Hosts and Boroughmuir impress as Merchiston Festival goes from strength to strength

George Watson's College, Ayr and Peebles also gain valuable experience

Boroughmuir defeated last year's tournament winners, Seaford College, in the pool stage of the Merchiston Castle Rugby Festival last weekend. Image: Steve Langmead
Boroughmuir defeated last year's tournament winners, Seaford College, in the pool stage of the Merchiston Castle Rugby Festival last weekend. Image: Steve Langmead

IT was one of the highlights of under-18 rugby last season and 12 months on, this year’s Merchiston National Schools Festival, staged over Saturday and Sunday, was even better, confirming its high value to Scottish rugby and cementing its place in the schools and youth calendar. 

In the 16-team tournament, 11 of the sides were English schools, while the remaining five, hosts Merchiston, George Watson’s College, Boroughmuir, Peebles and Ayr, made up the Scottish challenge. In the event, Merchiston reached the final where they lost to a very strong Ipswich School team, who had reached the last stage after defeating Boroughmuir, by a single score, in the semi-final.

But both Merchiston and Boroughmuir deserved huge plaudits for their performances throughout the tournament, each winning their groups stages undefeated only to find the power of Ipswich too great.

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“The final was a tough one – they were physical and quick and once they got ahead it was difficult to claw it back,” conceded Roddy Deans, Merchiston’s head coach and the driving force behind the tournament. He added: “But the boys stuck in against a very abrasive and well-drilled team. This will set us up well for the remainder of the Conference games and the Cup.

“We’re very happy with the performance over two days. We had a big squad and so we were able to give lots of boys opportunities to play against tougher opposition and different styles of opposition. A lot of our boys stepped up. It’s good for them to get out of their comfort zone and see what level they can get to. There was a handful of players that really showed they can step up. In terms of our overall performances we’re delighted,” concluded Deans.

Merchiston’s assistant coach, Bruce Aitchison, added: “The boys got better as the weekend went on. The focus for us was progress from where we were. They took on a lot of feedback after the Edinburgh Academy game and we were really pleased with how they implemented that against opposition they don’t know.

“This tournament is amazing for us, to be able to challenge ourselves against teams and schools that we’ve never seen before means they have to play what’s in front of them. Ideally that’s what we want because they essentially have to problem solve as things unravel in front of them.”

Merchiston went through their group with wins over Wycliffe College (45-0), Peebles Colts (26-0) and Norwich School (26-14), and then in the Trophy quarter-final they emerged winners against Barnard Castle by 10-5 before defeating Mount St Mary’s College 10-0 in the first of the semi-finals, but in the final the Colinton side were unable to match the power and athleticism of Ipswich School, whose side included nine players in the Northampton Saints Academy, losing 19-5.

For their part Boroughmuir also swept through their group stage on Saturday kicking off with 12-0 victory against last season’s winners, Seaford College, then defeating George Watson’s College by 19-0, before securing a 19-14 result against Collegiate to book their places in the elite level Trophy competition.

In the Trophy quarter finals Boroughmuir achieved an 8-3 (after extra time) win over Canford School but in the semi-final were squeezed out by the eventual winners, Ipswich, by a single score in a 5-0 defeat. Muir then went into the 3rd/4th play-off where they lost out to Mount St Mary’s College by 7-0.

“I think the boys were absolutely outstanding. Over the two days everyone fronted up. We had some young lads there who haven’t played regularly this season. It was great to see them in this calibre of competition. Performance-wise, you could pick out some individuals but really it was a great collective effort. The boys played some great rugby against some very big and very organised teams,”  said Boroughmuir’s head coach, Richard Lockhart.

The Meggetland team’s coach gave a huge thumbs up to the tournament, saying: “The festival is a fantastic event incredibly well organised and run by Merchiston and big thanks from us for the invite. It’s great to get such a tough test across two days on the pitch. We look forward to next year”.

Peebles Colts, too, were relatively satisfied with their 50 percent record, having defeated Wycliffe College 17-5 in the group section, then Ayr by 26-0 in the Bowl quarter-finals. In the semi-final of the Bowl, Peebles could not match the strength of last season’s runners-up, Bedford School, losing 29-0, but in the Bowl 3rd/4th play-off the Borderers finished on a high with a 10-7 win over Uppingham School.

Peebles coach Drew Moore emphasised the value of taking part in a high quality tournament. He said: “It was great to be invited. It’s brilliant for us to come here and test ourselves against some of the top schools and clubs in the country. It’s been a good experience for us. I’m fairly happy about how we did – three wins and three defeats and it gave a lot of our guys exposure to this level of rugby”.

“The timing of the event coinciding with the school holidays meant that we were a bit down on numbers but it gave other boys opportunities to get some good game time,” observed Moore.

Of the other Scottish teams involved, Watson’s had a difficult time because of their precariously small squad – a consequence of half term holidays –  and eventually had to pull out on Saturday night. Ayr too suffered because of the October holiday effect, their weakened squad unable to compete against the strength of the English opposition.

As to the future of the Merchiston Festival, Deans is hopeful that it will grow in strength. He said: “Three years ago we had a vision and a goal of developing this tournament. So to go from eight teams to twelve teams to sixteen teams is great. This weekend, there were some really closely contested games right across the board. Our ultimate aim was always to grow the game in Scotland and to try and bring the clubs and schools closer. I thought Boroughmuir were a real stand-out. They got some great scalps again.

“We’ll keep trying to evolve this but we’d definitely like to get an Irish and a Welsh side in and we’d also like to get as many Scottish teams in as possible”.


Meanwhile, on a weekend when there was little league/conference activity, the Borders Semi Junior League was largely unaffected by school holidays. Top of the bill was at Kelso where Kelso Quins ended Morpeth’s winning run with a 20-12 victory over the Northumberland side. “This was the the best performance of the season from the Quins,” said team manager Keith Green, whose side scored tries through Harris Ross, Josh Sullivan and Angus Utterson, who also kicked a conversion and a penalty goal.

At the Volunteer Park, the other big clash in the competition resulted in a 17-5 win by Hawick Youth over Gala Wanderers. The match played under lights on Friday night and in front of a big crowd produced four tries, three for Hawick Youth scored by flanker Brady Wilson and a brace by the impressive Owain Gray, the stand-off kicking one conversion.  For an understrength Gala Wanderers, skipper Richie Mitchell scored an unconverted try.

“Physically our forwards dominated and the backs were then able to cut open the Gala defence,” said Hawick’s coach, Paul Stewart. “I think in the second half we wanted it more. I think there’s a real work ethic there now.”

Gala Wanderers’ team manager Mark Moncrieff commented: “Both teams were missing players due to the October holidays and injuries”.

Elsewhere in the BSJL, Jed Thistle overwhelmed struggling Carlisle Colts 81-0 at Lothian Park.

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About Alan Lorimer 340 Articles
Scotland rugby correspondent for The Times for six years and subsequently contributed to Sunday Times, Daily and Sunday Telegraph, Scotsman, Herald, Scotland on Sunday, Sunday Herald and Reuters. Worked in Radio for BBC. Alan is Scottish rugby journalism's leading voice when it comes to youth and schools rugby.


  1. Well done to Roddy and his team for being so positive for youth rugby in Scotland. Instead of slagging it off why do not more of the Clubs and Schools jump on board. Yes I do see problems with holidays and the such but surely it can be used as a Development of younger players leading in to 18s next season. I think also everyone was very disappointed that George Watson’s College pulling out on the Sunday you would think a school that size (Pupils wise) would have enough players I believe they have 3 Senior teams playing ?

  2. How can this be a Scottish highlight when two thirds of the teams are English.
    Another piece of Merchiston centric bias reporting that does not further the youth game in this country at all

    • Not sure how manage to reach that conclusion- I have this tournament over the last 2 years all Scottish club sides attending have stated it was worthwhile . Merchiston are the only people up here making any attempt at providing these opportunities. Very commendable indeed.

    • Harsh criticism. Great tournament but think half term means more Scottish teams not involved as they are weakened by holidays.

      English schools not yet on holiday so not the same issues.

      At the same time, the Scottish conferences and cups are so important that schools and clubs don’t want to risk injuries.

      No easy answer but timing outside school holidays would certainly help more Scottish involvement

    • There should be wholehearted support for any school or club actively bringing clubs and schools together against high calibre opposition they never normally get a chance to test themselves against. Some just can’t see past a chip on the shoulder though.

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