THERE are some pretty positive things happening in South Ayrshire rugby at the moment, which has got to be good news for the Scottish game as a whole. This neck of the woods has a long and proud history of producing hardy international forwards [think Ian McLauchlan, Peter and Gordon Brown, Alastair McHarg, Quintin Dunlop, Gordon Strachan, Bill Cuthbertson, David Gray, Pat MacArthur and Gordon Reid], plus a few slick backs over the years as well [Steve Munro, Derek Stark, Derrick Lee and Mark Bennett].
It has proven itself to be the sort of production line of players capable of playing at the highest levels which a nation the size of Scotland needs to have functioning at close to full capacity – and the evidence of this season suggests that the right sort of work is being put in at the pit-face to make sure that this can be the case for years to come.
Ayr, the region’s leading club, finished top of the BT Premiership table during the regular season and were unfortunate to lose to a nerveless Heriot’s outfit in the play-off ‘grand-final’. The Millbrae men are at the forefront of the quest to raise the level of professionalism in the club game and there is little doubt that they will bounce back next season to mount another serious challenge for silverware.
Ten miles up the road in Troon, Marr came within a whisker of joining Ayr in the top flight, after finishing second in National League Division One to earn the right to take-on Gala in a promotion play-off. They also fell at the final hurdle, but given the momentum generated since battling their way up the food chain from the lower reaches of Division Five West in just over decade, they can surely look to the future with fully justified optimism.
However, perhaps the most uplifting story emanating at the moment from this fertile but often unheralded rugby heartland relates to what is going on in the small market town of Maybole [Dunlop’s home town], where local club and school are working hand-in-hand to build a model for player development which should be used as a template across the country for what can be achieved with a bit of ambition, a bucket-load of enthusiasm, plenty of hard-work, and a healthy dose of blue sky thinking.
The nerve centre of the operation is a nondescript prefabricated cabin on the grounds of Carrick Academy, from which Gordon Brown, head of rugby at the school, works with four full-time staff to deliver the sport to over 200 male and female pupils (constituting over 40 per cent of the school roll) and also at nearby Girvan Academy.
“This was basically a derelict building gifted to us by the school. The local authority allow us use of the building for free and pay our electricity. The club have painted it, put down flooring, and now we’re putting together a bid for a CashBack for Communities grant* because we would like to spend in the region of £2000 putting showers in,” explains Brown, who is faculty head of Modern Studies, History, Geography and Social Studies at the school, and runs the rugby programme on a voluntary basis.
“We have an office; there is a room with washing machines and dryers which doubles up as a changing room for the boys; a meeting room which doubles up as a changing room for the girls; and we’ve refurbished a gym where we deliver strength and conditioning to pupils during 18 periods built into the school timetable.”
There was no rugby being played at Carrick Academy when Brown arrived as a fresh faced 23-year-old in 2003, but fourth year pupil Stephen Raby was aware that the new Modern Studies teacher played prop for Irvine [later spending two years as player coach with Kilmarnock], so asked if he would be interested in setting up a team.
“Stephen plays for the club’s 1st XV now, but he played ice-hockey back then,” recalls Brown. “I got together with my mentor, Jim McComiskey, who had run rugby at the school back in the 1980s and 1990s, and we collected 22 names. We started a four team league with Girvan, Kyle, Irvine Royal and ourselves, played six games that year, and entered the Scottish Cup the next year. It has grown every year since then,” recalls Brown.
Becoming a School of Rugby** in 2011 was a key moment, creating the opportunity to link rugby into the curriculum, and providing the baseline funding for the staffing costs of development officer Michael Kirk, administrator Kyle Johnson, and modern apprentices Shania Irvine and Nicholas Davidson***.
“Our S1 and S2 pupils at the school now get rugby during two classroom periods per week, as well as after school and on Saturday mornings, which means four rugby inputs a week,” explains Brown.
“Then in S3 and S4 we introduce a strength and conditioning programme which they do twice a week, before school or at lunchtimes, plus they get one period in their timetable to train as a team. If you are involved in the 1st XV you have double periods on Tuesday and Thursday, plus first period on a Friday dedicated to rugby, with strength and conditioning built into the school timetable. It is the sort of stuff you expect at an independent school.”
“We field seven teams on a Saturday morning. This year we started a P6/7 team because we play a lot of the independent schools and they’ve got them, alongside our S1, S2, S3, under-16s and under-18s teams.
“The girl’s under-15 team has lost only one game this year. We have about 60 girls playing at that age-grade in the school so we can field three teams comfortably. The girl’s programme is pretty new so we don’t have the same numbers at under-18s level because it wasn’t available when they were starting out at the school, but hopefully that will change as we move forward.”
“Our Head Teacher, Shona Stevens, is very supportive which is really important because we couldn’t do any of this without her on side – but it works well for her as well because our rugby staff deliver a good chunk of curriculum classes. We also have a great relationship with Glen Tippett, Scottish Rugby’s regional development manager in the area, who really does give us great support.”
The other crucial moment in this story was when the school amalgamated their rugby structure with the town’s club under the banner Carrick Rugby in 2012. The rationale behind the decision was to provide a conveyer belt of talent from the club run micro section, through the school and into the senior ranks. It provides a great deal of crossover in terms of sharing valuable human and capital resources.
The impetus for this was Brown taking over as coach of the club team (on top of his responsibilities at the school), and persuading several former pupils who were playing elsewhere to come home. The club had plummeted down the leagues to West Division Four just a few years earlier, but by the time Brown got involved they had recovered to a third place in West Division Three. Then Millbrae, who were due to top the division, decided that they didn’t want to move up so forfeited their last game, which granted Carrick promotion by default.
“We lost our first three games of the next season – the first two pretty heavily – and I was wondering if I had done the right thing. But we recovered and then got promoted into West Division One the next year. We came up against a very good GHK side last year so missed out on promotion, then this year we finished third although we were actually a league point better off than in the previous season and had the best points differential in the table,” explains Brown.
“It came down to losing four really narrow games, and I’m still scratching my head about the one we lost at home to Glasgow Accies in particular. It’s disappointing because I’d fancy our chances in National Three. Just look at GHK: they walked that league this season after being promoted last year.”
Consolation for their league disappointment came in the BT Shield, where the club swept to success in magnificent style, inflicting a first defeat in 56 games on East League Champions St Boswells at the semi-final stage, before locking horns with Caledonia League Champions Highland in what proved to be the most entertaining match of Cup Finals Day at Murrayfield last month.
Carrick trailed 12-5 at half-time and were struggling to get a foothold against a much heavier Highland pack, but had the pace and ambition to turn things around after the break. They eventually ran out 34-27 winners, with Brown coming off the bench to not only help steady the scrum but also score his team’s second try and play a key role in the creation of their third.
On the day of the final, 12 buses left Maybole filled with club supporters. The whole town had been buzzing for weeks, and Brown clearly takes a great deal of pride in the positive effect the rise of Carrick Rugby has had on the local community. He beams as he talks about seeing kids kicking around a rugby ball rather than a football as he makes his way home from work through the streets of the town each evening.
In recent seasons, Mark Bennett has helped coach the senior club when time has permitted. The Glasgow Warriors and Scotland centre, who comes from nearby Cumnock, is a childhood friend of Carrick administrator and stand-off/full-back Kyle Johnson.
“Six years ago the club was struggling to get a team out. They went up to Marr for a league game with thirteen bodies, and they lost by about 100 points. So they met in a local pub and somebody pulled out a pint glass and put the club funds in it. They said: This is all we’ve got – is it time to call it a day? Now we have the player numbers to field three teams. In the lead-up to the semi-final against St Boswells we had a team meeting on Thursday night, and I produced this glass with money in it, and I said if it wasn’t for those guys who had made that decision to keep the club going then, the players wouldn’t be getting these opportunities they are getting now, so we are not only doing it for ourselves – we are doing it for those who stood up and were counted during the tough times,” says Brown.
“I would challenge anybody to look at our School of Rugby programme and show me a better model of a state school for developing rugby and developing job opportunities,” he adds. “I’ve now had 11 former pupils coming through as modern apprentices, three of them have gone into development officer positions and all of them have gone into full employment elsewhere. The SRU have been hugely involved in that, as have our local authority and you can’t do it without a supportive head teacher.”
The dust is just beginning to settle on the 2015-16 season, but there is no letting up for Brown and his team, with fundraising an on-going battle. A significant chunk of the staffing costs are covered by Scottish Rugby and South Ayrshire Council, but there is still a substantial shortfall which needs to be raised independently.
“The big challenge is: Where do we play all these games? There is only one pitch in Carrick. On a Saturday morning, we’ve got to go up to Ayr to play our home games so we need to organise and finance transport for that – its £150 for us to hire a bus up to Ayr and £350 if we have a game in Glasgow,” says Brown.
“It’s not easy. The problems we have with pitches really take the energy away. I have one period a week timetabled for rugby and I always request the last one on a Friday so that I can deal with whatever problems we are having in terms of pitch access. We really shouldn’t succeed given the challenges we face, but what we’ve got going for us is the school and club link, and also the infrastructure within the school.”
“Carrick is a relatively small school but our match-up with Girvan could potentially double our player base. They’ve actually got a big area down there with two football pitches which would be a great for rugby, so one of the things we are trying to pull together through the CashBack for Communities scheme is to build a rugby pitch and upgrade the old pavilion there, and we want to build a second pitch in Maybole as well as upgrading our hub. So, for £50,000 we are trying to treble our playing capacity and improve three facilities not just one.”
“The plus side of the challenges we face is that it makes sure we are out there working with the community in order to keep the whole thing going. We’ve got a great set of parents who help with things like the tuck-shop; we’ve got a really enthusiastic committee at the club; we’ve just had our annual charity dinner with Jason White as the guest speaker, which was a great success; and it’s getting easier to go to local businesses asking for sponsorship because they now know who we are and what we are trying to do.”
*CashBack for Communities is a Scottish Government scheme which takes funds recovered from the proceeds of crimes and invests them into programmes which provide activities for young people. Scottish Rugby has been awarded £2.25 million for the period 2014-17 for the delivery of a range of activities for young people.
** CashBack for Communities funds 30 Schools of Rugby across Scotland, where the game is used to enhance the ‘whole school’ experience. Pupils take part in up to 5 sessions per week, with a focus on developing core skills, physical competence and establishing new rugby teams.
*** The Modern Apprentice Community Coach programme offers a vocational qualification pathway – through a partnership between Scottish Rugby, rugby clubs, schools or local authorities, and Skills Development Scotland – working towards a Modern Apprenticeship Level 3 certificate in Leisure Management.