PERTHSIRE RFC will take a historic step this weekend when the North Inch club takes its place in the top tier Shogun Conference, to become the eighth member of the elite tier of Scottish youth rugby.
The elevation of Perthshire has been long in the making, according to the club’s head of midi rugby, Eamon O’Brien. “We set our minds on this a few years back by putting a lot of work into our minis, getting the general processes right and ensuring we had good coaching teams in place. So when we applied to join the Shogun Conference we felt we were ready to compete,” he said.
“Crucially, we’ve got good numbers and the quality of our coaches is high. We’ve also got the facilities here at the club with three pitches at the North Inch which can be extended to five if we want. We also have a new strength and conditioning gym at the Bell’s Sports Centre.”
One of Scotland’s oldest established clubs, celebrating its 150th anniversary last year, Perthshire draws its midi youngsters mainly from the three senior secondaries in the town – Perth Academy, Perth High School and Perth Grammar School – but it also pulls in players from Aberfeldy and Auchterarder.
“We have a development team of three coaches who go into these schools,” explained O’Brien. “What we’re trying to do is sell our product and making sure it is of the highest quality.
“We have to get parents on side. They’re key to so much – transport, money, etc.”
Baptism of fire
Perthshire go into their first match of the Shogun Conference on the back of a successful warm-up last weekend against Ellon. O’Brien recognises, however, that the matches against Stirling County will be a huge challenge, particularly at Under-18 level where County are expected to be exceptionally strong this season.
“Our Under-18s will be mainly the boys who played at Under-16 level last season. So it will be a young colts side and a big jump for them. Our strongest sides should be the Under-16s and the Under-13s.” O’Brien predicts.
Like most clubs, Perthshire lose several players to private schools, mainly Strathallan and Glenalmond, but work hard to keep in touch with these youngsters. “We tend to get them back after Christmas. I tell them: ‘There’s always a place for you at Perthshire,’” O’Brien states.
The North Inch club will join Boroughmuir, Stirling County, Ayr/Wellington, Biggar, Hamilton and Inverness in a competition what will be played through until 7th December. Under-18 Cup winners, Boroughmuir, set a fast pace last year but this season the Meggetland side will be forced to rebuild. Stirling could be the side to beat in the Under-18 competition. Numbers, according to Stewart Milne, last season’s coach at Bridgehaugh, are healthy.
“We’ve retained the bulk of our squad from last year, we were actually fairly young overall last season and with 55+ players this season we have huge competition in the squad. We’re certainly aiming high this season being in both the Shogun and Galant B conferences with some ‘C’ school fixtures as well. We’re aiming to do well in the National Cup, in Conference and in the Merchiston Tournament,” says Milne.
Another club with strong numbers at Under-18 level is Biggar, who are hoping to put out two teams in this age category. The Hartreemill side will look to build on the strength of their Under-16 side from last season, when they finished runners up in the National Youth Cup.
As always, Ayr/Wellington will be in the mix for high honours; while, at Burnbrae, West of Scotland have begun to show more consistency. For Hamilton there will be hopes that the selection of four of their Under-16 players – Aaron Burgess, Calum Ferrie, Jamie Thorpe and Euan Bannan – to join Glasgow Warriors Academy after competing in the FORSOC West Academy throughout the summer, will be inspirational.
In Inverness, Highland will have to fill the void left by the departure of two of their top players to private schools. Like Perthshire, Highland appear to be strongest at Under-16 level. Overall numbers are good at the club, helped, of course, by the magnificent facilities at Canal Park.
While there is much to look forward to in the Shogun Conference this season, there is still the feeling among a number of clubs that Murrayfield has dragged its feet in bringing together clubs and schools in a meaningful league. But with a new season now upon us, the debate over such integration must wait for another day.
This weekend’s Shogun Conference fixtures –
Friday 23rd August: Biggar v Boroughmuir
Saturday 24 August: Ayr/Wellington v West of Scotland, Perthshire v Stirling County, Hamilton v Highland.
Click HERE for full fixture list.