MERCHISTON CASTLE SCHOOL and Stewart’s Melville College will be hoping it is third time lucky tomorrow [Tuesday] afternoon in terms of getting their School’s Under-18 Cup semi-final clash played. A frozen pitch meant that the game had to be postponed last Thursday afternoon and again on Saturday morning, but the playing surface has thawed during the last two days and with an encouraging weather forecast it now looks almost certain that the two top school sides in the country at the moment will finally get the chance to battle it out for the right to play Dollar Academy in this year’s Final at Murrayfield on 7th December.
Stewart’s Melville ran out 27-10 winners the last time the two teams met at the start of October, on their way to finishing top of the 1st XV section in the Red Conference; however, Merchiston were able to retain some bragging rights over their old rivals by claiming the ‘Whole School’ title for the second year in a row.
“They are definitely favourites but it will be really, really close between two very well matched sides. We both try to play good rugby at a high tempo, so it should be a cracker,” says Roddy Deans, director of rugby at Merchiston.
“There is a lot of quality in both back-lines, but I think Stewart’s Melville created a little bit more than us in the first game and they took their chances to finish us off so we will obviously be looking to put that right this time round.”
“There is going to be a very good match-up between the two opensides, Tyler Thomas of Merchiston and Connor Boyle of Stewart’s Melville,” he continued. “They are both very, very good players, who I would expect to be challenging for the Scotland under-18s team this year, so it will be fascinating to see how that goes.”
“It is a Cup semi-final so the pressure will take its toll and we’ll just have to see which team copes with it better.”
This is the second year of the Conference system – the brainchild of former Merchiston, Edinburgh Rugby and full Scotland coach Frank Hadden – which aims to raise standards in age-grade rugby by organising more meaningful matches.
It allows schools across the country, which are able to produce teams at every age level, to be grouped together in mini leagues based on the number of sides they field and the quality of the rugby development programme they run. Schools play against each other at all age levels, with points awarded for each game to create an overall result for that match-day. The school with the largest points total at the end of the fixture programme is declared the winner of each conference. A similar system has been set up for club youth sections.
It is an ambitious programme and not without its flaws, but it was always going to be impossible to please all of the relevant people all of the time.
Of the 18 schools in the top three conferences [Red, Blue and White], Bell Baxter High School in Fife is the only one which is non-fee-paying. Clearly, increasing the reach of rugby in the state sector, and raising standards at the state schools which do play the sport, remains a major challenge – but that really is a different battle to the one being addressed here, which is to help raise standards at schools which already have a strong rugby identity.
“The bottom line is that the boys need to play more competitive rugby more often because that is going to better prepare them to step up to the next level,” says Deans, who came through the ranks as a player in his native Hawick and captained the club during the 2004-5 season.
“Our fixture list is quite tough: we go and play against schools like Sedburgh and in tournaments like the St Joseph’s Rugby Festival down in England, which is a really high standard. So, we want to challenge the boys and I have no doubt that playing in the conference has given us a big boost in terms of being involved in matches that really matter each and every week.”