Scotland’s top rugby professionals would benefit from an “incredibly important” players’ body, according to the head of the International Rugby Players Association.
Omar Hassanein, the group’s chief executive, believes representative players’ associations are “essential”.
Scotland is the only Tier One nation where no such organisation exists.
“We’ve tried to work with Scottish Rugby on this over the years, in recent times quite a bit,” Hassanein said.
“The player leaders in Scotland are certainly interested in having one.
“The obvious thing is, you need to be able to fund an association if you want to start with one or two staff to drive the various initiatives. That becomes your immediate hurdle.
“But once you’re able to find a model and solution, which more often than not is in collaboration with the governing bodies, it’s an essential aspect, I believe, to have.”
Players’ voice ‘so important’
The IRPA is based in Dublin, where the sport’s governing body, World Rugby, also has its headquarters.
The umbrella group represents elite players on “issues of global significance” – in particular, player movement, release for international duty and season schedules.
It also helps educate athletes on player welfare issues such as mental health, life after rugby and transitioning out of the sport, and facilitates the sharing of knowledge and insight between nations.
“[Players’ associations] are incredibly important so that players can have a voice, and that level of importance extends to governing bodies, whether they see that or not,” Hassanein told BBC Scotland.
“A players’ voice is not always an adversarial voice. In some cases, it may not align with the way the governing body sees it, but that’s not a bad thing either.
“It’s so important for people who run any type of sport in any country to stand up and say, ‘we allow our players, who are the primary generators of income and key stakeholders in the game, to have a say as far as the direction of the game, how player welfare and player rights are respected’.
“Countries that are smaller than Scotland and lower ranked in the world such as Wales, Italy, Georgia, have established associations, or are in the process of doing so.
“So it’s a natural evolvement [for Scotland to have a players’ association].”
‘The key element is independence’
Scottish Rugby says it is “finalising our comprehensive mental health support programme, ‘Rugby for Life'”, but the governing body is understood to have no plans to assist or endorse the formation of a players’ body.
Nick De Luca, the former Scotland centre, told BBC Sport many top professionals are “really struggling” with poor mental health, and that players need a “safe space,” away from their coaches and employers, to unload their stresses.
“To give the SRU credit, they’re doing some good work in this space,” Hassanein said. “I was over just before Christmas and met with their senior executives, who were running through some of the initiatives they are doing and planning to do.
“From our point of view, the key element is independence. Players will always, in our experience around the world, feel less compromised to share their feelings with their own player association and representatives.
|Former Scotland captain and rugby agent, Jason White, talking to BBC Scotland|
|“Looking at what happens in England with the RPA, they’re able to provide a lot of support to the players in England.|
|“That’s probably the one thing up in Scotland with our two professional teams here – we don’t have a players’ association with external funding that can come in.|
|“For the players now to have a bit of balance is so important. They need to be preparing for life after rugby – whether they do a vocational course, a part-time study where they can take something.|
|“They don’t need to be defined by what they do on the rugby pitch. If I have a bad game of rugby, am I a bad person? No, you’re not at all.|
|“How can you not let what you do on the rugby pitch determine you as a person? That’s the real challenge, which is the puzzle that everyone needs to try and work out.”|
“When push comes to shove, players will fear the potential that their contract could be under jeopardy if they give information that is deemed the player might be vulnerable or whatever else.
“The key is having very strong confidentiality, and as an independent body that is representative of them, we feel we’re the natural bodies around the world to be able to do that sort of thing.
“There’s no question that the best international teams have the best players’ associations. We’re not saying that’s the only direct correlation – of course not – but New Zealand, Australia, England, Ireland, if you look at the world rankings, have the most established players’ associations, where the players have a strong input into the game decisions and are able to have some robust conversations with their governing bodies.
“From a Scottish perspective, it’s something that we’d like to work with the governing body on in time.”