Men’s National and Regional Leagues kick off amid concerns of player numbers crisis

10 games already off at the time of going to press

Whitecraigs and Stewart's Melville in action pre-pandemic. Imaged: © Craig Watson - www.craigwatson.co.uk
Whitecraigs and Stewart's Melville in action pre-pandemic. Imaged: © Craig Watson - www.craigwatson.co.uk

THE good news is that men’s Scottish club rugby is back, with the competitive season kicking off last weekend when the top-flight Premiership played its first round of matches, while the National Shield and three out of four Regional Bowls also got going. 

The bad news is that more grassroots clubs than ever before appear to be struggling to raise a team even at this early stage in the 2022-23 campaign.

Of the 21 Shield games scheduled to be played last Saturday, nine did not go ahead (six were called off because the away team had insufficient numbers, one because the home team couldn’t raise a side, one cancellation seems to be due to Covid, and Inverleith pulled out of the competition a couple of weeks ago).


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Meanwhile, in the Midlands Bowl, all three matches were called off (two by the away team and one by the home team), in the North Bowl two out of five games didn’t go ahead (due to teams withdrawing from the competition in advance), and in the West Bowl one out of three scheduled games did not go ahead (due to Lomond & Helensburgh failing to raise a side to travel to Lochaber).

In fairness, these knock-out competitions have increasingly come to be seen as incidental to the meat and drink of the league season in recent years. However, given that this was the last weekend before the start of the season proper, it is deeply concerning that so many games [46 percent of Bowl and Shield matches] were not even used as final warm-up outings.

The real measure of how desperate the situation has become will be this weekend, with the three National Leagues (below the Premiership) and the Regional Leagues all getting under way. The early omens are not particularly encouraging with 10 matches having already fallen by the wayside by the time this article was published at 7pm on Friday.

In Caledonia One, Blairgowrie haven’t been able to raise a team to visit Aberdeen Wanderers. In Midlands Three, Montrose/Arbroath and Stobswell have had to call of their home games against Perthshire 2nd XV and Montrose, respectively.

In East One, Ross High had insufficient numbers to host Linlithgow. In East Two the Hawick Linden versus Penicuik game is off because there is no referee available (a different but equally worrying problem).

In West Two, Irvine have had to call off their trip to Strathendrick, while Shawlands and Lanark have had to cancel their trips to Bishopton and Birkmyre in West Three.

And in the West Reserve Leagues One Ayr/Millbrae have had to forfeit their match at Dumfries while GHA Lions couldn’t raise a team to host Greenock.

 

There are, of course, good news stories out there, of clubs who have bucked the general trend by growing their players base and raising standards – twin goals which tend to go hand in hand. But the general sense is of a rapidly escalating malaise and the long-term consequences will be critical for Scottish rugby.

Today’s players are tomorrow’s coaches, referees and administrators. There are undoubtedly some excellent mini and youth team coaches out there who had never picked up a rugby ball before their child expressed an interest, but that is a harder path and nobody can seriously argue against some previous hands-on experience being a big help. Furthermore, without a functioning senior team, where is the impetus and wherewithal to develop a thriving junior section at a club?

Every grassroots side which falls by the wayside increases Scottish rugby’s reliance on private schools and the development programmes of other countries. As a small nation with limited spending power, this is not a sustainable business model.

In the Scottish Rugby Union’s recent Annual Report, John Jeffrey, the Chairman of the Board, assured his readers that: “One of the biggest fears associated with the pandemic – namely that we would haemorrhage playing numbers across the board has proved unfounded.”

It was an astonishing statement, and deeply troubling because it suggests that there is a reluctance to recognise let alone tackle this fundamental issue amongst the current Murrayfield hierarchy.

The words of one experienced club administrator earlier this week more accurately reflects reality. “League opening day is usually one of joy and anticipation for the season ahead, but it looks like some fear and trepidation has crept in,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Scottish Rugby Development department have pointed out that eight games were called off due to insufficient numbers this time last year with another 11 postponed due to Covid, so they reason that this year has not seen a major escalation of cancellations. They stress that they are monitoring the situation and are committed to providing practical support to clubs should it be required.

One game worth keeping an eye on this weekend is at Bangholm, where Trinity Accies and Hawick Harlequins – two sides back from the dead after dropping out of their respective leagues last season – meet in East League Three. These are clubs with proud histories are approaching the season in determined mood, knowing that it is going to be a big challenge week-on-week to gather enough players to make-up a team, and each reliant on some heroic stalwarts who refuse to throw in the towel, including the magnificent David Stroud of Trinity as he approaches his 50th birthday.

We wish both Trinity and Harlequins well, as we do all clubs as they start off on this great adventure into the unknown.

  • Update: the Trinity versus Hawick Harlequins game has now been called off due to Harlequins being unable to field a side.

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About David Barnes 3043 Articles
David has worked as a freelance rugby journalist since 2004 covering every level of the game in Scotland for publications including he Herald/Sunday Herald, The Sunday Times, The Telegraph, The Scotsman/Scotland on Sunday/Evening News, The Daily Record, The Daily Mail/Mail on Sunday and The Sun.

21 Comments

  1. The ‘lack of a referee ‘ situation is a mis- report. With a little bit more time there would have been a referee allocated to the game. Let’s bear in mind that most of us running clubs and organising refs etc are volunteers and do this on top of day jobs, family commitments and other interests. We need to strike a balance to make sure participation at any level and role is enjoyable. At the moment, it feels like an onerous chore ( or chores) to many of us and if the volunteer base crumbles then so does the game.

  2. I think your all missing the elephant in the room here. Most jobs young lads get nowadays force them to work Saturdays and Sundays as part of their T&C’s ie any five days of 7 and therefore cannot make themselves available for Saturdays. The days of the Monday to Friday working week are long gone. local amateur football teams are struggling too. I truly fear for the future of amateur sport in this country. The way things are going it will be like America. Team sport is something you will only do when your a school and either turn professional or give it up. Sad days ahead.

  3. I think your all missing the elephant in the room here. Most jobs young lads get nowadays force them to work Saturdays and Sundays as part of their T&C’s ie any five days of 7 and therefore cannot make themselves available for Saturdays. The days of the Monday to Friday working week are long gone. local amateur football teams are struggling to. I truly fear for the future of amateur sport in this country. The way things are going it will be like America. Team sport is something you will only do when your a school and either to turn professional or give it up. Sad days ahead.

  4. Highland RFC with 17 players unavailable/injured had 3 senior 15s out on Saturday. Their 2nds who have won Caley North 2 for the last 2 years can’t get promoted! Ambitious club with great facilities and player base but being thwarted by pretty petty rules to allow them to grow even more.

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    • There is nothing petty about the rules.

      2nd XVs aren’t eligible to play in leagues that feed into national competitions as the Regional 1 do.

      The only reason 2nds play in North and Midland 1st XV leagues is that a) neither area runs a reserve league and b) the quality of the opposition (ie one team 1st XVs) is very variable.

      If you want to discuss inserting reserve teams into the national set up I’d like to here your arguments but at least get the basis premise correct.

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  5. Unfortunately Scottish Rugby are an absolute mess. Take the national side, more foreign born players than any other of the home or 6 nation teams. That says a lot fornthe home grown talent in this country. Where is the home grown talent? are they frustrated with the the way the Scottish Rugby is therefore stop playing?

    Having had a little experience of coaching youth, I find that Scoytish Rugby pile their resources into private school teams, and select few (mostly Edinburgh based) club teams. Leaving proper grassroot/local rugby clubs to suffer.

    I also agree with a comment made earlier, good club sides are forced to play in a conference system with teams who can’t compete, and it is demoralising for the team thats on the receiving end of a good beating, and it’s pointless for the good teams to travel that far to have a (in some cases) a 20 minute game. And the worst thing about it is the safety issues it raises, especially in youth. If you have a well drilled team come against a team filled with players who are put their depth, it’s dangerous. And the SRU are ignoring this.

    Scottish Rugby gets exactly what it deserves at the moment.

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  6. So much can be done, we have the same structure as we had 40 years ago yet life has changed so much. Players have more on in their lives and their commitment to rugby is different now. Season is too long, Sept – March for xv’s, no ex exceptions for cancellations etc. Proper regional rugby, travel is an issue, East region should be the East, Border region should be the Borders. More regional leagues, less National leagues. No promotion or relegation for 5 years ( maybe more maybe less). Each league run by the clubs in it, deciding when games are played, replacements and discussing issues they are all encountering, bring back trust. Each league has an end of year awards dinner. Club subs in the Prem and National leagues max of 2, no reserve leagues. SRU to give greater incentives for running 2nd xv’s. The focus must be on getting more players and teams playing. I believe our linear National league system is killing our game. Why does it now take 40-50 players to complete a season for a first xv.
    Get a club structure that appeals to the young of today, at the moment only a small percentage of our U18 are entering the adult game.
    Behind every first xv travelling round the country in the National leagues is a 2nd xv not playing. So much more to discus but we have to change and stop blaming others for failure.
    I am specifically talking about the male game, the ladies game is at a different time in its development. 🐻

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    • Interesting comments Iain

      Perhaps my memory is failing me but we have not had the same structure in place for 40 years. That would have been when I was 16. I was playing colts rugby then and we had a full fixture card of national games.

      The club game was in 7 divisions I think with district leagues under these. 2-5th team rugby was generally arranged by fixture secretaries. Our 3rds played the then Murrayfield RFC in the back pitches at Murrayfield.

      I started playing for our 5ths – we then ran 6 teams with a golden oldies and moved up from there. Playing against much older and experienced players was the making of me as a player. Didn’t know what the inside of a gym looked like.

      It takes 50 players to make a team due to injury and unavailability. I wouldn’t have dreamed of arranging something in the rugby season. Todays players don’t bat an eye in doing so. And quite right they are. You only get one life so use it to do the things you want.

      I agree – the league obsession is unhealthy and we need different structures and game types to attract and keep players.

      But please. Stop this local league nonsense. There are logistic reasons for the East leagues including the Borders. The Borders don’t have enough teams of sufficient quality to run their own leagues and the environs of Edinburgh aren’t that far away. Indeed I have noticed some Edinburgh clubs unable to get themselves further than Ferry Road, so it’s a bigger problem than just “local”. I’ve already mentioned Caley in another comment.

      There should be a place for clubs who want national rugby to do so and a place for those that don’t. Maybe bringing back proper fixture secretaries would help?

  7. Scottish club youth rugby is dominated by the Conference system enforcing whole club (U13-18’s) participation regardless of the ability of individual youth teams within the club. This leads to teams been forced to play at a level below their ability level and conversely above a level at which they can complete and in some cases take part safely. Conference fixtures can be over within the first 20 minutes due to the difference in skill and ability levels and then both teams are forced to play what is described as a development game. The SRU seem incapable of understanding that players in these age groups need meaningful competion and to be able to complete against other teams at a similar level of development. We participate in the Conference because we have to not because we want to. The fixtures we have to play directly hinders the team and individual development through one size fits all meaningless completion, it hss a negative effect on the childrens expectations and aspirations and most damaging it forces teams to play competative fixtures when they are unable to compete. The Conference whole club system needs to be scrapped and teams not whole clubs placed in leagues allowing all teams to compete on a level.Thankfully the Conferences are finish by early October but before then many children will have been frustrated by the level.of completion thwy are forced to endure either because it does not meet their level of ability or most distressingly beyond a level in which they can safely compete.

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    • Sadly the SRU incompetence spreads all the way down to the lowest levels of the game. Still as long as Mr Dodson carries on picking up his enormous salary plus bonuses everything is ok isn’t it?

      Is there no one in Scottish rugby who can see what is going on and do something about it?

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  8. Why not offer a 10 a side league (or some lower number than a normal size squad), for those sides who are struggling post-covid? Allows clubs to chose what suits their current situation better, at least people are getting a game that way.

    Giving clubs the option of what day and time they want to play on a given scheduled game week would also offer a lot more flexibility. Is there a particular reason the date and time of kick-off is given weeks/months ahead of time? Allow clubs to gauge numbers and communicate between each other the week before on who is available and what day/time they can play. Perhaps the odd Thursday night when a training session would usually take place would work better for some clubs that a Saturday morning, (i know a many young adults who had to work on a Saturday while studying for example, and subsequently start to drift away from the game)

    There are some problems that could arise from the above but nothing which could be left unsolved with some constructive thinking.

    A lot of issues can be solved without massively investing in the grassroots, not everything needs money, just some modern thinking.

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    • Game on principles are available to most of the leagues that are seeing postponements which means they need 12 players.

      The rest of your suggestions are certainly interesting but impractical. Very few clubs have playing quality floodlighting. And even fewer have pitches with floodlights full stop.

      Perhaps those clubs who are struggling to raise sides should have flagged this much earlier rather than waiting till the days before the leagues commence? We saw several clubs withdraw from shield & bowl fixtures right at the draw. It must have been obvious from training whether they were in with a shout of getting a team together.

      Where there is merit in your suggestions is an abbreviated version of the game. Hold adult playing festivals like the Women are doing to support teams who are low on numbers. Our obsession with playing in leagues is the primary issue. Have an alternative that allows lower numbers and see what happens.

      • Dom, you may have missed the point i was making

        The comment i made about the Thursday night game replacing a training session was an example of flexibility shown, it does not have to be that if club X cannot support that for whatever reason, it could be Sunday Morning, Friday afternoon, whatever time the players say they are free to have a game.

        Surely this extra flexibility would be so beneficial to players. Would it not result in less games being cancelled?

    • Tinfoil, I know we have had (massive) differences of opinion on a few matters recently but everything you say makes perfect sense and the powers that be must listen to the clubs and what they want. Actually, that’s not true. They need to listen to the players. The players who voted, as individuals, massively against larger national leagues and more travel but the clubs voted it through a few weeks ago. God help us

      • Odd. I was in the room when the vote for a fourth national league was taken and the principles behind it are sound. The number of demotions in the original restructure proposal was catastrophic and pushed 6 clubs into regional rugby with a four way play off to grab the final promotional spot between club 7 in Nat 3 and the three regional winners.

        A couple of comments on the reality on the ground.

        We play in Caley 1. The “region” otherwise known as over half the landmass of Scotland stretches from Grangemouth to Thurso. Hardly local trips for many of those matches.

        There is nothing compelling clubs to play national rugby. We have seen various clubs choose to decline promotion or fall back into lower leagues. If you want “local games” play in a “local” league (conditions apply for Caley clubs 😁)

        For those clubs that do want the play at their highest level they should have a pathway to achieve that which is what the amendment asked for.

  9. I’m glad that rugby development are monitoring the situation. That will help me get over my deep worries for our club game.

    What would be helpful is what this “practical support” they are providing is. It obviously isn’t helping those clubs that can’t raise teams for this Saturdays fixtures.

    One first has to acknowledge there is a problem before you can begin to address the issue. Feels like Murrayfield are following JJs lead and sticking their heads in the sand hoping the bad stuff goes away.

  10. In addition top tier school matches going unfulfilled as the mismanagement of club/school conintues. Such that there will be lads on bench or not even in Youth conference and lads with no fixture at all in Schools. What a mess.

  11. To think, a few years ago Ayr could field 3 xvs + Millbrae in the West leagues – now it looks like they can’t raise a 2nd xv.

    Our game is at a major crossroads.

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