OUT of the darkness and into the light. Scottish Rugby has been ultra-cautious during the last 15 months – when compared to football – in terms of getting the grassroots of the sport back up and running, but felt emboldened enough by the general direction of travel to hold a virtual press conference this [Tuesday] afternoon to discuss previously announced plans to have under-18s back playing friendly fixtures by the 31st May and adults by 5th July.
“It’s really exciting times, we’re moving really positively through our timeline, which is linked to the Scottish Government timeline,” enthused Neil Graham of Murrayfield’s Rugby Development Department. “On Monday just past, most areas moved to Level 2 and that enables all age groups to play a minimum of touch rugby and that is the first time we’ve had that in a number of months. Contact training can take place at mini and youth level which is fantastic, and May 31st is the indicative date for the return of friendly fixtures for youth players, again a really positive step forward in the return to rugby plans.
“Then, as we progress through June and July, the indicative date for the return of friendly fixtures in the adult game is July 5th.
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“A lot of work has gone on with the Scottish Government in terms of bubble sizes and what we can and cannot do and we’re in a really good place with that.
“We’ve relaxed the need for clubs to request to play during the close season, with the Board allowing a much more flexible approach this summer.
“In terms of next season, we’re working closely with our Council at the moment regarding the restart. We’ve had a consultation with clubs earlier this month and we’re in the process of working through the results from that with the intention of communicating the situation for next season in the near future.
“I think we’re looking really positively at the future over the summer,” he continued. “We have asked clubs to submit a request to Scottish Rugby to notify us of any friendlies taking place, from an injury and Covid-reporting perspective, and we have already had some teams notify us of fixtures they intend to play in the youth game.
“We’ve always got to have caution in the back of our minds. We are currently seeing Covid spikes in some local authorities which could have an impact, potentially, but we’ll take that as it comes. We are working with the clubs in Glasgow city and Moray at the moment around the guidance from their local authorities. Hopefully, that will be short-lived and the vaccine programme will come to everyone’s support.
“Our hope is that we’ll see friendly fixtures over the summer period and for the clubs who are looking to run sevens festivals and tournaments in August – some of the Borders clubs – we hope that they will be able to go ahead. That would be fantastic for the game and a really good opportunity to get back to what we all love.
One of the big unknowns at the moment is the extent to which the leagues will be regionalised, and whether there will be promotion and relegation. This is likely to be a thorny issue and Graham was not going to get himself sucked into saying anything pre-emptive.
“We’ll clarify next season as and when we can,” he said. “There’s a mixed response as to what people want next season. Over the coming weeks we’ll have an idea of what that structure will look like.”
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Of course, it is not a case of simply turning the tap back on and the rugby will immediately start flowing. With so little on-field activity having taken place since March 2020, there will inevitably be some serious challenges related to getting everyone back up to speed, not least kids who have missed over a season of their development.
“The laws are banded in two years, so, for example, between P6 and P7 there isn’t much change, but naturally we do have some transitions where there is quite a jump in terms of laws,” acknowledged Graham. “What we’re looking to do next year is what we call a ‘game on’ approach, which means having a flexibility to the laws so that if a team does have players who need an extra few months playing with no scrummaging, for example, then teams will be able to do that.
“We feel this is a good opportunity to have a season of flexibility and we’ll support coaches and match officials to ensure player welfare is paramount at all times. The transition will be managed locally through our development officer network.”
One potential pinch-point Scottish Rugby is acutely aware of is with youngsters who should have moved from under-18s to senior rugby last summer or are due to make that transition this summer. This can be a daunting step in ordinary times, let alone coming at it cold, so there is a particularly pressing need to get some sort of formalised rugby played at that level during the summer.
“We are looking at an under-20s transition programme,” explained David Drummond, East Regional Director. “We are going out to clubs at the moment to look for declarations of interest. Effectively that will be those who were playing under-18 a year and a half ago, when that season ended, or would have been playing under-18 last season. Come the start of the season, whenever that is, we would go back to the ordinary cut-off point. Those that are eligible will move into senior rugby at that point but at least most of them will have had a few months playing rugby across their normal peer group. We are trying to help them the best we can.”
With playing numbers in decline across the globe pre-pandemic, there is a natural fear that the game will never recover as a participation sport, with people either losing the habit and/or becoming extra cautious about the close contact nature of rugby. However, both Graham and Drummond insist that they have heard encouraging sounds about how the break has boosted appetite for the game.
“One example in the East Region is Kelso down in the Borders, who have introduced a new girls’ section, and where they’ve had real success is that some of the other sports which have traditionally been stronger for girls in that area, such as hockey, have not been able to get going,” explained Drummond. “Kelso rugby club have really taken advantage of that. They’ve had 18 to 20 girls down training. So, there’s pockets like that across the country which we as a sport have really benefitted from.
“It seems to be that parents are just desperate to see their kids back out playing sport and getting the chance to interact with other children. Our experience is that minis and youth sections are booming in some cases and going really well in others. It is just the adult game that people haven’t been returning to yet because there hasn’t been the opportunity, but hopefully we can start to see some evidence of that happening now.”
That view is backed up by Steven Halliday, president and a player for East Region Three side Dalkeith, and Chris Boyle, convenor of the club’s minis section.
“People are enthusiastic about being back,” stated Halliday. “I think when you are told you can’t do something you really want to do it more and I think that has been the case here. Certainly, that is what we have seen, there has been a good buzz about being back at the club and a lot of messages when we can get back to training, so it has been pretty good for us.
“We plan to open our bar this weekend inside. We are already open externally in the car park where we have had a beer garden in place. That has been a real positive, a lot of the guys who had drifted away before Covid have come back into the club because they have missed that social aspect.
“We don’t have any senior games arranged at the moment but there are a few Borders clubs looking to play us, so we will make sure we get some rugby over the summer. That is certainly the plan.
“Youth-wise, we plan on playing nearly every Saturday in June if we can get the fixtures confirmed.”
Boyle added: “We are fortunate, we have seen an increase across all age ranges. I think now that the lockdowns are easing, people are desperate to come back and do something. One of the good things has been that the mini section has been able to stay connected through social media.”
Dalkeith, along with National One side Biggar, were the big losers when the 2019-20 season was declared null-and-void. Both clubs had won their respective leagues before the virus struck but missed out on relegation through no fault of their own.
“Obviously, the disappointment was huge, but a period of time has passed now and I think guys are just happy to get back playing,” said Halliday. “I don’t think they really care what league they’ll be playing in.
“From a club point of view we’ll be hoping that the Championship Committee can steer a restructuring of the East Leagues to benefit everybody, including ourselves, because at the minute East Three has got seven teams in it and it’s not really viable.”
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The picture is a national league two fixture between Whitecaigs RFC and Stewart’s Melville RFC and not as stated a National three league fixture.
Looking forward to seeing club rugby and seeing old friends from the various clubs that play my club Stewart’s Melville.
I wish all members of all clubs throughout Scotland every success when resume club rugby.