YOUTH club rugby begins this week at that start of what is a compact league/cup season that has been designed to conclude in December, similar in form to that of the schools formats. In a change from previous seasons, the Youth Cup will follow on immediately after the the league programme, thus avoiding the long near two month gap between semi-finals and the final itself which occurred last season.
The real reason behind this scheduling, however, is simply to clear the decks for representative rugby in the post Christmas period and to avoid the better players – those in national and regional squads – being pulled in different directions simultaneously. But in any case, January has so often proved a problematic month for fulfilling fixtures for a number of reasons, one of which is the perennial headache (for planners) of school prelims, and, of course, there is likely bad weather conditions in January that can play havoc with scheduled matches.
The pre-Christmas formula, up to a point, works for schools rugby and ought do so for clubs. Both sectors of age-grade rugby, however, will have to be imaginative in their planning for the post New Year period, and hopefully it can be an opportunity to have integrated club versus school contests for those players not involved in national squads.
Like the schools format, the apex of the club structure now looks to have a competitive appearance. Six proven clubs (Boroughmuir, Stirling County, Ayr/Wellington, Mackie RFC, GHA and West of Scotland) form the elite league, called the Inspiresports Boy’s National Club Conference.
Boroughmuir, who have a large squad at under-18 level, are the defending champions and will again be strong contenders despite losing a number of star players. Muir are at home this Saturday to Mackie, who carry the flag for the North East.
New to the top tier this season is GHA, who showed their strength last season by winning the National Youth Under-16 Cup. The expectation is that a number from that victorious squad will be playing at under-18 level this season, all of which bodes well for the Braidholm side. GHA are on home turf for their opening match against Ayr/Wellington, a club well seasoned in the demands of the top league, and which, having fielded a young side last season, can expect to perform well this term.
The third game in the top echelon is between West of Scotland and Stirling County at Burnbrae. West improved hugely last season, evidenced by their performance in the final of the under-18 Cup, where they came within a minute of sharing the title with all-conquering Boroughmuir. Likewise, Stirling County, whose name is synonymous with excellence in youth rugby, emerged from last season’s Cup with credit having just lost the under-16 final to GHA, suggesting that the Bridgehaugh side will be strong at under-18 level this term.
One layer below the national league are the ‘regional’ leagues, the Inspiresport’s Boys West Conference and similar for Caledonia. The West Conference looks competitive this season with big hitters Biggar and Dumfries Saints, each of which had representatives in the Glasgow and West under-18 side for the recent FOSROC Series, being challenged by Currie Chieftains, Dunfermline, East Kilbride, Whitecraigs , Dalziel and Kilmarnock.
In the Caledonia Conference, Aberdeen Wanderers, Ellon, Moray/Huntly and Gordonstoun give the competition a distinct North East flavour, while Highland, now relieved of the pressure of being in the top tier, join Dundee Rugby Club and Perthshire to make up a seven-strong grouping.
Traditionally club rugby at youth level has been strong in the Borders where its eight teams (Hawick Youth, Melrose Wasps, Peebles Colts, Gala Wanderers, Kelso Quins, Selkirk YC, Jed Thistle and Duns) are again joined by four clubs from the North of England (Tynedale, Morpeth, Alnwick and Carlisle Colts) to form the Borders Semi Junior League.
While the other conferences in Scottish youth rugby are comparatively short competitions, the Borders Semi Junior League is quite the opposite, the home and away format adding up to 22 matches, the last of which is scheduled for 4th February 2023.
Hawick Youth are the defending champions but with an inexperienced squad this season the young Greens will find it difficult to replicate the success of last year. The prediction is that Peebles, who had a highly successful under-16 team last season, and who have very healthy numbers at under-18 level, are the team to beat.
However, expect Gala Wanderers, who have several of their strong players from last season available for this year’s competition, to be strong. Wanderers edged out their close neighbours Melrose Wasps in the final of the under-18 Shield in March but the Greenyards team is expected to thrive this season despite losing four key players to private schools during the summer.
The good news after their difficulties last season is that both Jed Thistle and Duns have viable numbers this year while another club battling against falling numbers, Selkirk Youth, are boosted by the involvement of the former Scotland and Lions stand-off John Rutherford.
In the Girls conference, it his understood that there are a few last minute changes to the groupings. But the format of having an established set of clubs forming The Inspiresports Girls U18/U16 Conferences and a second tier for less experienced clubs under the banner of U18/U16 Aspiring Leagues will hold.