Watsonians, Heriot's FP, West of Scotland and others all attracted substantial crowds, but the two super-districts have commandeered all their best players on professional contracts. The standard of club rugby is declining and as a consequence crowds are dwindling.

Grass-roots support for the clubs always fed through to the national side - often thousands would travel to see a favoured son play for Scotland. Caps and international jerseys were proudly pinned up in clubroom display cabinets. There was a clear route to glory and many followed it.

Television money has changed all that. In the past ordinary blokes who worked through the week as brickies, joiners or farmers could become heroes on a Saturday. After scoring under the posts at Twickenham, they talked to ordinary people about it on the Monday. Supporters felt connected - everybody knew somebody who knew somebody. The romance of the thing was absolutely vital and, before it became polluted by large amounts of money, rugby always stayed close to its origins and engendered a love of the game which never faded.

Until now. The cash, injected at a particular point in time, has solidified the status quo. Just as football has been dominated by a handful of clubs, so rugby will become predictable. Scotland have not defeated South Africa, Australia or England for a long time and have never overcome New Zealand. Now that pecking order is unlikely to change.

In turn, that will lead to a further decline in the game in Scotland. The super-districts mean nothing and the enfeebled clubs can go nowhere except endlessly sideways. Young people will not be attracted to that sort of sterility. The relative recent success of the national side masks a cancer eating at the Scottish game. There seems to be little passion, no fun and certainly no jokes. Soon history will begin to repeat itself and, unless something radical is done, we will be lucky to get nil.

Alistair Moffat