THE SCOTTISH SCHOOLS UNDER-18 CUP moves towards the sharp end of the competition with the semi-final ties being played over the next two days in what should add up to a feast of rugby for fans of the age-grade game.
At Inverleith, Stewart’s-Melville College take on Marr College this [Thursday] afternoon with a 1.30pm kick-off. The visitors are the first state school to reach the last four since the heady days of Bell-Baxter High School’s title winning run in 2006-07, when for the first time the monopoly of the independent sector was seriously challenged.
Stewart’s-Melville reached the semi-final after defeating, Dollar Academy 26-21, but it is not this result that has injected confidence into the Inverleith side rather the eyebrow-raising 44-19 victory over George Watson’s College two weekends ago.
Coached by the Heriot’s Super6 stand-off, Stuart Edwards, Stewart’s-Melville have played to their strength behind the scrum where the presence of Christian Townsend at stand-off has given the back-line additional poise and helped bring out the best in centre pairing of Matt Russell and Aidan Boyle. Townsend, the son of the Scotland head coach, Gregor Townsend, moved to Stewart’s-Melville from Earlston High School for his sixth year of studies.
Marr College arrive at the semi-final stage after a narrow quarter final win over the High School of Glasgow. What made that result more significant for Marr was that the High School of Glasgow had knocked out title holders Merchiston in the previous round with a substantial 32-14 win.
Gregor Ness, the Marr head coach, however, is circumspect about his side’s chances. “We will definitely be going into this tie as underdogs,” he said. “Stew-Mel play in the top conference and they have the boys every day. But we’ll give it a good crack. We’ve nothing to lose.”
Some might point out that the Marr side is in fact a composite team. In fact, five of the squad of 20 are not at Marr College. Two of these are from the now defunct Garnock Under-18s side, but by being absorbed into the Marr squad it means that they can play rugby at a decent level as opposed to being lost to the game.
Does it really matter that not all the boys are at Marr? Of course not. What matters is that teams of similar strengths compete against one another. In any case, composite teams have been allowable in the Schools Cup for many years.
Marr’s progress in the Cup this season is no shock. Last year the Troon school knocked out holders Strathallan on their way to reaching the quarter-finals, before being knocked out by Dollar. “I think last year turned a few heads,” reflected Ness.
Marr field a pack that should compete with their Inverleith opponents. Tight-head prop Scott Rodger is a formidable scrummager, former Scotland Under-18 volleyball cap Harry Murray offers height and athleticism, while behind the scrum stand-off Calum Inglis has experience of last season’s Under-18 Cup campaign.
Friday’s semi-final at Myreside between George Watson’s College and Edinburgh Academy kicks-off at 4.45pm and should be another compelling contest. For the hosts, this will be their 15th successive year in the semi-finals but that historic fact is unlikely to promote any sense of heightened expectation within the Watson’s squad, as their coach, Ally Donaldson, confirmed.
“We had a really close match with Edinburgh Academy in the conference which we were lucky to sneak 21-18,” he said. “They are a very good team and we are aware of the challenge they bring. Cup semi-finals are a really exciting time and we are ready and looking forward to Friday.”
Watson’s will be without the pacy Angus Hoffie who misses out because of a torn hamstring. “We still have plenty of fire-power in the backline especially in the back three, and our hard-working pack is at full strength,” stated Donaldson.
Academy, under the guidance of Javier Palacios, were last in a semi-final in 2012 when, with Chris Dean as captain, they went on to lift the title. This season they are captained by scrum-half Campbell Swanson and with a strong performer in stand-off Daniel Troup they have shown a return to former strength, running Merchiston close earlier this month in a conference match.
Stewart’s-Melville College: J Thompson; B McNulty, A Boyle, M Russell, A Cross; C Townsend, F Campbell; M Jones, D Hood, K Davidson, A Robertson, D Gray, J Mather, L McGrigor, R Gordon Replacements M Dennis, C Affleck, M Robertson, R Chisholm, J Burns, D King, A Morris
Marr College: D Craig; L Cotter, N Calder, S Toner, K Davidson; C Inglis, S Grassom; L Morrison, B Nicholl, S Rodger, C Mackenzie, H Murray, J Affleck, T Miller, K McCann Replacements A Blyth, G Murray, J Dunsmuir, S Stirton, S Smith.
George Watson’s College: D Brown; C Milligan, A Cousin, E Maguire, R Daley; R Stephen, B Young; L Hutchinson, M Cantle, G Scougall, M Raitt, A Watters, T Holmes, C Hardie, E Henderson Replacements B Lynes, C Scullion, A Hastings, C Myles, L Musat, Z Neil.
Edinburgh Academy: H Cameron-Barr; T Peel, B Murray, C Campbell, T Peters; D Troup, C Swanson; S Innes, D Edwin, H Cartwright, B Pringle, A Burns, F Woods, J Binsted, A McNeill Replacements T McLure, N MacLean, A Gillespie, B Buchan, B Shannon, L Houbert, D Macrae, J Carson, R Allen.