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Opinion: fresh and bold thinking needed to broaden Scottish rugby’s base

Scottish rugby needs more youth and school programmes operating at a similar level ton the top private schools. Image: © Craig Watson -

Scottish rugby needs more youth and school programmes operating at a similar level ton the top private schools. Image: © Craig Watson -

IT’S a problem that has exercised the minds of Murrayfield mandarins for decades but thus far there is no golden solution to the perpetual concern of a contracting game at youth level and its ultimate knock-on effect on every stratum of the game. 

Broadening the base of rugby’s pyramid has never been easy given the backdrop of a continuous decline in extra curricular school sport within the state sector. Nor has it been helped by a mirroring of this trend in parts of the private sphere of education, albeit any shrinkage within some independent schools has been more than countered by the astonishingly high standards being set by a coterie of five or six leading private establishments.

It’s the likes of Merchiston, Stewart’s-Melville, George Watson’s, Dollar and until very recently Strathallan who have forged ahead of the rest of the pack setting a pace that has put them in a league of their own to the extent that these schools now look beyond the Scotland border to find meaningful opposition.

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These schools essentially operate in a professional manner resulting in their players gaining huge advantages over their less privileged peers in the state sector. And little wonder this occurs, with acres of playing fields, with the opportunity to train every day and in daylight, with the input of top coaches and specialist strength and conditioning advisers, with the wherewithal to go on tour … and so on. Added together it is a system that allows young players to reach their potential.

Be in no doubt that these top private schools achieve eye-watering outcomes that contribute immensely to Scotland’s stock of talented players. And for that they deserve plaudits. And indeed without these elite private schools, Scottish rugby would struggle to survive.

The private sector, however, accounts for only 4.7% of the school age population in Scotland which begs the question: what is happening, or, perhaps, not happening, with the remaining 95.3%? It’s a question that the older generation, who, in their youth, would have enjoyed regular Saturday morning rugby in state secondaries throughout Scotland, might well ask.

That was then: now the picture in state secondary schools would be unrecognisable to many who hark back to what was regarded as a golden age of schools rugby, when the likes of Kirkcaldy High School, Aberdeen Grammar School, Paisley Grammar and Morgan Academy would field teams in every year,  drawing on the willingness of non-specialist teachers to give up weekend time to help out.

The reasons for the decline in state school rugby have been well documented, and include massive extra burdens placed upon the teaching profession, constant changes to the curriculum, changes to societal norms and, not least, a change in physical education from teaching sports skills to one that is part classroom based, preparing pupils for exams, and thus reducing the time that might be better spent on active sport.

Indeed, in an era when schools are assessed largely on academic results to the exclusion of wider character-building aspects of education – music, drama, outdoor pursuits, to mention three – it is no wonder that secondary schools are often regarded as little more than exam factories.

Decline in active sports has also been hastened by fear of litigation and the (quite correct) insistence that all those involved in delivering sport are properly accredited and hold, at the very least, basic coaching qualifications. Moreover. the view that a state school should ‘push’ any particular sport is now quite rightly politically incorrect. Schools certainly do not have an obligation to Scottish Rugby to provide a talent stream.

All of which might suggest that there is little hope for rugby within the Scottish education sector. But you only have to look at nine secondary schools in the Scottish Borders to find that rugby is in a healthy state. Of course that has much to do with rugby being culturally embedded and community backed in the region as with any deliberate policy to make sure the sport is pursued.

What is encouraging is that all secondary schools in this part of Scotland still manage to field teams on a Saturday from years S1 to S3. There are other areas in Scotland where rugby still flourishes in state schools, but in the main these tend to be in rural communities. Sadly, in the areas of big population, the central belt and the cities, the picture is bleak.


So, what can Scottish Rugby do to change this canvas?  The answer lies in backing the system by which state school players learn and play rugby. Which is the club youth programme. What the governing body must do is support clubs who, through their development officers, perform outreach work in surrounding schools, and who, by training skilful coaches, achieve good results. Such schemes are costly but if Scotland is to produce enough young players to sustain the game at multi levels then serious financing must go into this sector.

Proof that youth rugby, when given the right conditions to develop, can match the standards set by the top private schools is provided by Boroughmuir, whose performances sent out further signals that at the elite end of age-grade rugby the best schools and best clubs should be competing in the same league.

It is of course all too easy to demand that Murrayfield solves all the problems associated with age-grade rugby but the reality is that the governing body has only limited powers to effect any radical change. What it could do however is get together with other leading sports and talk to the Scottish Government.

Murrayfield could again remind Scottish Government of the need to address rising levels of obesity, poor levels of fitness and the dangers of a sedentary lifestyle amongst young people. It could lobby for more active sport to return to schools and back this up by any number of studies showing the positive link between physical exercise and higher academic outcomes. Mens San in Corpore Sano is hardly a recent thought and in this century it appears to have worked wonders in the Stirling primary school that introduced the ‘mile a day’ routine.

And isn’t this wider interpretation of education what so many private schools practise? What parents fork out huge sums for? Yet in the state sector the trend seems to be for a day spent sitting in classrooms. Little wonder then that in one city school earlier this year a number of disengaged boys took to the physicality of rugby when the game was introduced by a club development officer.

To conclude, and at the risk of attracting the ire of the education profession, might I suggest that the school day be extended with teachers perhaps working shifts to accommodate space for non-classroom activity.  It would be a radical move but if it helped solve a number of contemporary problems then it might just be the solution.

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