IF Stirling County get the better of Southern Knights at The Greenyards tonight [Friday], it will be their fourth win on the bounce in Super6 and mean that they have beaten each of the five other teams in the competition over the course of the 10-match regular season. Not a bad outcome following a frustrating start to the campaign which saw the Bridgehaugh men lose four and draw one of their first six games.
However, the really satisfying thing as far as head coach Ben Cairns and director of rugby Eddie Pollock are concerned is the way that on-field improvements at Super6 level have married with the wider objective of providing a full pathway for both boys and girls to progress through the club from early primary school age to the top level of the domestic game in Scotland.
“In terms of my role as head coach of the Super6 team, that is really important, especially in terms of the region that we represent,” says Cairns. “Probably more so than with one of your Edinburgh-based teams because we don’t have as many people coming off the street who are ready-made good rugby players.”
“So, that ability to create a really solid development programme, through the club primarily, but also through relationships and partnerships with the schools around us and with Stirling University, is really important to us if we are going to have the talent pool we need to be really competitive.
“Certainly, when I applied for the job, the most exciting part for me was how good a youth section the club had, and the potential within that to grow,” adds the former Scotland centre and Currie Chieftains head coach. “The big challenge was to try to translate that to senior team success, which has been an issue here in the past.”
County have a long and distinguished history as one of the most prolific rugby nurseries in the country. It has also been a standard-bearer for upward mobility in the club game having climbed from division seven in the late 1970s to become Scottish champions in 1995.
“We went from being 120th in Scotland to being first in Scotland inside 20 years,” points out Pollock, who was there throughout that remarkable ascent. “But we then had the legs taken out from under us with pro rugby, the switch from clubs to districts, when we lost practically all our team.
“So, we went for about 15 years in a yo-yo scenario going up and down between the top two divisions. We never spent more than a year out of the topflight, but we found it very difficult to get back to a position where we were challenging for championships again.
“We were a mid-table team at best, and it is only in the last 10 years or so that we really got back to being a top half of the table Premiership side, before Super6 came along.
“So, the big thing for me is making that jump again from being a middle of the road team to being a championship side, and with that in mind, what is exciting for me is that we are in this 3rd/4th play-off [in Super6], and we are being competitive.”
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The argument for and against Super6 rumbles on, but the reality is that it is here now, and for County the key is finding the right balance between its ‘performance’ and ‘community’ functions.
“We’re getting there,” says Cairns. “It is something we need to continually work on, and I think having someone like Eddie, who transcends all levels of the club – sitting as director of rugby on the amateur side, but also helping me as an assistant coach of the Super6 team – has been really helpful.
“Having players who have come through the pathway to play Super6 also helps. The more examples we have of guys who start out in the youth section, move into the senior section, and then onto Super6, the better – because then everyone is really aware of what that looks like.”
County were criticised before the start of the campaign when they announced the recruitment of three Irish players and a couple of South Africans to their Super6 team, but Cairns argues that it is not a binary issue of picking Scots or non-Scots.
“There needs to be a balance to it,” he reasons. “We should be looking at homegrown first, so within the club is my first port of call. The second thing is: can we get Scottish-qualified guys into our system? Then, eventually, you get to the stage where you are weighing up a choice between calling up a young Scottish-qualified guy who hasn’t played much senior rugby at all or bringing in an Irish guy who has won the All-Ireland League with Lansdowne.
“The decision there is whether the young Scottish-qualified guy would be better off playing a season for the club side, where he will get regular game-time at a good level as opposed to one or two matches in a sprint season, and whether bringing in the experienced Irish guy helps the Super6 team – and all the players in that squad – to really compete at a performance level.
“You are never going to get all those calls right, but you make the decision with the information available at that time.”
Cairns points out that 56.3 percent of his current Super6 squad previously played senior club rugby at Stirling and 40.6 percent played youth rugby at the club. Five players stepped up from the Wolves ‘Club XV’ to Super6 this season, while Archie Russell and Craig Robertson returned to County after spells elsewhere.
One of those youth section graduates is 19-year-old Glasgow Warriors academy member and Scotland Under-20s stand-off Euan Cunningham, who did not get any game-time as a 17-year-old during his first season of Super6, but will have been involved in seven out of 10 matches for the side by close of play this evening.
“With Euan in season one, we probably got that call wrong because he didn’t play in the Super6 comp,” concedes Cairns. “The decision we made then was that we believed he was good enough to play Super6, and he was also going to have all his regional and national age-grade stuff as well. But then we got hit by the pandemic and he didn’t end up playing Super6 and missed all his under-18s stuff.
“But he played in the U20s Six Nations this summer, is part of the Glasgow academy now and has had quite a bit of rugby so far this season, so I think we got there in the end.”
Cunningham certainly seems to be pleased with how things are panning out. “It was tough but there are pros and cons to it,” says the youngster. “Training in this environment week-in and week-out did help me a lot. But on the flip side games at a lower level might have helped. Overall, I wouldn’t say it was a bad decision and a great experience as a 17-year-old.
“I’m pretty fortunate. Coming through the minis and at high school, the target was always to play for the 1st XV, and having that link has been key to keeping a lot of my friends involved.”
Cairns adds: “Then you have a player like Josh King, who was involved in season one but didn’t get as many minutes as he would have liked, then had long-Covid and it took him while to get back from that. So, when we were recruiting for season two, we decided that it wasn’t the right thing to bring him in when he is, realistically, going to be fifth choice lock and sixth choice back-row, which is his primary position, after 18 months of no rugby.
“So, he did all of our pre-season and showed up really well, took that form into the Wolves to be one of their stand-out performers at the start of this season, then we had the opportunity when Ally Mackie was a long-term injury to bring Josh back into Super6 after already having had a lot more rugby to that point than he’d had during the previous season and a half. So, he is definitely in a better place now than he would have been if we’d persevered with him down the Super6 route and not taken into consideration his particular situation.”
Meanwhile, the Wolves remain winless in National One, but Pollock insists that he is optimistic in the medium term.
“The first thing is that we have 50 boys training, and of that number over half will be under-20,” he explains. “We have a couple of guys who are 30-years-old and the next oldest after that will be 23, so they are very young.
“We want to challenge and get into the Premiership, but we don’t have a timescale on it. Although we haven’t won a game yet, we’ve been very close, a bit like the Super6 team was at the start of the season. So, I’m sure they are going to come through and do well.
“We’re now able to take boys out the under-18s and straight into National One, which is a good level. If we hadn’t gone Super6, we would have been in a situation where these guys would all have been playing 2nd or 3rd XV rugby.
“So we have an opportunity for boys like Euan to play Super6, others to be playing National One, and others to be playing West Regional Two, depending on what level they are at. We’ve more people playing at a higher level than before, and that’s surely the aim of every club.”
The other key strand to all of this is the role County wants to play in growing women and girls’ rugby. This has its challenges, but Rob Storey – head coach of the women’s team for the last five years having previously had no connection to the club – believes the groundwork put in at youth level is beginning to pay-off at senior level.
“It is a very odd mix in women’s rugby where you will have players who have been involved in international rugby often training and sometimes playing alongside girls who have hardly played before,” he says. “But prior to Covid we were beginning to see girls who had come all the way through the pathway here start to emerge from the under-18s to the senior team. And that makes a big difference because they are arriving with the basic skills – passing, kicking, tackling – and that means we can start to focus more on tactics and structural stuff.
“We still have a similar issue in that this week we had two girls training who were just back from the Scotland World cup qualifiers, and two girls who have just taken up rugby in the last fortnight, all training in the same group.
“I think we are at a tipping point. We now have 30 players available most weekends, but can only pick 20, so we have to work out what we can do with the other 10. We’ve managed to organise a couple of games for the girls on the edge of the squad, but there is nothing regular for them. The SRU organise development days, but they can be a bit hit and miss in my experience.
“The challenge is how we get to the point where we have second team rugby, because that’s where we need to go next. But who would we play against?
“Cartha now have a second team they run in one of the lower leagues, although there doesn’t seem to be that many games for them. We’re close to that, and if we don’t do that now then my fear is that players will start to drift away.
“In the five years I have been here, the culture has changed in terms of a lot more time and effort is invested by the club into the women’s section,” he adds. “They are not just an add-on but an important part of the club. We have more people coming along to watch and support them.
“It is getting better all the time. There is a lot more thought going on about how to integrate the women’s game. And that has been helped because the under-18s team has been so successful, which has helped highlight the value of the women’s game.”
Underpinning everything the club does, is the support of local businesses, and President John Gibson is particularly keen to highlight the role of one firm in particular.
“We have a great partnership with Kilgannon Motors who have sponsored our Academy over the last four years,” says Gibson. “This has allowed us to develop the pathway for our youth players and to ready them for the rigours of a competition such as FOSROC Super6. The club has now embarked on an extension of the sponsorship agreement with Kilgannon Motors and will be working hard to advertise their innovative ‘Passing Something Back’ scheme.”