Gavin Blackburn column: My solution to Scotland’s player pathway problem

A renewed focus on regional/district age-grade rugby will cast the net wider and help grow the sport

Action from the Forsroc Academy Finals Day last year. Image: © Craig Watson - www.craigwatson.co.uk
Action from the Forsroc Academy Finals Day last year. Image: © Craig Watson - www.craigwatson.co.uk

WE can either accept that Scottish people – and Scottish boys for the purposes of this article – are genetically inferior to kids from the other rugby playing nations, or we can acknowledge that the supply chain for identifying and developing rugby talent in this country is not working as well as we need it to.

The Sunday Times told us two weekends ago that Richard Cockerill has signed two Scottish-qualified players and immediately added them to Edinburgh’s European squad ahead of last Saturday night’s Champions Cup curtain-raiser against La Rochelle at Murrayfield (although neither played).

20-year-old Charlie Savala joined the club in October apparently – although there was no public mention of it at the time – from Australian Rugby League side Sydney Roosters. He qualifies for Scotland through his Ayr-born father, while his grandmother still lived in Ayr until moving to Australia this year.


Scottish Rugby linked to South African second-row David Meihuizen


“Savala still has a number of strong family connections in Ayr and even turned out for the Millbrae club aged nine, when visiting family on holiday,” the Edinburgh website informs us.

Korie Winters is also 20 and joined Edinburgh from Massey University, based in Palmerston North on New Zealand’s North Island. He qualifies for Scotland through his Edinburgh-born grandfather.

These are just the latest two overseas players brought in to shore up the professional sides during this difficult season when threadbare squads are having to spread themselves thinly between hectic domestic and international schedules.

Good luck to the boys – they are grabbing an opportunity which any ambitious rugby player would jump at – but, surely, I am not alone in wondering why there doesn’t appear to be a queue of homegrown 20-year-olds ready to step up to the plate … or not a queue that the pro coaches are prepared to show faith in at any rate.

It’s a global game

Can I state early on that I have absolutely no problem with overseas players adding their experience and expertise to the game in this country, but it feels like this is increasingly the policy being adopted as a sticking plaster solution to our failings in developing talent internally.

If we increasingly rely on imported players to populate our professional and international teams, then we will ultimately cease to be positive contributors to growing the game globally. We will be the magpies or world rugby.

Super6 was set up to bridge the gap between the club and the professional game, and Covid means that we have not yet really had a chance to see how effective this new semi-professional tier can be in fulfilling that role – but, for me, the big issue is tackling the supply chain closer to the starting point, by offering more and better opportunities to kids at the beginning of their rugby journey.

And it is not just about the top of the pyramid, but also keeping kids motivated and engaged so that the ones who don’t go all the way carry on playing at club level. Our current players are our future coaches and administrators. The more people involved, the easier things get.

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I am aware that there is a tendency these days to slate the system without offering a solution – which doesn’t help anyone – so here is my tuppence worth, from experience as a player, coach, development officer and fan of the game.

The solution may seem simple to many – it is amazing how often the most obvious answer is the best answer!

Pathway system

We need to go back to areas within districts from Under-13s up to Under-18s, using our development officer staff to run these teams and identify the talent. I have worked as part of this workforce and I trust them to do this effectively.

When I say areas within districts, what I mean is, for example, a North Lanarkshire Under-14 squad or a Renfrewshire Under-14 squad, playing in a series of internal district festivals where kids can get plenty of opportunity to show their skill-set.

From these festivals, talent can be identified over a number of weekends which would allow district age-grade coaches several opportunities to select the kids who perform consistently well.

District rugby

Once the top performers from these festivals have been selected, they should play in a trial game which will allow the best of the best to play-off against each other before District selection is finalised.

Let’s then see a return to the sort of District championship we used to have, but run it all the way through from Under-13 to Under-20 level, played in a league format which allows national selectors to see our aspiring players over three games as they look to select their Scotland age-grade sides.

Schools system

In previous years, Scottish Rugby has – in my opinion – been too focussed on the big rugby-playing private schools, and overlooked the role that clubs and state schools can play as supply channels for our next generation of adult players.

I absolutely agree that the private schools are vitally important but there has to be a bigger investment in state schools. We must fight football tooth and nail for our young kids, by creating stronger links between schools and clubs, and then further strengthening that relationship through serious investment into facilities by Scottish Rugby.

The drop-off from kids playing mini-rugby at their club whilst at primary school and then disappearing without trace when they move on to secondary school is arguably the biggest hurdle to growing the game in this country at the moment. That needs to be addressed with bold and decisive action as a matter of urgency.

Key areas of focus

  • Pay experienced coaches to assist the development officers to select and coach these players
  • Pay travel expenses or a daily rate to knowledgeable selectors to identify the kids at these festivals with potential to move on to the District programme

Scottish Rugby linked to South African second-row David Meihuizen

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About Gavin Blackburn 2 Articles
Originally from Giffnock, Gavin is a former age-grade district and international prop. He was a member of Saracens’ academy programme in the late 1990s, then played club rugby for London Scottish, Glasgow Hawks, Glasgow Southern and Stirling County before an Achilles injury ended his career. He was part of the Glasgow Warriors squad which visited Canada ahead of the 1999-2000 season, and has since coached at Dunfermline, Kilmarnock, Biggar, Garnock, West of Scotland and Stirling County, and was a development officer for five years between 2012 and 2017 in the Garnock Valley.

23 Comments

  1. Great to see this debate being freshened up in this article. Two things I think it doesn’t address (and they’re significant, I feel):

    a) the state schools, by and large (we have a very middle class catchment here in North Berwick for instance, yet an almost nil interest within the school there is no head of PE/interest – and in the absence of that in state schools, your likely momentum with rugby fails.
    b) that’s all fair have 13-18years, but if talent then arises at 17-18 years old, where then do they go to sustain the momentum if our pro sides have a half-assed approach/lack of capacity/investment to academies? And then, with our sole two pro sides stacked with overseas “qualified” players just to win rather meaningless trophies such as the Pro 14, any local talent inevitably tracks into “back to reality” career mode, if indeed they stay in the game at all.

    Interesting that the French saw this issue within their own professional game and introduced JIFF to ensure that squads had adequate local, academy product. Why don’t we?

  2. I found Mike’s views interesting and I would agree with much of what he stated but it’s not new! Other sports are in exactly the same position when trying to encourage children to continue with a sport.
    When I started teaching there was at least 1 but usually 2 teams for every year group turning out on a Saturday morning for a state school. That was back in the ’70s. Yes, nearly 50 years have gone past and has there been a change or improvement in that time? Yes, but for a short period only. Before professional rugby came along players still had pride in wearing the jersey. However, there were also other factors playing a part before the change started. Not all are sport related.
    The simple answer over time is no! So who is to blame? The SRU? The Clubs? The Schools? How is it that in 50 years the involvement in the game of rugby has declined? Development officers were introduced and other initiatives but they appear to have failed to make a difference. The obvious answer is the same as for other sports. There are far more ways that children can make use of free time. If they are rejected/not selected for a sport the easy move is to give up the sport and try to find success elsewhere. Plus the move to elitism at an early age has not encouraged the majority to continue. Most children and parents see that as a career move where you commit to the sport while still trying to achieve academically. If you don’t make it in rugby what is the alternative route and how disadvantaged are you at that point or even if you make it when pro rugby involvement comes to an end?
    There are many schools who actively play football in Scotland. Has that resulted in a World beating team? No! so large participation numbers are unlikely to be the answer?
    The move of rugby to the pay per view channels takes away viewing figures and interest in the game. No concessions for under-18s. Yes, Murrayfield can still be sold out for a Scotland match but what are the demographics of the crowd? A fair reflection of society?
    I believe it is going to take a major change in direction from the SRU. The present stealth mob at Murrayfield are unlikely to act. They see rugby as a business rather than a sport.
    Have I come up with magic answers. NO, and I am not proud of that! However, I believe I have raised a number of factors that need to be considered if change for the better is to happen. We need to discuss the topic far and wide and don’t expect one person to have the elusive answer. For me, the starting point is a change in leadership/leadership group. They are paid substantially but without delivering the success that the grassroots and enthusiasts expect.

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  3. Living in England, I’d suggest integration of SQ Age group players as well. I know from experience Rob Brierley does a fantastic job in identifying and nurturing SQ talent in England but involvement in the district games mooted here, just as the Exiles took part in the old district championships would, I think, be good for those involved and may well encourage others to get involved.

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  4. Need another pro-team so more youths have opportunity at the end of the day. People always hark on about Aberdeen or borders as our best shot if it could be invested into.

    My question is why people never bring up a second pro team in Glasgow or Edinburgh? Football does this and it breeds great inter-city rivalries. And surely there is a larger local player pool/fan base to pick from in the long-run.

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  5. Very interesting and reassuring to know that most people are of the same thinking, with the development of the game we love. And I agree that we should develop our own home grown talent. Having experienced the pathways system with some of our club boys I was reassured that there is a development system in place. However the quality of some of the players before the cut definitely stifles talent. If we took a district approach pre reginal teams. It would make the numbers more manageable. I’m sure that would resolve that issue with identifying talent early.
    BBL

  6. Interesting piece but I would argue the ‘Schools Section’ needs significantly more detail

    Few questions for the author:

    “Scottish Rugby has – in my opinion – been too focussed on the big rugby-playing private schools”

    Interested to know what this means in practice – do you think the SRU are spending more money and institutional time on private school players?, who or what is too focussed on private schools? Ultimately the private schools will invest in their rugby programs irrespective of what the SRU are doing or what their focus is

    “by creating stronger links between schools and clubs”

    What would this entail over and above what the SRU were doing pre pandemic. There is always activity the SRU could be doing but what specifically should they be doing?, why should they be doing it? and how does the effectiveness of this activity compare to the whole host of other stuff it could be doing to promote youth rugby in Scotland?

    “further strengthening that relationship through serious investment into facilities by Scottish Rugby”

    I’m always pro greater investment in facilities but it’s hard to judge without any detail. What type of investment? Should the SRU be investing in schools or clubs or both? Should they invest a small amount across a lot of schools and clubs or focus their activity on a couple of super clubs? What level of investment is needed etc? Without these fundamental questions answered it is impossible to judge the statement

    I appreciate there is a limit to what can be achieved in <1000 words but this is such a nuanced and complicated subject its important these questions are addressed

    Cheers,
    Alan (co-host of the Thistle Podcast)

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  7. Same old problem,I know of people who have moved thier kids to private education to allow them a better chance to progress in the game.
    Clubs need to be more proactive in thier towns to attract players, they need to be part of the community.
    It has to be disheartening if you are committed, only to see someone from another country parachuted in ahead of you.
    Gavin you are spot on it needs to revert back to grass roots regional rugby, let the kids play!

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  8. All of this has been part of my thinking for a long time. The big problem is that the SRU are not interested in what others think.

    When was the last time they asked their membership at grassroots level about anything as significant as this, or for that matter really listened to what people are saying?

  9. There are 360 state schools in Scotland and only 22 of them compete with 5 teams each week in the schools conferences. There is your rather large elephant in the room! BalfronHS/Strathendrick were one of the last state schools to join conference rugby.Its hard work but it can be achieved transitioning state schools to become rugby playing schools. SRU needs a 5 year plan to move from 22 to 40 school. This will transform scottish rugby ?

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    • Club youth Rugby the more likely key to expansion and the keys for that change are already in the SRU’s hands. Getting extra curricular sport into state schools again is a job (overdue) of Scottish Government and will (if it ever happens) in first instance see more footy and athletics. Club Rugby is the higher standard than lower end school Rugby and will be more fun and produce better players. There are half. a dozen fantastically talented players from Lenize who will need to find a challenging compeppoetion at U16,17, and 18 (S4,5&6) as they will walk their schools conference. But can’t play Club and School due to playing regulations. Arguably they should be playing then in a youth conference not a schools one. This though means Sunday Rugby which is hard ask for School teachers. So one solution would be run conferences only at S4,S5&S6 (with friendlies and cup/plate contests prior) and say to all schools and clubs that it is those three years that players can then coalesce as really engaged competitive sides built around the most credible end point.

  10. One of the big issues is lack of involvement of girls in the game, i propose mixer gender games until U16 and assign teams based on weight similar to NZ. This will also solve the transgender issue and promote equality within the game.

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    • Agree girls would drive up participation (boys and families, etc all taking an interest, more money through the coffers, etc), but the age you propose is mental.

      Not sure where I’d draw the line (11?), but 16 seems crazy dangerous (not to mention costly in terms of defending PI litigation). Imagine a touring Grey College side up against a mixed team?

      Anyway, good article.

  11. It’s a numbers issue. If say, only 1% reach the apex of the triangle – the elite level, then the bigger the base of the triangle, the bigger the number in that 1%. The solution lies in getting more state schools getting rugby back on the PE curriculum. Its not DO’s who can do that, its an extra PE teacher funded in schools to promote and coach rugby, supported where possible by clubs and DO’s to be the bridge between school and club rugby. If funding is an issue, start in ‘rugby receptive schòols’ and once its firmly on the school curriculum, move on to more schools and spread the rugby gospel gradually.

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  12. I think that the earlier comments on why boys play rugby is very valid. Playing with their mates is a key element for many so should be fostered Boys (and girls) experience in minis is built around small side matches played at festivals. Moving to 13s in S1 and 15s in S2 naturally changes this dynamic. Keeping the mini format for longer may help keep more in rugby for longer. Agree more support in state schools and district set up will help In time. Private schools can’t be knocked however for having the resources to promote and develop rugby in their schools.

  13. Are you not just advocating another version of what the SRU do already but on a smaller scale?
    “If kids are doing well at their club, take them away from their club”

    We need more people playing, which means more teams. A wider, more diverse, club based approach does that.
    Scottish rugby is for some reason obsessed with identifying future “elite” athletes. Let’s just get more kids playing rugby. This also improves the pool of experienced coaches.
    Top down just doesn’t work.

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  14. I agree about the key being more rugby in state schools. We must broaden the playing base. There has not been enough sustainable development in schools. It maybe needs a focus in one or two parts of the country until they get properly established as rugby heartlands. And more training and games in better weather, to promote skill and enjoyment. The SRU take the easy route of pushing promising players into a handful of private schools

  15. “The drop-off from kids playing mini-rugby at their club whilst at primary school and then disappearing without trace when they move on to secondary school”

    Mini-rugby is based on Primary classes – P3/4/5/6/7 – rugby with your mates.

    The SRU have decided that Secondary School rugby is based on a “1st Sept” age grouping, which splits the Scottish School year-group in half.

    So any S1 kids wanting to play rugby have to play U13, which involves getting beaten-up by the far more experienced “younger” S2 kids. And we wonder why S1 kids are lost to the game!

    School rugby needs played based on school year groups, to allow kids to play with their mates – not the year above. A (loosely enforced) 1st January date basically achieves this.

    The choice to use 1st Sept for school rugby is a disaster.

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  16. This is exactly what I have been saying too Gavin. Why is it obvious to very knowledgeable you and relatively aware me but not to SRU?

  17. Absolute agree with Gavin about the district route.
    I would also include the universities in with the district union selections. They are Scottish talent at all levels from the clubs to the universities. Let’s start using it or we will lose it.

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