THE NATIONAL YOUTH FINALS take place this weekend as some of the country’s leading young players seek to clinch silverware and make lifelong memories.
Most of the action is at Murrayfield on Sunday, where Boroughmuir and Stirling County will vie for the main under-18 cup and Hawick bid for double success in the under-18 shield and under-16 cup finals.
But a number of clubs have arranged games closer to home to reduce travel and increase crowds. The biggest crowd may be in the Borders where Kelso Harlequins will host local rivals Selkirk Youth Club in the Under-18 Plate Final at Poynder Park on Saturday at 5pm, to follow the senior team’s re-arranged Premiership clash with Marr (2pm). The move was designed to heighten interest and excitement around the game in the Borders town with the ‘Quins featuring in a national final for the first time since 1993-94 when they lost, after back to back wins in 1991-92 and 1992-93, interestingly following the senior team’s only National Division One triumphs, back-to-back in 1988 and 1989.
Two of the players in that double-winning team, Richie Laing and Stevie Ross, are now the youth team’s coaches, and Laing admitted that they have been looking back at some happy memories during the lead-up to this weekend’s game.
“We won the [Border Semi Junior] League and the SRU Youth Cup two years on the trot, and you still go back to those days,” he said. “We tell the players all the time that these days, playing with your mates, is the best time of your life for playing rugby. Boys have been sharing the old pictures, getting the phones out and showing the boys, and they’ve been a bit shocked that we actually played. Don’t think they believed us!
“But it has allowed us to show them that opportunities don’t come around that often. We went out then, more than 30 years ago now, to make history for ourselves, and it was something special that still binds a lot of those boys together wherever we are, and whatever we’re doing now. We’ve been trying to share those memories and our experiences with the boys, and how you might get just one chance to win silverware at this level so you’ve got to take it, and make the most of it.”
The fact that their senior teams met at Philiphaugh at the weekend, with Kelso taking the honours, adds spice to the game, and former Selkirk and Scotland player and assistant coach John Rutherford admitted helping youth develop was one reason why he agreed to take over as chairman of the famous youth team two years ago, after legendary figure Jake Wheelans retired following four decades at the helm.
“I must admit I was a wee bit worried about the club as we were struggling for players,” he explained. “Selkirk High School is now the smallest school in the Borders with just about 400 pupils, and we have to combine teams S1/S2, S3/S4, and I felt it was important to get in there and help to make sure the youth club, which is 100 years old now, is still there for another 100 years.
“We’ve got a core group of 15-16 players, and we had three preliminary rounds, a quarter-final, a semi-final – very tough semi-final against Jed – and now a final. They’ve done really well and I’m very proud of them and their coaches, and I think they’ll really enjoy playing on Poynder Park , hopefully with Kelso supporters staying on after their game with Marr and creating a great atmosphere for the boys.”
For Kelso, the Harlequins’ resurgence is mirroring that of their senior team, back in the Premiership for the first time since 1999-2000, with a self-sustaining circle developing as a large crop of former Harlequins become key players in the senior side. The key, according to Laing, is making rugby fun.
“Kev Hendry is the Quins’ head coach – but he doesn’t like speaking much which is why I do the interviews!” laughed Laing. “But he’ll tell you that we had a barren spell for a decade or so with only 10-12 people training and struggling to get a team out. But in the last 3-4 years we’ve started to see the numbers coming back in. Success helps, but right now we’ve got really good squads of players that are close, and it’s about making it enjoyable for them.
“If they don’t enjoy training they’re not going to come every week. But give them a reason to come, to enjoy it and have fun, and then they’ll work, and learn to develop, and that naturally keeps them there. At the moment the youth development is looking really healthy for Kelso.
“If you look at Ashton Asante, Archie Barbour, Murray Woodcock and Angus McGregor, all playing every week for Kelso, who were in the Quins two years ago. Dwain Patterson and the Tweedie brothers were the same just a few years ago, and they are all getting the chance at Kelso. Kev Utterson and Bruce McNeil have been brilliant encouraging younger players and giving them their chance, and they come and speak to the Quins boys, which is great. So, the boys see that it’s not a case of ‘you finish rugby at under-18 level and then struggle to get a game then’. There’s clearly opportunities to continue if you work hard.
“And I think you’re seeing that approach paying off for the senior team too. It’s a young Kelso team in the Premiership, but they’re holding their own and learning, because they’ve being given freedom; they don’t have any fear and just want to go out and play. And that creates a knock-on effect. Our under-18s see players a year or two older running about in the black and white jersey, and all of that feeds in the success we’re seeing at the moment.”
Borders rugby’s challenge within Scotland has always been a microcosm of Scotland’s on the world stage, one of numbers, and Rutherford admits that remaining competitive at any level with small populations is not easing. But the Borders does have an almost unique position of being a region where the oval ball remains the dominant sport – if not to the same exclusive extent of 30 years ago – and still has streets of people willing to provide support. And the presence of five youth clubs in this weekend’s finals both illustrates that, and will provide a refreshing boost for the future.
“There’s never been that much between Kelso and Selkirk in terms of strength,” added Rutherford, reflecting on his own battles with the likes of Andrew Ker, Roger Baird and John Jeffrey. “We have our three or four years where one club is stronger than the other and we had a few years where we were on top and then they won the league titles [1989 and 1990]. I’m pleased for Kelso. They got promotion and are doing well in the Premiership, and seem to have a good squad … and of course they beat us with four offside tries on Saturday!
“But the youth is so important and I’ve been impressed by the semi-junior league, which is very well organised and run, and the way the clubs support each other. Last season, we only had 14 registered players, and had to rely on other clubs to help us out. Melrose Colts were brilliant and would lend us some players to complete our fixtures, and there is a lot of that going on, because the clubs want each other to do well, and make it as competitive as we can.
“We are punching above our weight, but that’s the challenge in the Borders. At Selkirk, every week I’ll put a call out for some support, whether that’s help or sponsorship, or taking a table at a lunch, and within a day I’ll have had a few calls with people stepping up. It’s not easy, but there is still a great camaraderie there, a pride in rugby in the Borders, and in our communities, on and off the park.
“And five Borders teams in national youth finals? Now that can’t be bad.”