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 .
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.