WHILE Dublin will be centre stage for Scottish rugby fans, the future of the game in Scotland will be on show at the Oriam where the semi-finals of the National Youth Cup competitions are taking place at under-18 and under-16 levels over a busy weekend.
In the under-18 matches being played on Saturday, the one club new to this stage of the competition is GHA, whose ambitions are not confined to the Cup but also to attaining a place in the proposed super conference next season. Having reached the semi-finals, they have already made a statement about their fitness to compete in a beefed-up league, but this weekend the focus will be on the Cup.
“We made it our aim this season to reach the semi final,” said GHA coach Grant Noble. “We narrowly lost to Ayr in the quarters last season and we want to atone for that defeat.”
GHA face Hawick Youth in the first of the semis, kicking off at noon. The Borderers, too, will almost certainly be part of the revamped top tier of the youth game which means they could be playing against GHA in league rugby. But for now, each team is a stranger to the other.
Hawick reached the penultimate stage of the cup by defeated Deeside/Garioch in the quarters 15-7. GHA progressed at the expense of another north-east club in Ellon with a 46-14 win at Braidholm.
Favourites for this year’s under-18 cup are Ayr/Wellington, who won the Shogun Conference at this age level with an unbeaten run. The Millbrae side face past winners Jed Thistle this weekend, who were quarter-final winners over Cartha QP by 17-15.
Ayr/Wellington draw from a large catchment area in contrast to Jed Thistle whose supply of players is almost exclusively from the local secondary school, Jedburgh Grammar, which has a precariously small roll at present of just under 300.
Just how Thistle manage with such low numbers is down to a mix of history, dedication by those who run this autonomous club and, on the playing field, a culture of ‘playing for one another’. Whether that will be enough to overcome Ayr, who reached the semis the hard way by knocking out Stirling County in the previous round, remains to be seen.
The other factor in the semi-finals will be how the teams adapt to playing in the somewhat surreal indoor rugby arena atmosphere at the Oriam. That in itself is a psychological challenge but adjusting to a plastic surface will also be a new experience for some.
Playing on a 3G pitch, however, will suit Hawick Youth, who ply their rugby on the artificial surface at the town’s Volunteer Park. Ultimately, though, it may come down to which team has the desire to want that thrilling experience of playing on the hallowed ‘turf’ of Murrayfield on Finals Day in March.
The under-16 semi finals will go ahead on Sunday when Peebles face Mackie Academy and Hawick play Boroughmuir.
GHA U18: L Bardelli; D Subushimike, J Peacock, G Little, L Foulds; M Noble, G Fraser; H McKenzie, F Overend, L McLardie, Z Simpson, E Darroch, D Dunn, S Carmichael, D Lizzeri Subs R Blackwood, M Tollan, T Reid, G Fisher, D Mukulumani, R Campbell, S Faulds
Hawick Youth U18: J Chelley; A Harkness, E Stanger, C Jeffrey, C Graham; C Welsh, B Scott; L Graham, S Cook, H Scott, P Porter, W Young, S Frizel, C Sutherland, D Murphy Clark Subs R Borthwick, M Forbes, B Swailes, T Huggan, C Garden, C Riddell A Antonacci
Jed Thistle U18: L Smith; J Fender, C Douglas, A Bambrick, M Cullen; R Nichol, C Patterson; A Stewart, C Moffat, S Anderson, B Howe, K McGeown, J Wieczysty, K Grieve, G Williams Subs D Riddell, T Cromarty, G Middlemiss, P Fishwick, L Elder, K Hayes, F Falconer
Ayr/Wellington U18: A O’Connor; H Evans, D Wilson, E Caldwell, D White; R Simpson, A McGowan; M Lafferty, R Ward, C Rae, P Mulrainey, A McMillan, R Bulloch, C Muir, C Young Subs L Shinn, M Crossan, J Lynch, B Johnstone, L Storie, K Halliday, M Thomson.