A NEW league to sit above the established Shogun Conference will be introduced in Scottish youth [club] rugby next season, which will see Ayr/Wellington, Boroughmuir, Hawick Youth, Marr College, Earlston HS/Melrose Wasps and Stirling County competing against each other at under-15, under-16 and under-18 levels on a home and away basis.
Joining the competition – which is known at the moment as the ‘Open Conference’ – was not a move taken lightly by Hawick given that it means walking away from the Border Semi-Junior League which the town [as both Hawick PSA and Hawick Wanderers] has played a prominent role in for several decades, and they will now take on significant financial and logistical challenges in terms of travel, timing of games and hitting the high standards required to be competitive on a weekly basis at three separate age-grades.
However, John ‘Rocky’ Johnstone – the Hawick’s rugby development officer – is in no doubt that it is the right route to take in order to ensure that the famous Borders rugby hotbed can continue its long and proud tradition as a conveyer belt of Scottish talent, which has most recently produced Stuart Hogg, Rory Sutherland and Darcy Graham for the national team.
“It was a tough decision to leave the Semi-Junior League after so long, but the committee had to make the decision because we’ve not been getting the quality of rugby our lads need throughout the season in recent years,” he said. “Yes, there is teams like Melrose and Jed-Thistle where you will get a really class game, but those matches are too few and too far between.
“It is going to be a big challenge for us, with a lot more travel, but it is not like it is against teams we haven’t played before because for the last four or five years we have been playing the likes of Ayr, Boroughmuir and Stirling County in pre-season warm-ups.
“It’s a no-brainer in the sense that everybody in Scotland wants to see our young players challenged as much as possible. The structure is perhaps not exactly what we would have asked for – we would have preferred it was just under-16s and under-18s for the first season – but they wanted under-15s as well, so that’s what we’re going with.
“One of the big issues we face is that at the moment I coach the under-15s at the High School, and the under-16s and under-18s for Hawick Youth, which I can get away with because I do this full-time and they all train and play at different days and times – but from next season they will all play on the same day [Saturday], so we need to look at ways of getting more coaches and more committee involved to help run that.
“We were beginning to make progress with all of that but then everything shutdown with this Covid-19 situation, so we’re trying to do as much as we can on social media and so on. We’re still getting some interest – but we could definitely do with a few more bodies.”
Time for change
Hawick’s frustration with the Border Semi-Junior League (under-18s) last season is understandable. Their first two matches were called off because the opposition had insufficient numbers, then after a 62-12 victory at home to Duns and a 12-43 win at Kelso Harlequins, they missed out on three more scheduled fixtures due to their opponents not being able to raise a team. They then had two bye weeks, meaning they headed into the back-to-back crunch matches in late November against Earlston HS/Melrose Wasps and Jed-Thistle badly undercooked (losing 24-10 and 15-26). The remainder of the season was almost just as disjointed due to adverse weather and further opposition call-offs.
Meanwhile, the Under-16s finished second in their Warrior ‘Border Town’ Conference table to Earlston HS/Melrose Wasps with six wins and one defeat from seven matches, and the Under-15s were top of their table with seven wins from seven matches. Both the Under-18s and Under-16s reached the semi-finals of National Youth League Cup, with Cory Tait named in the Scotland Under-18 training squad which was selected last December.
“I think the under-18s should be very good next season because a majority of last year’s team have another year at that level, and we have a strong under-16s team moving up, so I really think we’ll be a force to be reckoned with,” said Johnstone.
“The under-16s [last year’s under-15s] have always been a smallish squad, so there’s a challenge there, but they are not a bad side if they all keep playing. And the under-15s [last year’s under-14s] are a good bunch of lads, so I’m pretty positive about our chances across the age-grades.
“The great thing about this new league is that most of these teams we are up against will have two squads at under-18s level, which means we can organise double-headers and make sure everyone gets a game,” he added. “That’s really important, because we want the boys to have success, but it is even more about producing players who enjoy the game and want to keep playing, whether that is with Hawick, Hawick Force, Hawick Harlequins or Hawick Linden.
“The under-18s squad next year should hopefully be in excess of 30 boys, which is two squads, so if you are a young player in Hawick and you’re not getting in the top team then that challenge is going to be there for you to play well and force your way in. It drives up standards at training and in games, and that’s got to be a good thing.”
The introduction of the new conference is not to everyone’s liking, and there has to be concern about the next tier of clubs such as Jed-Thistle and GHA – who both reached the final of the National Youth League Cup at Under-18 level this year before the season went into lockdown – being marginalised because their set-ups don’t fit into the parameters of this competition.
With the new conference scheduled to be completed in the first half of next season [whenever that may be], it is important that the six teams involved find ways of fitting in meaningful friendlies against the best of the rest. And the longer-term goal of the SRU must be to find a way of expanding the conference from six teams to include any other club which shows the potential and willingness to reach the required standard, plus a better over-arching strategy for raising the level of age-grade club rugby across all of Scotland.