NOW in its fourth edition, the Merchiston Castle School under-18 Rugby Festival has established itself as one of the highlights of the youth rugby calendar in Scotland, and this coming weekend (14th/15th October), what is promised to be the best tournament yet, will showcase 16 teams from north and south of the Border.
What makes this tournament so special is that it brings together schools and clubs, something that is unique in Scotland despite frequent calls for a confluence of the two streams to become the norm. Moreover, and this is probably the Festival’s stronger suit, is that the tournament allows Scottish sides to compete against some of the best from England.
On the matter of bringing in club sides, Roddy Deans, the Merchiston head coach and one of the driving forces behind the Festival, believes that the fusion of what is normally two separate realms of age-grade rugby in Scotland can only be beneficial. “Clubs want this competition and when we put out the invitations they are usually the first to return acceptances,” he said. “This is the only competition with clubs and schools playing together.”
With no financial backing from Murrayfield for the tournament, Merchiston have to take costs on the chin but Deans, who has a strategic overview of age-grade rugby, insists that it’s worth it. “We’re doing this to give other kids in Scotland the opportunity to improve. It gives boys a different type of game. They will not learn much from always playing against the same group of opponents. At some point they have to get out of their comfort zone,” he says.
The former Hawick flanker also thinks that the Festival is a chance for the participating schools and clubs to use as many players as possible. “We’ve put no limit on the size of squad each team can register and we’re allowing rolling subs. For us at Merchiston, we can find out about certain individuals playing at a higher level. That could influence our Cup run,” suggests Deans, whose Merchiston sides benefitted hugely from the past two Festivals in progressing to, and twice winning the National Schools under-18 Cup final.
As to who’s who at the Festival, the line-up is impressive, such is the strength of the visiting teams from England. “The event is certainly growing, so much so that a lot of schools are showing interest. We’ve expanded the number of teams competing from eight in the first year, to 12 in the second and third year, as for this year, it will be a 16 team tournament,” Deans points out.
The timing of the event, in the middle of asynchronised half-term holidays, does, however, mean that only Dollar Academy out of the top conference schools, was able to accept the invitation to take part. In fact, there will be more Scottish clubs than Scottish schools in the Festival with Boroughmuir, who have thrived in the past two tournaments, joining fellow returnees, Ayr/Wellington and Peebles, along with Edinburgh-Reivers and Glasgow-Caledonia, both making debut appearances. “This will be the first time Scottish Schools, Districts and Clubs will all be playing in the same tournament. It’s about growing the game,” states Deans.
Undoubtedly, what makes the Merchiston Festival such a stellar event is the presence of top teams from south of the Border. Many of the English teams that made last season’s Merchiston Festival such a good tournament are back notably, Mount St Mary’s, Barnard Castle and Seaford.
Of the Scottish sides taking part, expect the host school, Merchiston, to be very competitive. Last year they were runners-up to the tournament winners, Ipswich, whose side contained a number of Northampton Saints Academy players. Merchiston have in Deans’ words “started to build momentum” but were denied a pre-Festival match, their game against Strathallan, like most others, having fallen victim to the heavy rain of last weekend.
Also looking forward to the Festival is Boroughmuir, who lost by one score to Ipswich in the semi final last year. They go into tournament on the back of an away win by 57-7 over Ellon in the third and last of their Pool Four matched in the National Cup, to ensure a home quarter final.
“We finished our cup pool games with a trip to Ellon and a game in slightly damp but otherwise perfect conditions on a superb playing surface,” said Richie Lockhart, the Boroughmuir head coach.
“The boys worked really hard for their win and were tested in defence by some strong carries from the Ellon pack,” he added. “What’s really satisfying is that we used 32 players across the three cup pool fixtures, so everyone bar some injured boys have contributed, which is great for the squad as a whole.”
Luke Whitaker ran in five tries, the other touchdowns coming from William Kurisaru, Harry Jackaman, Lewis Calder and Ossian Hollins-Kirk. Gregor Hoole kicked five conversions.
Meanwhile, Peebles, currently leading the Borders Semi Junior League, underlined their strength this season by defeating Ayr/Wellington 57-10 to ensure progress to the last eight after finishing second in Pool Four behind Boroughmuir. Try scorers for Peebles included Rory McHattie (3), Jamie Fairbairn, Dylan Greens and Ross Wolfenden, who also kicked six conversions.
Elsewhere, Stirling County topped Pool One with Currie Chieftains taking second place, Pool Two winners Dumfries Saints are into the quarters along with GHA, and West of Scotland and Gala Wanderers are the respective first and second finishers in Pool Three.