PERHAPS more than in any other area of the game, what can generate hope that rugby is emerging intact from the Covid crisis is the long-awaited resumption of both Youth and Schools competitions across Scotland after an 18 month hiatus.
The club sector, in fact, has been up and running in some parts of the country since the last week in August. But for the schools, the conferences officially begins this weekend, several weeks on from the beginning of term for most educational establishments.
The schools resisted the temptation of roaring into full conference mode immediately term started, and that, in the opinion of Stuart Edwards, the head of rugby at Stewart’s-Melville College in Edinburgh, was a sensible move. “It has given us time to prepare and to play warm-up games,” he says.
That preparation time has been especially important this season given the long break from competitive rugby, resulting in the normal continuity from year to year simply not happening. Some players who are now in S5 were playing under-15 rugby before Covid called a halt on games, meaning that the coaches of the senior team know less about their charges .“We’ve kept the base large with a pool of 50 players. We don’t know what our best first team is yet,” says Edwards.
“So, over the next three or four weeks, changes will be likely. It’s the problem of trying to combine boys who’ve not played much rugby. We’ve never experienced such a generational gap. We never stopped training during Covid but, of course, there’s nothing like playing. And because of that there is a knowledge gap that we’re having to teach now.”
Last season’s lack of competitive matches, however, allowed the coaches at SMC time to seek out guidance from many sources, such as Andy Friend at Connacht, who willingly offered advice to the Edinburgh school. “We’ve tried to put a lot of what we learned from reaching out to a number of high profile coaches into practice now,” suggests Edwards.
Stewart’s-Melville College are in East Schools Conference A, which will be regarded as the top flight given that it also contains: George Watson’s College, Edinburgh Academy, George Heriot’s School, Merchiston Castle School, Fettes College, Dollar Academy and Strathallan.
On Saturday Stewart’s-Melville, Cup winners in December 2019, take on conference winners of that season, George Watson’s College, at Myreside. Meanwhile, in the north-of-the-Forth battle for honours, Dollar are at home to Strathallan. Merchiston and Fettes played earlier this week resulting in a big win for Merchiston.
This conference is scheduled to be concluded early December and, in a change from previous formats, it will be followed post-Xmas by the Cup competition. Eight teams will qualify for the Cup – four from East A, two from West A, and two from Caledonia A. “This [sequence] is the best structure so far. I think the prospect of playing in the Cup will motivate the boys in conference rugby.” avers Edwards.
In youth rugby at under-18 level, many will look with envy at the Borders Semi-Junior League, which this season has brought in four English clubs – Tynedale, Alnwick, Carlisle and Morpeth – to join Hawick Youth, Peebles Colts, Melrose Wasps, Selkirk YC, Kelso Quins, Jed Thistle, Gala Wanderers and Duns. And with home and away fixtures it guarantees week-to-week rugby for the teams involved.
This weekend, the Semi-Junior League is entering its fifth round with Hawick, Peebles and Kelso all unbeaten. The top two fixtures should be Selkirk YC versus Melrose Wasps and Peebles versus Tynedale.
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Melrose Wasps and Hawick Youth together with Boroughmuir, Stirling County, Ayr and Marr were scheduled to form a new elite National League at the beginning of last season, only for the intervention of Covid to scupper its inception in 2020-21.
What has risen from the ashes of the original plan are two National Conferences brought together on a regional basis. Pool A groups together: West of Scotland, Ayr/Wellington, GHA, Biggar and Currie Chieftains; while in Pool B consists of: big hitters Stirling County and Boroughmuir, alongside Mackie, Highland and Perthshire. After this weekend’s fourth round games in both pools there will be a break after which two new pools will be formed based on positions from the first tranche of games.
Thus far in Pool A, West of Scotland have been impressing and head the under-18 table with three straight wins from three rounds, suggesting that the efforts put in by the Burnbrae club are now paying off. In Pool B, Boroughmuir are looking equally strong having emulated West’s achievement of three from three.
Boroughmuir’s results this season reflect the work that has gone into developing a strong academy and the club’s ability to attract youngsters from (mainly) state schools across Edinburgh. Academy director, Scott Anderson, is justifiably satisfied with progress thus far.
He reports: “Our numbers appear to be going up, and there is always a number of new players contacting to join each week across all our age groups
“We have 46 in the under-18 squad so we’re looking for two games each week going forward. We had two teams out last weekend against Stirling County, which was great, and fantastic to give all the boys who were available to play a game.
“We do have friendlies arranged this season with George Watsons and Merchiston Castle, and we are also attending the Merchiston Castle U18 Tournament (16th-17th October). That will give us the opportunity to play against some top teams and that should be good for us.”
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