Analysis: more focus and expenditure on youth rugby urgently needed in Scotland

Alan Lorimer discusses the need to raise playing numbers and coaching standards

Scotland Men suffered three defeats from three matches in the recent U18 Six Nations Festival in Ireland. Image: Grigoriy Geniyevskiy
Scotland Men suffered three defeats from three matches in the recent U18 Six Nations Festival in Ireland. Image: Grigoriy Geniyevskiy

IT was not really a shock nor, indeed, a national set-back that Scotland Men finished the recent Six Nations under-18 Festival in Dublin without a win after losing their three matches to hosts Ireland, France and then, very narrowly, Wales. 

Scotland, under head coach Ross Miller, have done well in this competition in the three previous iterations and notably in France last year when the young Scots came within a whisker of defeating England. But the hard truth is that Scotland,  whenever they participate in age-grade competitions, are always required to punch well above their weight.

In age-grade competition Scotland are teetering on the edge of a critical numbers cliff. Often it’s a cyclical thing  in some years there is a cohort of talent that tips the side to greater achievements, in other years that core group of exceptional players is not there and hence the team will struggle against the likes of France and England for whom numbers are never a problem.


Super Series Sprint: round two team-of-the-week

Sam Skinner says Edinburgh squad all want Mike Blair to remain with the club

Nathan Sweeney signs first senior deal with Edinburgh


So it would seem that one way of attaining a more consistent set of performances in age-grade rugby is to increase the playing numbers in the youth game. This is a familiar cry that has been heard season after season but as yet to which there is no workable solution.

It’s easy to harp back to the days when most secondary schools in Scotland played rugby, producing a steady flow of skilful players, without the need for any central intervention to aid the process. Bar a few exceptional corners of the land, that has all changed and to a large extent Scotland has returned to times when the game depended on private schools to sustain the sport.

And let’s be clear; those private schools who take rugby seriously (to the point where they mimic professional systems) have produced some exceptional players; without them it’s doubtful if Scotland could put together an under-18 team capable of playing at international level.

You only have to look at the homegrown Scottish players in the Glasgow Warriors squad to appreciate the contribution a small number of private schools have made, most notably Merchiston and Strathallan, while in Edinburgh Rugby the input of Stewart’s-Melville College, George Watson’s College and Edinburgh Academy is evident.

Yet privately educated youngsters account for only 4.7% of the school population in Scotland and, when you narrow the field down to the small number of independent establishments who really specialise in rugby, then that figure becomes minutely small.

Success stories in state sector

To suggest that the whole of age grade-rugby is totally underpinned by the private education system, of course, would be a ludicrous proposition. There always have been rich sources elsewhere, notably from the Borders semi junior clubs, who between them have produced a string of Scotland international players. And there are big hitters elsewhere in the form of Stirling County, Ayr, GHA, West of Scotland and Boroughmuir, all of whom have made massive contributions to the youth supply line.

Until very recently youth club rugby has played second string to the private schools, until that is, Boroughmuir, after rechannelling their efforts,  made a breakthrough by taking on the private schools and proving that they could match the elite independents.

Boroughmuir, however, is not your average club. It is a serious project, run by serious rugby and business people, which, by tapping into talent within Edinburgh after doing initial outreach work in local primary and secondary schools and then by using its Academy expertise, emulates what is done in private schools. At the top end it delivers programmes in such areas as advanced skills, strength and conditioning, nutrition, psychology etc. In other words, the full package that young players need to succeed in a sporting world that has become much more focused than in days when youngsters simply ‘played’ rugby.

 

But even what might be considered the ‘works’, does not compare with what’s on offer from private schools, who can provide the total immersive experience of a five day week training programme. And that’s in addition to all the other advantages their clients enjoy – the acres of pristine playing fields, indoor facilities, the ability to train in daylight hours, in-house strength and conditioning and above all the expertise of top coaches.

Most clubs simply cannot begin to compare with such advantages. For a start, clubs train at night, which means that young players are often dependent on parents providing a taxi service to and from the club. It also means that where a club does not have adequate lighting then practicing skills in poor conditions can become a negative experience.

But even allowing for such contrasts in infrastructure, the two key differences between clubs and private schools are time input and professionalism of coaching staff.

Looking at time spent on development, clubs usually train twice a week, albeit some of their better players, attached to regional academies, will work much harder and indeed most youngsters now appreciate that time in the gym is necessary.  For the average young player, team coaching is compressed into two sessions per week – barely adequate for the demands of the modern game – and certainly brief compared to what is offered in the private schools sector.

Coaching is key

The big difference between private schools and clubs is perhaps in the coaching available. In recent years the top independent rugby schools have recruited some of the best youth coaches around and that has paid off in terms of results and the number of quality players now quoted in alumni lists.

Clubs generally cannot afford to replicate such coaching solutions and often depend on a well-oiled system of ‘willing’ parents, who progress through the age-grades in parallel with their sons or daughters. While all will be committed to the task they’ve taken on, most can never devote all of their time to what is essentially a hobby. Successful coaches do emerge from this traditional pathway, but, in general, there will always be a difference between a full-time, well-paid professional coach and someone who is essentially still an amateur.

The top youth clubs, of course, have realised that having a pro in house is advantageous. Hence the number of ‘directors of youth rugby’ now in situ at a cluster of clubs savvy enough to adopt business models; the flip side, of course, being that smaller and less prosperous clubs, unable to follow this template, are likely to fall behind, thus risking a two tier system.

Taking a more professional approach to Scottish youth rugby is not only good for building the critical mass of players able to perform at international level but also to improve the enjoyment of youngsters who may never aspire to the top heights.  After all, would you not enjoy playing golf if you had some tuition in maintaining a consistent swing?

More central funding needed

So, could such a more professional approach in youth club rugby be funded centrally given that Murrayfield magic money trees have in the main been deforested?  One answer might be to divert some of the money being used for Super6 (now rebranded Super Series), which, it will be recalled, is supposed to be about preparing younger players for higher levels.

It may seem a tad obvious, but what is the point of Super6 if there is not enough talented young players emerging to benefit from the semi-pro layer? In rugby terms, private schools are probably operating at maximum production capacity: so right now it seems that youth club rugby, the conduit for state school players, could be the area that is ripe for growth.

Were Murrayfield to fund a youth rugby programme to help ensure all viable clubs had professional coaches/development officers in place and had the infrastructure to really grow the game, then maybe Scotland could produce more talented young players to make competition for the national age-grade teams much more healthy.

It has been said all too frequently that the game will never survive if the grassroots are neglected (financially). Maybe now is the time to look more seriously at the truth of that adage.


U18 Six Nations Festival: plucky Scotland come up short against Wales

About Alan Lorimer 352 Articles
Scotland rugby correspondent for The Times for six years and subsequently contributed to Sunday Times, Daily and Sunday Telegraph, Scotsman, Herald, Scotland on Sunday, Sunday Herald and Reuters. Worked in Radio for BBC. Alan is Scottish rugby journalism's leading voice when it comes to youth and schools rugby.

26 Comments

  1. We had lad come to training in S2, big lump of a boy with a brilliant set of hands. Sadly having a very difficult upbringing with a parent that is a drug user. He got the opportunity to trial with Glasgow and the west and initially did alright getting lifts from other parents and was kept on. Bottom line though was that he had zero confidence and that showed when he was in amongst the other trialists and he was dropped……..that was it, he never played rugby again. Very sad to see so much potential just vanish.

    This is Scotlands untapped resource, not the private schools who are already producing very good rugby players. More investment in encouraging youngsters who might not otherwise have these opportunities.

    I remember a few years prior to the London olympics in the sport of rowing – quoted from the Independant “scouts went out looking, knocking on school doors, visiting local sports centres, chatting up coaches to see if they could find the next generation of medal winners. UK Sport also put out adverts, in 2007, calling on people to sign up to their so-called “Sporting Giants” scheme – what we needed, it seemed, were tall people who could compete in rowing, volleyball and handball.”

    This was a hugely successful campaign and Helen Glover who had never stepped in a boat 4 years prior won two gold medals.

  2. Budgets need to be improved for youth systems within clubs for coaching.
    Your article seems to only consider male youths, what about the girls?
    The basic competition structure at youth level is based on numbers at clubs rather than ability which means either players drifting towards one or two clubs. We need to be concentrating time and funding for U12s and U14s for both girls and boys and this will ensure we have numbers for the older age groups over the coming years, youth development is not a sprint.
    The PDH system needs looked at as Currently it is not fit for purpose due to funding, where it fits in to the season and the short space of time the coaches get with the nominees.
    Lastly when youths are chosen for PDH, Regional Representation and Youth International selection the club coaches should be kept informed so the players can be better supported.

  3. Hi Jamie,

    Pretty successful so far. Some of the top names breaking through to full international honours like Billy Gilmour and Nathan Patterson for the men and Emma Watson for the women have come through the system. The system was established in 2012 with an aim to having the first full international by 2020, which was achieved. The reality is these programmes have to run for many years before there is an discernible output; we are only really now starting to see the impact of a programme in football the preparation for which started almost 15 years ago, frightening stuff in many ways as a rugby fan to see how far behind we really are.

  4. Perhaps part of the problem also relies on individual schools having a critical mass of pupils good enough to compete with other schools. If, for example, a good prospect plays solely within a poor S4 team, how will that prospect fulfil their potential if his team win very few games?
    Schools are not the answer for the vast majority of the time.

    6
    2
  5. When the successful development of Irish players is commented on, it is often said that the pipeline, especially for Leinster, is a few private schools in the Dublin area. Can anyone tell us how many private schools in Dublin are key to the rugby player production line that is Leinster? Are the players they are producing there mostly coming from wealthy families who can afford to pay fees, or are they selected for scholarships on the basis of ability and if so at what age are they taken into the private schools?

    While I am not a fan of private schools, I have no objection to the SRU partnering with them to produce high performance rugby players, IF, there are scholarships available and therefore there is a meritocracy at work which allows the biggest potential to benefit from the opportunities, and not just the wealthiest families.

    Other than that, I think there is merit in developing ‘schools of rugby’ in state schools in partnership with clubs – Marr, Stirling County, Boroughmuir, Ayr have all shown it is possible, and if we can expand that network to say 12-16 top youth teams/state schools alongside 8-12 private schools we might have a high performance foundation. Having said that, the vast majority of rugby should still be aimed at recreation and leisure and players should be encouraged to play for whom it will never be any more than a hobby

    • Hi Moody Blue
      There are 12 private schools in Leinster , all heavily pushing rugby but I learnt from the weekly blog on Irish rugby this week that Leinster have been spreading their influence into the state schools too and now starting to get results with new young players emerging from this area !

  6. I am surprised that nobody has mentioned a model that already works in Scotland . How did Marr become Premiership Champions and Scottish Cup finalists from the start of a lowly level in west regional leagues ?

    The club agreed with the school to take over the running of all the schools training and fixtures under two Developnent Officers funded by Marr and the SRU .

    You now have the club running the minis , school / youth and 3 senior sides producing amateur internationals and Super 6 players . At all levels the club seeks the best competition to stretch the players .

    Why don’t other clubs copy this model ?
    It looks cost effective and gets the results

    16
    6
    • Marr College also have a great youth system with their under 15’s and under 16’s both going undefeated in the league of the best the west has to offer as well as their under 16’s narrowly missing out on a Scottish cup final place losing by 2 points to Strathallan and their under 18’s reaching the under 18’s plate final at BT Murrayfield and all age groups winning multiple club competitions.

    • Copying doesn’t necessarily produce the sane results Left Field.

      There are several contexts to the success of rugby development

      1) the school and head teacher need to be interested and committed to rugby development
      2) typically it needs to be one club at one high school or catchment area – not always the case especially in the central belt
      3) money – paying for one DO is very expensive even with SRU and school support. Having two is dreamland

      There’s much to applaud at Marr and they are a fantastic example of hard work and success. Of course we can learn things from them. But if it was as easy as copying what others do we would be world beaters in youth development by now.

      • I agree Dom with your first 3 points but there are plenty of areas in vast Scotland where this sort of commitment can be started – the Borders , Dumfries and Galloway , Ayrshire, Lothians, Dundee , Aberdeen , the Highlands and you never know eventually find a third Pro side – now there’s a vision😀

      • Hi Dom
        I should have added Fife to my last comment on areas to exploit with the Marr model and I think Lenzie have started with it

  7. Mentoring of young players is the key.
    It’s all very training on a Tue/Thus night but we need to
    delve deeper into the well being of kids.

    I would suggest that from the age of approx 15 or certainly during the transition from school to club period a model of one to one mentoring is carried out.

    Naturally children come from many backgrounds. If they are lucky there is perhaps a parent, sibling or family member who is also focused on rugby. This person will play a big part in the child’s sporting progression, discuss not only rugby with them but also provide much needed advice and support.

    However, if I look at my own childrens journey through Minis, school and semi junior club rugby I also
    found there were very few parents present at games. This is understandable when there are other siblings, work commitments Etc.

    I’ve seen so many promising players drop
    out of the system because, for what ever reason, guidance is not available.

    This is why a believe a holistic mentoring should be in place to support young players. Find out their concerns, help them to engage, update them with information from coaches etc on their progress. Basically, surround them with a ‘rugby family’ that will listen to them and support, where they can, all
    their needs, on and off the pitch.

    11
    1
  8. The article suggests that the infrastructure, coaching, facilities etc are well established within the private school sector and is a relative success,given the number of internationals produced.
    Why then cannot a system be established where the state sector have access to these facilities be it through SRU financial support, subsidies or scholarships? Naturally no government would want to be seen to provide financial support to a private school and it would be an anathema to many but some radical thinking is needed.
    The OFL ran an article a couple of years ago about a tie up between Crieff and another school/club. Well worth rereading..

    3
    1
  9. In football there has been recognition that spending the limited available money on broad brush programmes nets a poor return on the investment and instead the SFA have focussed on targeted funding. They have selected 7 state schools around Scotland where they provide that elite environment that private rugby schools are able to provide. The SRU could do worse than emulate this, in smaller numbers to begin with perhaps, in Dundee, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen and the borders.

    • I really like this idea David. I’m not sure how many years it has been running for the SFA but do you know how successful it has been for those boys and girls?

      • Jamie we started work in our academy structure back in 2015. A key factor was getting full board backing for what was a long term programme. It was always going to take a few years to get the system right and then turning out players who had been through the programme from a younger age. Covid interrupted this but we are back on track now and it’s great to see so many boys and now girls getting representative rugby opportunities and ‘graduating’ into our senior teams, in some cases straight into Super 6. In addition we have a few who are into the SRU academy system and now playing at Scotland U18 and 20 level. Lime Marr we take a keen interest in school rugby development as well and have numerous coaches involved in both primary and secondary school programmes leading rugby development there too. It does work, could it be better…yes I think it could but it’s producing results.

  10. Is there not a more fundamental structural issue at play in Scotland. It is well known that the players at the older end of each year group (in all sports) tend to excel as they are more developed in their earlier years and so grow in confidence and motivation relative to their younger teammates. This is an advantage which extends into adulthood I believe. In Scotland the age bands are offset from the world rugby age bands (and England, France, Ireland etc). The top players in Scotland would then be most likely to have a Sept to Dec birthdate, in countries following world rugby cutoff’s the top players are likely to have Jan – April Birthdates. The problem occurs when international representative teams are formed as on average the elite Scottish players (Sept – Dec birth dates) are now the youngest players in the international system.

    Maybe the solution, in part, would be to change the age grade cutoffs in Scotland. I think the other points about professional coaches etc are also valid.

    I have no stats on average birthdates etc for Scottish and International representative age grade players to back this up, just a thought.

    12
  11. Excellent article. My son is involved in the Glasgow Regional set up at u17 at the moment. It is fantastic and the coaching and S&C sessions are exceptional but it has its drawbacks. The travelling for us is an hour each way, and for some players their travel time is double that, we are lucky that we can manage this but not everyone can accommodate this into their working week as well as club training too, it is a massive commitment (but very worthwhile.)

    For sure the boys who have come through the private schools’ set up come to Regional trials able to show skills to their fullest potential because the private schools do a brilliant job ensuring their players reach that potential to the fullest. The club players are often rough around the edges and can be overlooked for selection even when their skill set is just marginally lower than their private school peers, yet they have far more potential to still develop. Maybe it’s those rough diamonds who should be targeted with more training at regional level or alternatively invest in setting up smaller area local academies for u16-18, to make extra training and S&C more accessible.

    If we have club players demonstrating raw talent marginally below private school boy level, through two training sessions a week from parent coaches, imagine what could be achieved if those were the players selected for extra high quality SRU training.

    I think selecting the highly polished players at regional trials is unavoidable, of course the coaches want to choose the best they see before them but the rough diamonds in grassroots club youth rugby could be the key to boosting Scotland’s success .

    I definitely agree that investment into club youth rugby is the way forward to bring better accessibility to extra, high quality training for all walks of rugby life.

    25
  12. A good summary of the current challenges facing youth rugby Alan. More sustainable funding from the SRU would be a key contributor to raising the standard rather than pots of grant funding applied for on a case by case basis. In addition district competitions and more joined up participation in competition with club and private school rugby would help. The approach taken by the likes of Roddy Dean at Merchiston with their annual UK wide competition and including Scottish Club Rugby sides is to be applauded but regular games in a competitive environment with top schools and clubs would see standards improve.

    Grassroots rugby in schools needs a boost and driven at a national level. This is where the senior SRU executive could apply influence with the Education department.

    Taking an academy approach was the key for Boroughmuir and assistance from the SRU in the early development of that was a success factor, however, pleas to take a more holistic approach to developing a model bringing in expertise from university sport science departments such as at Napier and Edinburgh Universities was rejected due to funding and a belief there was enough knowledge within the SRU. Such a study, broadened out to look across the UK and internationally as to how to model an academy structure would form a sound baseline to roll out across clubs. Against this could be directed investment by the SRU, clubs/schools and a business approach to sponsorship so that such academies have the resources available to punch through the stagnation that currently exists.

    These are personal views as an outgoing director of youth rugby!

  13. Timely article, thanks. An interesting follow up piece of analysis would be to identify how many clubs in Scotland are in the position to replicate what the likes of Boroughmuir and others have done – if the SRU or others were to provide more funding, realistically how many clubs are in the position to provide the infrastructure you describe and where are they located? How long would it take to build up the network of clubs that could support such infrastructure?

    A second question would then be how can the level of competition between these clubs and ideally with the independent schools be improved. From what I understand, its the competition at the youth/schools level that is also a large part of other systems success

    • The answer is very very few or they would already be doing it.

      I wonder what the thoughts of Boroughmuir members are to this? 1st XV into National 3, Super side struggled last season though played more young players (is there a connection??) and youth development at that level isn’t cheap.

      Perhaps Boroughmuir can share ball park figures on what their expenditure is? Coaching costs x, s&c costs y (with access to a proper gym!), kit, transport etc. I would be surprised if there is much change out of £50k a year.

      It also helps to be in relatively affluent areas like Edinburgh and Stirling.

      9
      2
  14. The more contentious issue is that allied to improvements in coaching – skills acquisition, S&C etc – we really need to concentrate “talent” in a much smaller number of teams. To drive standards and improve preparedness for international rugby, players need to be constantly challenged in both the training and playing environments. Across Youth and Schools, there is probably enough talent for eight (top) teams at U16 and U18 levels. Understand that this will be incredibly difficult to achieve but I can’t see how we bridge the current gap without a major change.

    10
    2
    • The reality is England, Ireland, SA, Australia, New Zealand’s youth rugby is dominated by private schools, (I don’t know enough about Wales and France). As the author understands private schools run their teams like professional academy set ups. There’s no secret to it.

      SRU need to look at how Italy have managed it.

      • I don’t think NZ youth rugby is dominated by private schools at all. Out of the top 15 NZ secondary schools in the last season 9 were state schools, 3 were integrated (state funded catholic schools), and 3 were private schools. New Zealand’s secret is that most boys schools offer rugby and the best athletes at every school are more likely to play rugby over other sports. You are probably right about Eng, Ire, SA and Aust.

    • Hi Ronnie, hope you are well – extremely good points there.

      Structure in Scottish rugby (at most levels) has been a hardy perennial, a political football over the years. Concentrating upon “preparedness for international rugby”, it may be that the primary need is to give our promising / aspiring youngsters more opportunities to develop at the coal face, by playing more hard competitive rugby – at every stage, maybe not cocooned within their respective age-grades either…

      4
      3
      • All well thanks Ron – hope the same with you. Totally agree on the need to play, as you say “more hard competitive rugby”. This applies to all levels of Youth rugby, not just those players with the potential to play at rep and pro levels. We need to look at a structure that eradicates the obvious mismatches. Another downside of the existing structure is that players from the best school and youth teams are used to winning 90+% of the games they play – often far too easily. We can’t expect the players to have the skills and nous required to win dog fights when they haven’t had repeated exposure to those conditions.

Comments are closed.