Opinion: urgent review of schools and youth conference system required

Musselburgh Director of Rugby Grant Talac believes the current structure does not adequately encourage and support smaller clubs and schools

Musselburgh Director of Rugby Grant Talac believes the current youth and schools conference system needs an urgent review. Image: Musselburgh RFC
Musselburgh Director of Rugby Grant Talac believes the current youth and schools conference system needs an urgent review. Image: Musselburgh RFC

IT has been apparent to me for some time now that the current school and club conference system is broken and has not had the desired impact it was meant to have in terms of increasing participation numbers and improving standards by encouraging schools and clubs to develop teams at every age group from S1 through to under-18.

I have now been involved in the conferences for six years and I’m in no doubt that the current system creates far too many mismatches, which is ultimately counterproductive to increasing participation numbers.

If teams are winning by more than three or four scores then ultimately the value of that game is decreased for not only the winning side but the losing side. We really need to create an environment where each team within a club or school is judged on its own merit allowing them to play at a level that is suited to their ability on a weekly basis .

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At present, your S1 age group could be very weak but under-18 side extremely strong. Your under-18s could therefore be winning by 50 points each week with your S1’s losing by 50 points every week. In this scenario it then becomes extremely difficult to keep your s1 side together as kids become disinterested and leave the game while the development is stifled for your under-18s as they aren’t getting challenged enough.

It is also extremely unfair for both youth and school sides who do not have a team at every age-group to be excluded from the top conference matches because of the current system. For example, in the not too distant past, my club, Musselburgh, had a great under-18 side which made it to the Youth Cup final two years in a row, however at that time Musselburgh did not have a team at every age group and they would have been excluded from this same competition under the current system.

This also happens in the private schools to a lesser extent where a small school such as Loretto could have two really strong age groups who could compete on a weekly basis against the top school sides but are excluded because they aren’t the strongest across all age groups.

Clubs and schools don’t choose to have weaker teams at certain age-levels, and there is not always a quick-fix when they do end up with a year group which struggles. Is it fair for other year-groups to be punished for this?

We now have a situation where the better kids in teams that are excluded from the top conference are moving in search of better rugby, which then leaves their home club/school with the middle to weaker players who then wonder why they bother and end up throwing in the towel. Teams start folding and the sport loses potential senior club 2nd and 3rd XV players of the future.


I’m sure there are lots of different ideas out there about how we can better organise our youth rugby.

I would start by going back to the old district league format – Edinburgh, Glasgow, Borders, Caledonia –  split into A, B and C leagues dependent on that particular age groups ability. This would allow teams to play in similar standard environments which then brings better enjoyment to all and encourages more children to stay in the game. It also allows clubs/schools who don’t have a team at every level to compete in the top league at certain age-groups on merit. I have no doubt that if one of these teams were to do well in their league then that could be the catalyst to encourage new players at other age-groups within that particular club/school.

Once each district league is complete I would then take the top two teams from each district to create a national league which would give those sides seven further high quality games to create a national champion. The other teams who don’t qualify for this could then go into regional cup/shield/plate competitions.

This idea may not be the answer, however I urge the SRU to stop sticking its head in the sand and conduct an urgent review of the current system as, in my opinion, it’s not fit for purpose.

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About Grant Talac 1 Article
Grant is currently Director of Rugby Musselburgh RFC, and has been involved in coaching youth and senior rugby at Stoneyhill for approx 28 years. He previously played the game from age six at Musselburgh and Heriot's, represented Edinburgh District at youth and senior level and Scotland at age-grade level.


  1. Pre the conference system around 10 clubs from Edinburgh and Midlothian played in a competitive league every Sunday. It wasn’t perfect but that’s over 150 players per age group. There are now just 2, Currie and Boroughmuir. Do the maths. We may have created a couple of super clubs with the best players but the social players and club members of the future have been lost.

  2. Re Grant’s comment on B’Muir attracting players that itself causes problems – they want to win every game so the coaches keep picking the same (more or less) 23 but with a squad of over 35 the rest of the players get no game time ag all. Doubt that is really what SRU really want from their top clubs!

  3. The problem with Grants suggestion is that it’s far to difficult to administrate who is good and who isn’t yearly at different age grades and sending different age groups at different schools home and away each week is a nightmare for a union and clubs and schools.

    Participation is essential but this solution creates a logistical and administrative nightmare. As someone who played under the old system I’m more than aware that imbalances in different age groups predate the current set up however.

  4. I agree with Grant’s view that the current conference is not the solution. Making it easier to organise fixtures and serving a small number of schools cannot be in the best long term interest of rugby. The outcome of the last few years versus the original purpose are diametric opposites. The SRU need to put their hand up and accept it has not worked. Grant’s proposal may well work. It cannot produce any worse an outcome than we already have. These mismatches, that we are seeing increasing numbers of, lead to serious player safety issues. There is nothing more important than player safety and welfare. Without it the game will continue to suffer huge losses in participation.

  5. I completely agree that the current age group system isn’t working. I would also say that the isolation between school and club age group rugby is harming Scotland’s youth development. Players and teams need to be playing against similar levels of opposition on a regular basis, and with the ability to move up to higher (or lower) levels as & when their abilities change.

    To provide a more logical and fairer ‘pathway’ for young players I suggest that a national competition for age group district teams is created, with each district having two teams based on geographical area, e.g. Caledonia North, Caledonia South, Edinburgh, Midlothian, etc (8 teams in total). Players will still be part of their ‘home’ club or school but will play for the district if & when chosen (chosen through discussion & agreement between club/ school & district coaches, although an initial assessment/ screening weekend camp could be held). Only a certain number of players can come from the same club/ school for each game (e.g. four) and these players cannot play in all games (e.g. max of 50% of games, and not more than two consecutive games). This will allow more players to play at a higher level so they can develop their skills and experience, and for them to be seen and assessed by district & national coaches/ selectors in a competitive match setting. This also should have the result of making club/ school games more competitive, as well as being more involving for all the players, as the best players, who usually dominate during games, will be away with their district.

  6. I was lucky enough to meet up and chat at length with Grant today prior to and post Currie v Musselburgh. As 2 guys involved in youth rugby with over 25 years experience between us it is patently clear the current conference system doesn’t work and clubs baring a very view are losing out to a poor system. A whole club conference does not work and as a result players are being hemorrhaged due to massive mismatches which are of no benefit to the winners and losers of fixtures. A return to regional fixtures at S1 to U15 and an option to opt into a National League at U16 and U18 is long overdue.

    Reading Jeremy’s suggestion of mixing teams when scores get to over 40 points although laudable is unrealistic knowing kids/players they have no interest in playing for opposition teams whether they are the team winning or losing and matches just become meaningless and of poor quality which benefits no one.

    • Andy,
      I understand your point but more often than not it is the coach that thinks their boys don’t want to play for another team and not the boys themselves. Firstly, let’s teach the kids good rugby ethos about enjoying the game and not obsessing about whether it always has to be with your mates. We are here to teach the kids to have a growth mindset and to experience new things, sometimes involving discomfort and unfamiliar situations. Playing 30 mins with your pals and then 30 mins alongside some new players is not such a bad experience and it helps youngsters move outside their comfort zone. For those that progress to pathway rugby they will be doing this all the time anyway so helping them to learn to adapt to new circumstances early has to be a good thing.

      • I agree with you (Andy) that kids usually don’t mind mixing with other teams in order to create a competitive match, and it tends to foster better relations between teams & players, but the downside is the mixed games becomes quite chaotic (especially the older the kids are) as each team is coached in a different way, and with different drills. For games where teams are to be mixed then an initial coaching/ drills session should be considered.

  7. I don’t have experience of the old system, I’ve helped with my sons team from p1 through to s2. Last year was a mess so I’l still getting my head around how this is supposed to work. I get the logic of matching teams of similar abilities, but I can see the logistical attraction of having whole club games where half of your teams are away and half are at home. Even so we regularly have clashes with U13, U14 and ladies matches all being timetabled at the same time at the club where we have 2(and a bit) pitches and limited mixed sex facilities. I don’t think I’d want to have to sort out a five team home clash with five different away clubs if all our Sunday playing teams were drawn at home on the one day.
    I would be slightly wary of assuming all 50+ point results are completely imbalanced as we’ve been on both sides of a few this year but I’d only class one as being very one sided and in one of our losses our defence improved considerably through the match. Sometimes you have to struggle with a problem in order to figure it out and if you’re making headway, even if the match is well lost you can still learn an awful lot. Looking at our experience this year, we’d have fared better if the conference had started later (even by a couple of weeks, most of our kids didn’t appear back at training until schools were back so we went into the pre-season tournament with 12 players. Knowing venues earlier would have helped as well, we picked up more players at away matches as the conference went on because parents had more notice of away matches. And I don’t understand really why a set of post-conference reverse friendlies were timetabled. We initially declined friendlies with other clubs because we felt obliged to play what had appeared in SCRUMS and thought it would be a useful benchmark to play against teams we’d played before. Unfortunately only 2 of these matches are being fulfilled so we’re back to hunting for friendlies.

    Given a preference I’d rather play the conference home and away or spread the matches over say September to November with some gaps for recovery, friendlies or more training depending on what would suit the team….for that matter why not continue with competitive matches for U13/U14 through into the new year maybe shuffling the membership to allow stronger teams in and weaker teams out. I’m maybe missing something but it seems odd to have all our competitive matches squashed into the beginning of the year straight back after a summer break.
    Considerable room for development in the Junior structure I’d say.

  8. Totally agree with you Grant, your spot on!!! Lets face it, we need to do everything to encourage players playing across Scotland and the current system is not working.

  9. I agree with a few of the comments above. The last one by Grant is particularly true. A bigger club in the area ‘attracting’ players because they are in a national conference is really making the challenge for the other clubs in the area to get into a position to get into a national conference even more difficult.

    My suggestion would be for clubs to apply at the start of the season to each age group they are able to field teams. Then all the teams at each age group split into sensible regions. If there are enough teams to have more than one division in a region have a festival event at the start of the season to then sort out which division they will play the league season in depending on the results from the festival event.

  10. I think the point that is raised is an accurate one. The question is, what do you do about it? As someone who organised these conference fixtures over the years, it is very nice and convenient to be able to know you have 5 age groups teams booked each week with one opposition school instead of organising a patchwork of different appropriate matched teams.I think the solution is to do what is supposed to happen already and that is stop the game and re-configure the teams. Maybe 50 point limit is too much? Perhaps once a team reaches 40 points, call the game and reconfigure/mix and match the teams up to be more equal and finish with a short friendly. That way the fixture result stands but the boys all get meaningful rugby and a growth opportunity.

  11. I’m sure it’s on the top of Mr Dodson’s todo list once he finished banking his bonus for all the success he has brought to Scottish rugby!

  12. Well said Grant.
    I couldn’t agree more. Participation is key and if teams are being thumped week on week or get a meaningful fixture once a month then it doesn’t take long for kids to vote with their feet. So you will never get into a meaningful conference. I know of a Midlands club who were 3 players short at one age grade meaning they were excluded from joining that meaningful conference. They now thump every team in the development conference and ultimately there kids are not being developed or challenged accordingly.
    We need an urgent fix or the participation numbers will continue to dwindle and some clubs will ultimately disappear.

  13. I’m a bit confused about what the suggested solution is. A regional format would still see glaring mismatches. The article suggests that these regional leagues could be based on ability, but in reality there’s no way to asses an individual age group team ahead of competition. So we would end up with a scenario where teams play regionally mismatched games, then the top teams from each age group qualify for a competition where the Edinburgh based teams would then dominate thanks to having a full season of competitive fixtures under their belt, by virtue of that area’s concentration of better teams.
    My own club Aberdeen Grammar currently suffers as Musselburgh did where we cannot access the conference system due to a lack of teams at all age grades- but we are getting there. In two years we should be able to field teams at all levels- it takes years to remedy these situations. While six years May seem a long time, it isn’t in the context of growing youth rugby where this years P1s are the U18s of 12/13 years time.

    • Not just one league in a region but say 3? Each one with similar abilities. Coaches should have a good understanding of their teams ability and could place appropriately. You would always get the odd anomaly but seems to work in youth football with the majority of games very competitive

    • Good luck in getting there at all levels. My club has been rebuilding for the last 11 yeas from having next to no youth section to having a thriving one but it always seems fall down at u15 level. The more able boys at that age see that there’s a block on progression. There is no route to playing in the National Competitions because we don’t play in a conference so they all troop off to the “better” teams. It leaves behind a team that struggles to be competitive and the boys get fed up with losing and drift away from the sport.

  14. I agree with Grant. The conference set up for clubs is a bit of a shambles with two of my son’s five games being nothing but tackling practice and one of them over before half time. It seems his team is suffering because older and younger groups within the club are beating everyone they play. Ludicrous.

  15. Well lets be honest, the idea of the Conference system stems from the desperate need to keep the private schools engaged with Scottish Rugby, so a strucutre was developed that allowed them to keep their traditional fixtures, but stuffed the Club game by forcing a structure on them that suits only a tiny minority.

    It would appear to be far more sensible to organise Club fixtures on an age group basis so we can have sensible fixtures where player development can happen.

    Far too many youth games that I’ve seen this year and last where they’ve finished early due to scorelines with half the players leaving the field totally demoralised, and will no doubt give up a sport in a few weeks if similar results continue.

  16. I also believe the Academies, although positive for a few select players, can have a negative affect on those players who are not selected.
    These players are given no reason why they have not been selected, no discussions encouraging them to work on certain areas of their games. Additionally, there appears to be no pathway for these players to be re-assessed.

    I have asked a few questions in my area in relation to the academies and I am continually stonewalled.

    What I have found over my many years following Mini and Youth rugby is, that this is one of the reasons of the massive drop off of players between 14/15 to18. The selection criteria appears to be ‘If you are big enough, you are good enough’

  17. Thanks for the article Grant. It always helps when someone from the sharp end shares their thinking on what’s working and what’s not.

    There are quite a few problems in Scottish Rugby at the moment that could easily be labelled not fit for purpose. The youth set up should be at the top of the to do list.

    • If I may quote from the article “I would start by going back to the old district league format”.
      Grant Talac certainly is in a better position than I am to make suggestions about altering the system. The suggestion is that previously there was a system that worked by avoiding exclusions, I just wonder rather than just pointing out something that was confirmed in the article, what would your solution would be?

    • At the higher end of club rugby the conferences have brought regular fixtures at a good standard of rugby. That is allowing players who do not go to private schools the chance to be challenged every week.
      The current system may need tweaking but let’s not take a big step backwards. A few years ago Ayr and Stirling were dominating club youth rugby and struggling to get matches. Look now at the development of clubs like Boroughmuir, GHA, Mackie etc.

      We want clubs to develop sustainable structures for youth rugby, not just focus on a year group becauase a parent/coach is pushing the success of his/her child and friends.

      That said, where clubs don’t have that strength across the ages, anything that boosts participation must be a good thing. Growing player numbers is essential.

      • On your point of B’Muir yes they are now competing however I know of several other club sides that are struggling to now get teams out because the best players are going to B’Muir.

        This point is nothing against B’Muir who I’m sure are doing a great job with the kids but more to do with the best players leaving other clubs leaving the middle / weaker players who then just give up as they think what’s the point.

        The net result is less kids playing overall with the plus side being that all the better players end up playing together creating a better team.

        If the ambition is to get more players then this dosent work. If it’s to create super kids teams then it’s having success.

        I personally would like to see all clubs / schools have the chance to grow.

    • Sometimes you have to accept the new idea isn’t working and the best way forward.

      Time for a major review in my opinion.

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