McKie was brought in to the SRU in 2005 at a time of absolute crisis. It is difficult to underestimate just how bad the governance of the game was at that time, but Ian McGeechan gives some indication of the scale of the problems in his autobiography when he suggests that the international board was worried, seriously worried, that the SRU might go under, so deep were the financial holes at Murrayfield.
An astute financial manager, McKie was brought in – on the strong advice of bankers HBoS – to sort out the SRU’s finances: and he did so.
The debt was around £20 million at that stage and heading further and further into the red. McKie stabilised the budget, then brought the debt down to its current level where it bobbles around an apparently manageable £15 million.
So let’s be clear, McKie did what he had been brought in to do: he saved Scottish rugby or, rather, he saved the governance structures, the organisation of the SRU and the national stadium.
But it has slowly dawned on all those involved in the game that McKie hasn’t managed to save the game itself. Despite the odd highlight – Edinburgh’s Magners League second place two years ago being one – Scotland’s two professional teams are still languishing near the bottom of the league and have failed, pretty much universally, to make any impression in Europe.
The national team, despite promising much, recorded just one win in this year’s Six Nations – and that was over Italy at home – the same number of victories it recorded the year before.
Playing numbers are up, particularly among the young. The schools and youth competitions are successful, the national (largely amateur) leagues seem to have settled down well – but where it matters, in the shop window of Scottish rugby, the story is depressingly familiar.
Crowds for Edinburgh and Glasgow games are stubbornly low, and the national team record the occasional success but generally struggle to compete with teams like Wales, Ireland and England.
This appears to be what has, at last, caused McKie’s downfall. Everybody in the game was grateful that he rescued the organisation behind the sport when he did, but they all want – need – to see more success on the pitch to rival the stability and financial competence that is now a part of the fabric off the pitch.
But read some of the strings of comments about McKie’s resignation or the blogs or the tweets and you will detect a fear that those who got the game into such a mess six and seven years ago may return to wreak the same damage all over again.
Back in 2005, when the SRU was in turmoil, I heard a report – which I have never been able to verify absolutely, but it did come from a very reputable source – of one “blazer”, and a very senior “blazer” at that, who was asked about the prospect of putting more rock concerts on at Murrayfield to raise some much-needed cash.
“Oh no,” he was reported to have said. “We don’t want any of that sort of thing at Murrayfield.”
But there is a fear that those who know about rugby don’t know about money, and those who know about money don’t understand rugby.
That is why the appointment of a replacement for McKie is so important. The SRU has the chance to find that person – somebody who has, say, McKie’s financial acumen and Andy Irvine’s rugby brain, someone who knows how the union is going to thrive off the pitch but who also understands instinctively what it needs to thrive on the pitch too.
The name of John Steele has already been mentioned. A former London Scottish coach, Steele was fired at the end of last week from the chief executive’s role at Twickenham.
He would undoubtedly find Murrayfield a step down from Twickenham, he would have less to work with and the problems are certainly greater – but, given the path that Andy Robinson has pioneered (from RFU reject to Scottish Rugby saviour) then maybe Steele wouldn’t be too bad a choice.
Whoever gets the job, though, has to loosen the purse strings just a little. Edinburgh and Glasgow need greater resources. They need to be able to compete, regularly, against their Irish and Welsh counterparts. If they do, the crowds will build – but that takes money, money to hold on to existing stars and money to import some battle-hardened veterans from the southern hemisphere.
Just take Edinburgh’s Heineken Cup match at Murrayfield last year against Northampton as an example. Edinburgh played some exquisite rugby but were ultimately blown away by a Northampton pack based on the biggest, meanest southern hemisphere props the club could buy in – and Northampton went on to the final.
The new SRU chief executive needs to build bridges (financial ones if need be) with London Scottish. As a club in the English second tier competition, London Scottish will get £350,000 this year – but only if 14 of their match-day 22 are English qualified. The SRU should trump that and give £400,000 to London Scottish if 14 of their match day 22 are Scottish qualified. That would give Scottish players vital exposure to a league which is close to, if not at times better than, the Celtic League.
They should also use London Scottish to give game time to under-played Scottish hopefuls. Look at what’s going to happen at Glasgow this year? The Warriors have three of the country’s top young fly-halves on their books.
Ruaridh Jackson is going to the World Cup, so Duncan Weir will get game time, but probably only until Jackson comes back. And, as for Scott Wight, the successful number ten brought in from Melrose, all he can expect is the occasional appearance from the subs’ bench, deputising for one of the two in front of him.
Wouldn’t it be better to farm Wight out to London Scottish, where he could get proper game time at a standard probably just as high as the Celtic League?
And if the two pro teams are under the SRU’s control, as the SRU maintain, then what the hell happened to allow Glasgow to have the three best young fly-halves in Scotland while Edinburgh have none?
That is not a criticism directed at the SRU from Edinburgh’s point of view, but from Scottish rugby’s. Only one of those three will get regular game time, the other two will suffer. Meanwhile, over at Edinburgh, David Blair retired – understandably – his brother Alex was forced out – inexplicably – leaving the capital club with one fly-half recovering from long-term injury (Phil Godman) and another (Greig Laidlaw) deputising in that position when he is really a scrum-half.
If the SRU really controls the two pro teams, then Scotland’s two best fly-halves should be the number one tens at the two clubs, Jackson at one and Weir at the other, and playing week in, week out. Both should have able deputies in Wight at one and Alex Blair at the other, and any other fly-halves should be sent south to London Scottish when there is a surplus to requirements north of the border.
But to take these issues by the scruff of the neck needs a chief executive who understands rugby and understands to need to interfere, if that is for the good of the game, the players and the fans.
McKie did many things well, but this wasn’t one of them. If Scottish rugby is to make a go of the professional game, at last, then this is one quality his successor will have to have.