IT is impossible to have just a quick chat with Stewart Milne, the academy manager at Stirling County, about what his job entails. He has far too much information to impart, not to mention enthusiasm about the subject matter, to keep it brief.
A fervent personality is surely a key requirement for anyone looking to survive in his line of work for any length of time. The level of job satisfaction is terrific, but keeping track of so many moving parts and holding your nerve when the logistical challenges get out of hand requires a healthy degree of fanaticism.
Last season there was 304 male and 64 female youth players (from ages eight up to under-18) registered at Stirling County. On a busy weekend this means finding enough suitable playing space for five matches plus minis and girls training sessions on a Saturday, and then seven more matches on a Sunday. There is also the small matter of managing the large network of dedicated volunteers required to make this all runs like clockwork, not to mention liaising with the opposition.
“Pitches are almost manageable as long as all four are playable – which can be a challenge when the weather comes in, no matter how much care is taken. Trying to organise changing rooms can, at times, leave me a bit cross eyed,” quips Milne.
The club has been a leading light in Scottish youth rugby since the early 1970s, when the minis section was set up as a key catalyst to the Bridgehaigh outfit’s meteoric rise from the depths of Division Seven to ultimately becoming national champions in 1995.
Stirling County have won the Scottish Rugby Youth League Cup 13 times since it’s inception in 1980, which is more than three times the number of successes achieved by any other club in the country. They have won the competition seven times in the last ten years, including this season, when they defeated Ayr in an exciting final at Murrayfield back in February.
The club finished joint top alongside Ayr of the Club President’s Conference table this season. Meanwhile, the girls’ teams also finished joint top of their Conference; lifted the Under-18s Cup and were beaten finalist at Under-15 level; and last Saturday became national sevens champions at both age-grades.
However, translating youth success into added value to the senior club has proven problematic in recent years. Plaudits were sent in the direction of Bridgehaugh back in December when back-row alumni Matt Smith and Lewis Wynne signed full-time contacts with Glasgow Warriors, but that pair were the only two members of the Stirling County under-18 team which won the Youth Cup in 2013 to move directly into the senior club.
There might have been five Stirling County players involved with the Scotland Under-20 team at various times during this season’s Six Nations campaign (including captain Callum Hunter-Hill); but only 18-year-old Logan Trotter is a genuine product of the youth set-up. The rest all arrived at the club specifically to play 1st XV rugby
With this in mind, Milne’s priority when he arrived at Bridgehaugh – via Whitecraigs, Cartha Queens Park, Kelso and North Wales – just over two years ago was to recalibrate the academy structure so as to better prepare players for the step into the senior game.
It hasn’t taken long for that shift in emphasis to start paying dividends, with Trotter leading the charge of recent youth section graduates making waves in the senior game. Harry Henderson missed large chunks of this season through injury but played for Scotland Under-19 in their trial match against Scottish Universities back in February and looked comfortable in the games he played for the club’s 1st XV when fit. Andrew McLean and Ross Bundy, who were both part of this season’s Youth Cup winning team, played Scotland under-18 level, and got some 1st XV game time towards the end of the campaign.
“Last season the transition into senior rugby was really actively managed by Alan Imrie, as a transition officer, and 12 of those boys played senior rugby this season. We are aiming for something similar next season, and those are the sorts of numbers that a club the size of ours need to be aiming for to make us sustainable,” says Milne.
“The performance development programme has been a big part of what we are trying to do. The structure of the academy changed in season 2015-16. It had been set up to predominantly focus on the younger end, which was the right thing to do at the time in terms of sponsorship and getting kids playing, but we’ve now developed it on from there,” he continues.
“In my first year we consisted of 20 boys in the under-16s and under-18s groups and 25 in the U15s; this year we brought the under-14s and girls Under-18s in; and next year we’ll bring in a bespoke under-20s programme and girls under-15s. We are always looking at how we can expand the boys under-16s to under-18s group so that we can give more players the additional support.”
“We have to make sure we give the Logan Trotters, Andrew McLeans and Harry Hendersons the support they need to step straight into senior 1st XV rugby and challenge for international age-grade recognition, which is what all three of those guys have done this year; but we also need to cater for the later developers who equally need to be supported because they will eventually play at that level. Every player is different, so it is a balancing act.”
“The programme operates on three tiers with players receiving anything from two to five practical sessions per week in rugby and S&C, plus off-field rugby support (i.e. analysis and review) as well as nutritional and sports psychology education. Players are selected based on current performance and future potential with an emphasis on the quality of the person and not just the rugby player.”
“What we are trying to do is teach players good habits from an early age. We have group sessions that focus on elements like leadership, self-determination, and self-reflection. Hopefully they are starting to understand a bit more about themselves as rugby players – so by the time they are getting to the age when they are ready to play in the senior squads it has been in their system for seven or eight years in some cases, which means they are physically and mentally as prepared as we can get them. You can always do more, but with the resources we’ve got, we’re doing pretty well.”
It sounds like an awful lot for young players to take on, but Milne insists that the individual and not the player is at the heart of what he and his team are trying to develop.
“Even if they are going to be the next Finn Russell, Huw Jones are Jonny Gray – rugby is still only a small part of it. You look at Stuart Hogg’s Instagram posts and it is about his family and the people around him – and it is important to have that perspective,” says Milne.
“That’s something we work hard on, especially with the older kids of 16 or 17, who are in three or four times a week. It is just a case of the coaches speaking to each other and speaking to the kids and their parents, to make sure we get that balance right.”
“With all the pressures on our young players – from exams, school, rugby, life in general – there is a danger that they will become, not necessarily get physically tired (as long as they’re looking after themselves as advised!), but mentally drained. So, it’s about actively managing them as individuals and most importantly educating them on how to avoid getting to that point. It is not just about putting these programmes on and providing the gym sessions and the skills coaching, it is about supporting players and keeping an eye on how they are behaving and how they are reacting, so that we know they are enjoying it and getting something out of it.
“We’re very lucky that we have some excellent volunteer coaches in the club, including the likes of Al Wilson, Matt McGrandles [who was named Youth Coach of the Season at last Friday’s Scottish Rugby Club Awards dinner] and Chris Faill. Al has stepped up to successfully lead the under-18 girls this season and both Matt and Chris have recently qualified as UKCC Level 3 whilst coaching our male under-18s. They are very committed and really support the ethos of what the club is trying to do.”
“Like any other club, we want as many of our young players to keep playing rugby after they turn 18, ideally at Stirling County but if they end up moving away then we want to make sure they are not lost to the game altogether. We’ve been very pleased to see graduating players retaining ties with the club while continuing their rugby in places like Aberdeen and Hartpury College.”
The club recently invested in a purpose-built strength and conditioning gym facility and employs Henderson and Trotter as Modern Apprentices (meaning they are working towards a vocational qualification through providing rugby coaching and support on behalf of the club), plus British weightlifting silver medallist Maria Omma-Dalziel as a dedicated strength and conditioning coach on a 20 hour per week contract. But resources are limited so it is important to cultivate relationships beyond the confines of Bridgehaugh.
“We are doing a lot of work with the University – with quite a few different departments and areas – and that’s starting to bear fruit,” says Milne.
“We’ve got students down here at the moment doing placements in strength and conditioning, nutrition and rugby coaching. We’ve got a couple of PHD students coming down working on longer term projects looking into physical development; and a couple more interested in the psychological aspects – such as pressures on young athletes – which should give some positive results. The university is a massive resource. It prides itself on being one of the biggest sports universities in the country and it is a 15-minute walk away – so we really are keen to keep building that relationship.”
A major challenge is sustaining meaningful rugby throughout the whole season. This year the Under-18 team played ten President’s Conference matches up to the 19th November, and then three Youth Cup games up to 10th February, with the rest of the schedule made up with ad-hoc friendlies, some of which were hopeless mismatches.
There is beginning to be a bit more crossover between schools and youth rugby – Stirling had fixtures against Stewart’s-Melville, Strathallan and St Aloysius this season, and will play against Merchiston Castle next year – but there remains considerable resistance to full integration from some influential quarters.
It seems like madness that, in a country with as limited playing resources as Scotland, we are not able to find a way of pushing up standards by having all the best young players competing regularly against each other, although Milne wisely chooses the diplomatic route when asked for his thoughts.
“We’ve been very open at Stirling about our desire to see the schools and the clubs closer together – be it a cup competition or a couple of day tournaments – but the problem is where you fit in in. The Schools Cup has gone very well and that’s a big thing for them, and they have their traditional fixture schedules. The Youth Cup is only three, maybe four, rounds – so it is variable and maybe we need the extra fixtures more than the schools. But I’d like to think everyone can come together to do what is best for Scottish rugby as a whole,” he reasons.
“It keeps coming up in discussions, more so than a couple of years ago – so I think we can see it coming.”
In the meantime, Milne has enough going on at Bridgehaugh to keep himself fully occupied.