GIVEN what was to unfold in 2020, it was perhaps fortuitous that the main schools competitions, the Conferences and Cups, were completed well before the Christmas break, fuelling the case for a one-term season to bring the majority of schools into line with the likes of Strathallan.
There are, of course, compelling arguments for stopping at Christmas. For a start, most schools are engaged in prelim exams during January, but there are other problems, chief among them winter weather in its varied forms (waterlogged pitches this year), half-term holidays and the desire of independent schools to hold open days, usually to the inconvenience of rugby, on Saturdays.
In most years, fixtures are scheduled for January and February, a time when many schools will field younger players with an eye to the following season. If this is seen as a tapering down of the schools rugby year then three weekends of sevens played in March gives the sport an end-of-season lift. This year an elite circuit involving nine schools and played over three tournaments had been set up, only for it to fall victim to the current pandemic.
Back in the far-off land of pre-Christmas schools rugby, Stewart’s-Melville’s star shone brightly after the College achieved a notable double, winning the under-18 Cup and finishing top overall (whole school) in the top tier Colt Conference. The Inverleith under-18 team took its time to hit top form but once in their stride, under the coaching of Stuart Edwards, they were a joy to watch.
With a back division that had both pace and skill, and with stand-out players like centre Matt Russell and stand-off Christian Townsend, Stew-Mel were irresistible, albeit that they had to work hard against a more forward-orientated George Watson’s side in the December Cup final at Murrayfield before winning 24-14.
In most years, the composition of the semi-finals is predictable and particularly so if the draw is seeded. Indeed, one wag remarked that such were the small number of title contenders that the Cup competition could be held on a weekend.
This season, however, it was decidedly not business as usual, confirmed with the shock round three defeat of Merchiston Castle by Glasgow High School. The Anniesland school themselves then suffered defeat in the quarters by Marr College, but the Troon side’s hopes of reaching the final were cruelly crushed at Inverleith where Stew-Mel signalled their Murrayfield intentions.
Although the final was contested by two sides not unfamiliar with the international pitch at Murrayfield the re-emergence of Glasgow High and a second successful Cup season for Marr College gave hope that the later stages of the competition may involve schools out-with the usual group of contenders more often in the future.
In the under-16 Cup final, Merchiston powered to victory with a 41-5 win over Dollar, thanks in no small part to their skipper and No 8 Rudi Brown, who had been playing for his school’s 1st XV for most of the season.
If the two Schools Cup matches are the showpiece events, then the finals of the other three levels played at the Oriam and on the back pitches of Murrayfield offered their own feast of rugby, producing some eyebrow-raising scorelines, not least in the under-16 Shield and Plate.
The expectation for the under-16 Shield final was that the second tier L200 Conference winners in this age group, Hutchesons’ Grammar School, would have too much strength and experience for the lower ranked Outlander Conference winners, Dunbar Grammar School. But in the event such a prediction was totally torpedoed by the East Lothian side who romped to a 48-0 win.
Also of considerable note was the 44-0 victory by Queen Victoria School over Royal High School on the back pitch at Murrayfield. What was significant about QVS was the make-up of their side, more than half of which comprised Fijian and Nepalese players, sons of personnel serving with the British Army.
Now, given that some of these pupils are at QVS from late primary school to sixth year of secondary, Scottish Rugby might just benefit. If England can profit from similar situations – Joe Cokanasiga springs to mind – then why not Scotland? In fact, Scottish Rugby has already taken action by signing up two young Fijians from the QVS side, stand-off Aminio Bogidrau and full-back Amena Caqusau, for the FOSROC Academy system.
The other game played on the back pitches was the under-18 Shield final between Heriot’s and Merchiston, that resulted in a 26-10 win for the Colinton school. The remaining three finals were dominated by Borders sides, Earlston High School outgunning Gordonstoun by 26-5 in the under-18 Plate, a combination of Hawick High School and Jedburgh Grammar School defeating Hutchesons’ by 17-12 in the under-18 Bowl and Hawick High School beating Morrison’s Academy 41-17 in the under-16 Bowl.
In the Conferences, at 1st XV level Cup winners Stew-Mel had to settle for third place behind Watson’s and Merchiston who were level on points. Down a tier, Glasgow High dominated the L200 conference in the west, while in the equivalent level Eclipse Conference on the east of the country, former Cup finalists Dundee High School made a welcome return to form by winning five from five to take the top honours at 1st XV level ahead of Glenalmond College.
The Barbarian Conference results make interesting reading from the point of view of clubs and schools integrating. Not unexpectedly the 1st XV table was headed by Hills Rugby, a club side (Hillhead Jordanhill), ahead of a hybrid Lomond and Helensburgh team. But at Under-16 level it was the schools who dominated with Queen Victoria School and Morrison’s Academy topping the table.
The Grandis Conference, meanwhile, resulted in overall wins for George Watson’s College second string teams at both under-18 and under-16 levels. In both age groups Lasswade High School were second.
Dunbar Grammar were comfortable winners of the Outlander Conference at both under-18 and under-16 levels, evidence that East Lothian clubs’ close co-operation with the town’s school is the way forward. The Outlander Conference also included Berwick RFC and surely if Scottish rugby is to be inclusive then schools and clubs should be in the same competitions where appropriate.
That trend is also seen in the Evolution Conference, the under-18 section of which was won by Musselburgh Youth Rugby ahead of Portobello HS , Penicuik RFC and Boroughmuir HS.
Overall not much has changed in schools rugby. An elite group of independent schools dominate the game but within the sector there are encouraging signs that Heriot’s efforts are being rewarded, and as was noted already Glasgow High and Dundee High are making big strides in regaining ground lost over a number of seasons.
But, save for the achievements of Marr College, there is still a huge gulf between state and independent sectors, and any hopes of narrowing the gap will take much thought and a massive effort. But ways of tackling this must remain the subject of another article.