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.
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.
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.
- The Offside Line’s grassroots rugby coverage is supported by Macron Store Edinburgh (Colin Campbell Sports), suppliers of Macron rugby strips and training wear.
- Email firstname.lastname@example.org to find out more about how Colin and his team can help your club with their kit requirements.