Opinion: we must keep developing the schools and youth conferences

More crossover between the two arms of the under-18s game is key, and we need to be ruthless about helping ambitious rugby programmes

The U18 Boys National Cup Final between Boroughmuir and West of Scotland was a great advert for youth rugby in Scotland. Image; © Craig Watson - www.craigwatson.co.uk
The U18 Boys National Cup Final between Boroughmuir and West of Scotland was a great advert for youth rugby in Scotland. Image; © Craig Watson - www.craigwatson.co.uk

THE OFFSIDE LINE plans to spend some time this summer looking in depth at schools and youth rugby, which is a huge, complicated and very important area of the Scottish game. If organised and managed well, this tier will underpin the future success of our national and professional teams, as well as provide the bedrock of a healthy club game which is required to create the coaches, administrators and supporters who keep the sport sustainable.

A friend of the site has been in touch to provide his thoughts on how the conference system shapes up now, and how it can be developed in the future. We hope his article [below] sparks a robust and respectful debate, which helps everyone develop a clearer understanding of the broad range of viewpoints out there relating to this issue.

Please note that the focus of this article is boys under-18s rugby. While the principles are the same for girls’ rugby, the reality is that this branch of the game is at a different stage in its development, so we would suggest a bigger focus on growing participation numbers to get to the stage where there are enough teams to introduce truly competitive national conferences. This is an equally important subject which will be addressed separately.

The Offside Line’s coverage of schools and youth rugby is supported by Macron Store Edinburgh (Colin Campbell Sports), suppliers have high quality kit for your rugby team’s needs. Contact: HERE.

 

BACK in the 1970s, Scotland became the first of the Home Nations to introduce National Leagues.  The Borders already knew all about the intensity of their league – established in 1901 – which had played a crucial role in the creation of the deep-rooted rugby culture in the area, with relatively small towns becoming the heartbeat of the Scottish game and among the most productive nurseries for international players on the planet.

It is no coincidence that during the timespan between the creation of the National Leagues and the advent of professionalism, Scotland produced a raft of exceptional players and a number of successful sides – most notably the 1984 and 1990 Grand Slam teams. Well-organised competitive leagues helped prepare Scottish players for the international game and the benefit of that was demonstrated on the park.

Alas, the start of the pro era saw the other Home Nations begin to harness their superior playing resources leading to Scotland having a hard time at all levels of representative rugby.

The solution seems to have been to simply hunt for more and more players from elsewhere who were eligible to play for Scotland. An expansion to this solution became the ‘project players’ initiative, which meant signing individuals with no previous connection to Scotland for our pro teams with a view to becoming eligible to wear the thistle after three and now five years. For this season, almost exactly 50 percent of the 39 players selected in Scotland’s Six Nations training squad did not play their junior rugby in Scotland, a sad indictment on a proud rugby nation.


Super6 Sprint: round four team-of-the-week

Edinburgh sign prop Jamie Jack from Ampthill

Jed-Forest crowned Kings of the Sevens at Selkirk


What has been done to try to reduce the reliance on expats and project players?

The introduction of Regional Rugby Academies in 2014 was a significant step but the challenge was akin to making a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. There is much good work going on there, but the occasional genuinely intense fixture at youth level is no preparation for the challenge of international rugby. This is something the academies have been unable to address meaning our players have been sent into battle underprepared.

For many years, most of the teams playing junior rugby in Scotland were training no more than once or twice a week. This preparation is clearly inadequate in terms of time on task for providing a proper developmental process and producing players capable of succeeding in representative rugby.

In 2015, this issue was addressed by creating a competitive structure known as the Conferences. The purpose of this initiative was quite simply to provide a more intense competition which would motivate coaches and players to train more, try harder and reap the benefits of playing more meaningful and intense matches.

Currently there are 10 leagues running for Schools and Clubs involving just under 400 teams and over 7,000 players. Both the objective and anecdotal feedback from players and coaches is encouraging.

However, there is an issue which needs addressing. The Club and Schools Conferences, which have been kept to a large extent separate from the start, are supposed to reflect a ‘like versus like’ scenario with the hope that the gap between the strongest and the weakest will narrow. The issue is that the strongest clubs and schools are training harder than the others, and in some cases eight to ten times per week when you include strength and conditioning, video analysis, individual skills, unit skills and team skills. It is clearly hard to imagine all schools and clubs having the capability and desire to provide this level of preparation when taking into account factors such as facilities, number of coaches and most importantly the number of players required to justify preparation on this scale.

Currently the top clubs and schools are not playing in the same Conference and it’s time for this to change.

Here are two key areas of focus required to help future-proof the game in our country and give our youngsters a better chance when they are selected to play for Scotland.

1. Support ambition

The Conferences require the club/school to produce at least one team at under-13, 14, 15, 16 and 18 level. Without teams at every age group, it is difficult to provide a cohesive developmental process for the individual or to create a rugby culture which promotes the extraordinary values the game can provide. A serious level of resource is required specifically for those schools and clubs who currently struggle to sustain a five-team structure but have a genuine desire to succeed at that level. Scottish Rugby may have to be ruthless here in selecting schools and clubs to invest in who have a credible plan to achieve set targets.

2. Joined up thinking

There are currently four schools – George Watsons, Stewarts Melville, Merchiston Castle and Dollar Academy – operating at a consistently higher level than the rest. Not only do they have excellent facilities and coaching, they also have the numbers to provide two teams at every age group. They also provide a pipeline of significant numbers to our pro and international teams. Although many other schools produce excellent teams and players it can be hard to find the consistency without the numbers or the ethos which supports such strong programmes.

Meanwhile, on the club scene, Stirling County, Ayr and Boroughmuir have dominated their conference in recent years due to excellent coaching, facilities and playing numbers – while GHA topped the table this season. In the Borders, Hawick and Melrose have been equally successful over the years.

It’s time for these Clubs/Schools to get together to create a more consistently competitive environment. Ideally, there should be three national conferences in all and we should pile resource into the clubs/schools with the ambition to create the templates of the top teams above them.

 

Raising standards at boys’ international level is not easy but nor is it rocket science. The success of the Scottish side in the recent Under-18s Six Nations Festival demonstrates what a good crop of youngsters can achieve. Wouldn’t it be great to have a structure which allows more players to have a chance of getting that sort of rugby experience on a more regular basis.

It is about creating more competitive environments, which encourage more coaches who know what they’re doing to motivate more players to work harder.

If you were lucky enough to be at Murrayfield for the recent Schools and the Youth Cup Finals, the progress made since the Conferences began is obvious, but let’s not rest on our laurels. It is the competitiveness of the environment the schools and clubs operate in that provides the edge that has rocketed Irish Rugby up the World Rankings and therein lies the challenge.

 

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35 Comments

  1. In addition to my previous points, Scottish youth rugby suffers from the reverse “Hawthorn Effect”. Irish and Welsh schools invest in youth rugby across all schools, televise their competitions (Freesport and Welsh BBC) so that any school/regional team has the prospect of having their game televised each year. This focus and attention on the youth game increases participation and interest (by communities, parents, friends and players) and the individuals work harder at their game as a result. This contrasting experience of the 255 Scottish state schools in Scotland is in part, the reason why Wales has double the number of registered players than Scotland and Ireland three times as many. I was surprised this year to find that the final of the Scottish Schools Cup/Shield was not even available to watch live on television, but recordings were made available some time after the event. These things could be remedied fairly quickly and create an exciting buzz around the youth game.

  2. Some really good points raised by this article and the comments that followed. I however disagree with some of the conclusions though. Rugby in Scotland needs opening up. Not creating elitist combined school/club leagues to create an ever decreasing pool of talent. It has been said before but Scottish rugby needs more “crap players” not just the elite potential. Translated, this means we all need to work hard to expand participation at the 255 state schools in Scotland and connect more schools to rugby clubs so that the underfunded schools can utilize the people and resources of great local clubs. The SRU are heading the right way keeping the early pathway broader (x2 more regional squads) to take account of varying developmental speeds of the youth. Many of Scotland’s independent school’s are over-professionalised which leads to heavy drop out of talent when they reach 18+. Most go to University and simply want to have fun and drop rugby because they had their fill back at school. This issue is rarely discussed but the dropout stats speak for themselves.

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  3. I think the focus of Youth rugby is/has been back to front – i.e. looking at how to make the existing structure work better. From the article and my own experience, the current objective for youth rugby is twofold, namely: increase the player base and improve player quality. Leaving coaching aside, the focus must be on offering our players an appropriate number of games (low to mid twenties per season) at a competitive standard.

    As an illustration, my son’s school first XV only played thirteen games this season: eight were meaningless as the opposition were either too strong (Merchiston) or not strong enough. Five competitive games is no preparation for senior rugby and may be one factor in drop-off rates. For other teams – eg Boroughmuir U18s – the number of games is not the issue but the number of those which are competitive is.

    Once the gaps are understood, then we can look at how we create both the teams and the competitive structure to support the participation and quality goals.

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  4. All very interesting but some home truths.
    2014/15 a vote was passed at the SRU AGM to have a mixed school club top league. After the vote the private schools said no. The schools were then sent a questionnaire asking if they would consider taking part in a combined Club/school league reply no way. The Hadden comes along with his Conference idea. That he goes around selling the benefits of it all the compromise of the private day schools like George Watson Stew Mel was that it would definitely be morning kick offs unlike the English base school Merchi Fettes that play mid afternoon compromise these schools can keep the 1 Sept cut off date. The private sector will never play in a long term league structure with the clubs as it does not suit them we’re do they poach there players from. The top 4 schools spend hundred of thousand on their rugby programmes Scholarships, Bursaries, coaching, SC, Video analysis and anything else that will give them that edge. Clubs cannot and will never compete with this and as fir the conference set up apart from the top Conference in both Schools and Club how many games below that were cancelled last season a very high percentage. There will never be a easy answer but the SRU must take the bull by the horns and dictate that there will be a too conference between Schools and Clubs. How does this look.
    Merchiston
    Stirling County
    George Watson’s
    Boroughmuir
    Stewart’s Melville
    Ayr
    Dollar
    Melrose
    Now looking at that fixture list would be exciting. Just a few home truths.

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  5. Lots of good points here. One issue which is missed is how many really talented kids are lost from age of 14/15 because they are locked out of the pathway system. It’s ridiculous so many kids with potential are written off after sometimes not even a cursory glance. This loses players, but also means u16-18 rugby is far less competitive than it should be, and the chosen few who are anointed into the programme are rarely challenged for their place. They so don’t get to ay enough games with real intensity. I’ve seen guys at u18 massively outplaying their counterparts who are in the programme but no-one bats an eyelid because no-one wants to admit that mistakes were made. Someone said that district sides should run more teams. I couldn’t agree more. Certainly on the five or six years I watched youth rugby Caley could comfortably put out three maybe even four squads of guys worth developing and watching. The same will certainly be true of the other districts and then some. The aim of our youth system shouldn’t be to delete or exclude players, it should be to involve as many players with potential as possible. The short term obsession with Scottish ‘qualified’ has been a disaster for thirty years now. The lack of game time for our 17-22 yr olds is a disgrace. We would rather buy in SH or English lads and leave ours to rot, then claim we have to keep importing because our players aren’t good enough. Noone develops from sitting in the stands. We have too few players to be in a position to turn down our own kids. Look what Ireland has achieved by prioritising young Irish talent. They win at club, age grade and international level, have four district sides, and their kids rugby gets better crowds than our pro sides. They have big budgets because their fans are engaged in rugby at all levels. We are putting rugby behind paywalls, making it easier for 18yr olds from every other country than Scotland to find a pro pathway and undermining club rugby at every opportunity instead of trying to grow and promote it. No wonder we are falling further behind.

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  6. A very insightful article. Thanks for writing and publishing.

    A couple of thoughts.

    The idea that young people should be doing 8-10 sessions a week on rugby is an eye opener for me. I would be surprised if the pros do that never mind kids.

    This also seems to fly in the face of the idea of expanding capability in young people through participating in a wide range of sports and activities rather than specialising too early.

    It would also be interesting to look at where all the players are coming from. Firstly do we have the demographics to support the desire to build up youth leagues – are there enough kids to fill the pipeline? A club would need approx 20-25 players per year group. That’s 100-125 players per club for five age range teams. Plus coaches and infrastructure to support that number of players. That’s a lot of people.

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    • Agree with your thoughts – which reflect the over-focus on “performance” rugby.

      Sharpening the top of a very narrow club pyramid of players will not solve our problems.
      It has got to be about increasing numbers.

      The best U18 sides appear to be a magnet for players without a decent school team.
      But this creates issues, as it sucks players from all other local potential teams.
      Too many U18 club sides around Lothian have vanished – Broughton/Trinity/Leith/Porty/Musselburgh/PL/Haddington/Linlithgow/etc. all used to run U18 sides – we now appear to just have B’muir or Currie.

      As a governing body the #1 aim must be to expand playing numbers, and facilitate as many people playing rugby as possible.
      The aim of being the “best” is not going to secure the future of our sport at fun grass-roots level – where the vast majority of us will play.

      It also appears that following the performance environment required at the top school 1st XV and club U18 teams, that far more youngsters then give up serious rugby than continue (including some of the most talented).

      Young players stop enjoying the game, tire of endless training, and rugby becomes a chore rather than a joy!

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      • That’s the worry Mike.

        Schools and clubs aren’t in the business of creating the next international players. How would they know if they can make it when they first meet at 7 or 8 years old? They can help them on their way by keeping kids engaged and active in our sport.

        I saw Sean Kennedy at U16 level. Never in a million years would I have said he would be a pro rugby player.

      • Exactly Mike. Enjoy what you are doing and you will want to do it more and you will improve.

        It’s not rocket science is it?

    • 8-10 sessions is possible actually- 2 on-field training sessions, 3 strength and conditioning sessions, a match, video analysis and captain’s run.

      I have not doubt the top schools will have even more added on top of this

  7. Interesting article highlighting the scale of the challenge.

    Two issues (from many more) I would note from my son completing his under 18 season.

    First, the regional club leagues post Christmas need to be managed based on ability and playing numbers. In my sons division 3 of 5 matches were cancelled due to insufficient playing numbers in opposing teams (many of whom have pathway boys who are playing effectively no competitive rugby for months), leaving short notice attempts to fill now empty weeks. In addition, there is a big gap between teams, when more actively managed leagues could give high intensity matches every week instead of 90-0 drubbings that benefit neither side).

    Second, clubs need to take some responsibility. Lack of capacity means coaching is variable. All clubs should be aiming for multiple training sessions, conditioning, tactical preparation. Coaches should offer players feedback, linkages to senior rugby (part of the challenge for the 18+ progression noted above), wider support around diet, mindset and recovery (in effect top class coaching using the latest and best techniques). The SRU can only take some of the blame for this.

    A more competitive system supported with outstanding coaching would see greater progress. Though seeing it close up it is a minefield and massive challenge.

  8. The first thing that needs justified or addressed are the issues the 1-September date the SRU uses creates, as opposed to 1-January.

    1-September matches nothing else!

    SRU age cut-off date 1-September.
    but
    World Rugby representative date 1-January.
    Scottish School years split roughly 1-January. (1-March is the official date but most Jan/Feb kids defer a year)
    Other Sports (Football) use 1-January.

    Scottish [system] Schools have to break established friend/peer groups, as the 1-September date forces school years to be split and combined with the years above/below.

    The only thing that the 1-September date matches is the English School system, which coincidentally Merchiston use.

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    • Please note that the 1-Sept date means that a club U18 side has a 4 to 6 month age advantage over a normal School’s 1st XV.

      So these two competitions can never be combined until the cut-off date is changed to 1-January. (or the Government allows children to stay on at school past their leaving date!)

      Also still waiting on someone giving a beneficial reason for the 1-Sept date, apart from it has always been…

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      • @David looking at next season if a child is deferred or on English system then in fist xv they are turning 18 Se 2022 – Jan 2023 facing up to standard age where in standard school system they are turning 18 from Feb 2023 -Jan 2024 (when they will be at University!) . So the comparison you are failing to make – quite obviously is – 6ft5in Finbar aged 18 vs 6f5in Stanley aged 16 and half. That is a HUGE advantage. In certain key positions and almost always in Edinburgh/Perthshire private schools their is often a 12-18 month age gap. Which creates false dominance and is not good for player development at all. Denying truth is so 2020…

    • They use the English schools’ 01 Sept cut off to determine which year you go into because they sit English A levels. It was not chosen for their rugby although U18 at 01 Sept is the SRU requirement for cup games. Incidentally their team which beat the much larger school Stew Mel 3 tries to 1 in the U18 cup this year was by and large physically smaller and lighter but faster, fitter and more skilful.

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      • … and Merchiston were 4 to 6 months older and more mature/experienced. (rugby is not just about size)
        We know Merchiston (and Fettes/Loretto) use the English Schools system – that is their choice.

        Why the SRU have chosen to use 1-Sept, which matches none of the equivalent Scottish education/sport or International system cut-off dates, is the real question?

        Does anyone know a beneficial reason for choosing 1-September, over 1-January (which matches the Scottish education year split)?

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      • And interestingly contained 8/9 players that were young enough that they can play again at u 18 level next year !

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      • And interestingly In that Final Merchiston contained 8/9 players that were young enough that they can play again at u 18 level next year !

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      • @Robin are you saying that 8/9 of the squad were only 16 playing last year first XV or based the rest of this thread are you actually saying that of that 8/9 several are turning 18 in Sep-February 2022/23. I.e would have left any state or most private schools in Scotland this summer aged 17/ The Sep1 cut off is a problem – any arbitrary line in sand is frustrating for someone one a day or week or month either side but it is inherently beneficial to schools on English system or private schools where a child can be held down a year on parental choice. I saw a very good U16 school side get totally outmuscled by a much older much bigger school side. where the pack were clearly 9-12 months older. Which is a lot at 15-16.

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      • To those claiming that six foot five seventeen stone forwards are at a disadvantage because their smaller opponents are 16 weeks older – you probably need a refresher on the laws of physics. Plus kids often get deferred at private schools so there probably isn’t that age gap anyway.

    • @David looking at next season if a child is deferred or on English system then in fist xv they are turning 18 Se 2022 – Jan 2023 facing up to standard age where in standard school system they are turning 18 from Feb 2023 -Jan 2024 (when they will be at University!) . So the comparison you are failing to make – quite obviously is – 6ft5in Finbar aged 18 vs 6f5in Stanley aged 16 and half. That is a HUGE advantage. In certain key positions and almost always in Edinburgh/Perthshire private schools their is often a 12-18 month age gap. Which creates false dominance and is not good for player development at all. Denying truth is so 2020…

  9. For me, the conference structure is elitist, requires unnecessary levels of travel for players and parents and is actually inhibiting the development of the game. I believe that we should put participation first and allow teams within clubs to flourish in their own right, not be dependent on arbitrary requirements such as their club having a team at every age group, in order for that team to progress. This greatly discourages the players affected and would seem to me to be grossly unfair. If we focus the development of the game only through ‘bigger’ clubs, we risk hindering the growth of the game in the areas where it has the most potential for growth. I believe with a few tweaks we can create a model whereby all teams at all clubs start the season competing regionally, minimising travel and fostering the sort of local rivalries and competition mentioned in this article that drives the growth we need. We should extend the national component of the season thereafter to allow the top teams to progress to play at national level, whether they be from big clubs, or ‘smaller’ clubs. If they earn the right on the field, all teams at all clubs should have that opportunity. Add in a properly funded, Academy supported, pathway and representative programme and you ensure those players with the talent and wherewithal to go further, have that opportunity and support, regardless of their background or what club they play their rugby for. There is a balance to be struck, but growing the game should be the first priority. As for club/school integration of conferences, I don’t believe this is necessarily the answer although it may work in some instances.

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  10. Lots of good points.

    A few quick fixes:

    Match officials from U16 onwards. Crucial to game development in terms of understanding and applying and playing to the laws.

    Post Xmas – Regional Schools Cup,Shield, Plate, Bowl, Quaich to mirror Regional Youth Cup. Cup Rugby is competitive and invested in by players and spectators. The National Schools cup will for reasons detailed (numbers, selective additional recruitment, facilities, coaching) will nearly always be won by one of the big four. The shield by one of the big four in B conference. What then for the rest?

    Merged youth Rugby squads in the lower youth or school conferences to ensure a decent standard and minimum squad as requirement – on Scrums. (great example Paisley/Bishopton = Renfrew Raiders)

    Then in blank weeks post Xmas the top Youth and top Schools sides all heading to the Semi finals and finals of National Youth and National Schools Cup could form a mini conference.

    Finally the regional youth rugby needs to give two squads to Glasgow and West. As it stands Edinburgh gets one, Borders get one, Caledonia gets one and for some reason all of Glasgow, Ayrshire, Dumfries and Galloway, Argyll get one… that is nonsense.

    Ed

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  11. The basic concept of a structured approach to facilitate meaningful fixtures was the only way youth and schools rugby could be harnessed, developed and nourished.
    Ultimately, the ambition is to have the best club youth teams competing against the best school teams.
    This provides a positive pathway in which teams are populated by players playing for one or the other, not switching between both and in doing so denying new recruits to the sport that opportunity to develop themselves to become the best player they can be. It’s a win-win for all club/school communities and the nation as a whole.

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    • With respect, the notion that players who also play rugby at school are in some way inhibiting the growth of the game is a fallacy. Rather, many clubs have a blend of players from all different backgrounds and are dependent on members from their entire community in order to put out teams. This attempt at forced segregation for ideological reasons has, and will continue to have, the opposite affect whereby clubs are now more likely to be unable to raise teams, the competitiveness of games drops and more players leave the sport. Not to mention the loss of volunteer parents, sponsors and membership income from clubs as a result of the effective ban on school players taking part in club rugby. Indeed, in the case of schools, if players choose to play club over school, it could spell the end of their rugby programmes. It is a huge mistake to judge a policy by its intent, rather than it’s outcome. It’s unnecessary, it’s draconian and this is the reality of what this policy is achieving. I sincerely believe that the governing body is overstepping the mark here by interfering to such an extent in the operations of member clubs – well intentioned though it may be.

  12. Never has there been a greater argument to break down the barriers and create a schools and club league or competition. The enlightened approach of Roddy Dean and Merchiston School through their recent competition saw invites to some of the Scottish Clubs who acquitted themselves well, Boroughmuir being a fine example in finishing as the top Scottish team. The more we can expose our top clubs and schools to regularly competing against each other in a structured competitive environment the better. Having the top borders clubs come to he table would enhance this even further.

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  13. Although early days, the conference set up does appear to be working and, over time, will allow other clubs to come to the party- and find competition at an appropriate level.
    I would however like to see the club conference augmented with more focus on the cup, perhaps regional to begin with then national. This would allow for those clubs who cannot field teams across all age groups, but might have one team at say U15 who is very strong, play others in open competition. The current cup format relies on the conferences as a starting point I understand.
    It’s unfortunate that the best players and teams can only shine at the level of the lowest common denominator across the club. That’s a criticism for which I don’t have a solution I could suggest- I hope the powers that be stick with this structure, we’ve reinvented the wheel far too often in the past.

  14. Lots of good points but does this article not contradict itself, as a whole?

    The problem statement is we dont prepare youngsters well enough but concludes the Under 18 National side is great! Evidence the current system works, to an extent.

    I would never suggest there cannot be improvement, but the problem for me exists in the gap between 18s and 20s, the evidence for this is far more compelling.

    • I agree that the 18-20 period is where we seem to suffer. Im curious to see how Scotland U20s get on in the summer, as there clearly has been a push to include U20 qualified players in the Super six games, with everyone bar Heriots and Watsonians have a large number of eligible players selected each week, with over 40 players given game time. Hopefully we can see an improvement.

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  15. Really insightful article, thanks!

    I’d be interested to know if the author thinks the SRU gets these issues and is ready to address them? I’d like to see much more focus on the youth game as there is a limit to how much improvement we can wring out of focusing on small gains at the top of the pyramid, at some point you’ve got to focus on the foundations and it sounds like some of their previous reforms have made improvements.

    • Wouldn’t it help if increased SRU funding was put into state school academies. Funds to allow for high performance coaches, equipment and facilities that match those top schools. Thus in turn would increase player numbers and competitions. Surely doing that would be much simpler than any restructuring. Employing coaches in this way rather than paying overseas talent scouts would develop better long term gains.

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