Schools/Youth round-up: Merchiston Castle triumph for first time at home tournament

Glasgow Caledonia are beaten finalists while Edinburgh Reivers, Dollar Academy and Boroughmuir also finish in top half of the draw

Merchiston Castle School emerged victorious at their own Under-18s rugby festival last weekend. Image: Paul Watt
Merchiston Castle School emerged victorious at their own Under-18s rugby festival last weekend. Image: Paul Watt

MERCHISTON CASTLE SCHOOL hit a new high by winning their own National Rugby Festival last weekend, producing a top performance to overcome a hitherto unbeaten Glasgow-Caledonia side. But while the Colinton school had just cause to celebrate its individual achievement, the other success was the tournament itself.

Roddy Deans, head coach of the winning Merchiston side, forecasted that the fourth iteration of the Festival would be the best yet. And in the event Deans’ prediction was borne out, with two days of high intensity rugby at Colinton fostering a climate of excellence among the 16 participating teams. Moreover, the format of the tournament may well have succeeded in nudging the under-18 game in a direction that could, and should, be replicated more widely in Scottish rugby.

For too long age-grade rugby has been siloed into private schools and state schools, albeit the latter sector’s needs are now almost entirely catered for by clubs. What the Merchiston Festival has done is knock down traditional barriers and lay out a blueprint that overrides long perceived differences by including a mix of streams in their tournament.


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That inclusivity was achieved by continuing to invite club sides Boroughmuir, Ayr and Peebles, and adding spice in the shape of two district sides, Glasgow-Caledonia and Edinburgh Reivers, both of whom contributed considerably to producing a high standard of rugby throughout the two days of competition.

“Having the district sides in was really good,” observed the former Scotland centre, Nick de Luca, now director of sport at Merchiston. “Our boys had to really step up in the final. It did add a new and interesting dynamic. There’s a lot of discussion around state and club versus independent sector but there’s no reason why we can’t collaborate to give everyone exposure to good quality rugby and coaching. From my point of view, this weekend has  been a success.”

Merchiston’s title winning route saw the Colinton school come through their pool matches on Saturday unbeaten with wins over Durham Cathedral Schools, St Benedicts and Ayr RFC to secure a place in the quarter finals of the Trophy on the second day of the Festival.

Having reached the last eight, Merchiston edged out Dollar Academy in the quarters, winning 10-8, before defeating Durham Cathedral School 15-12 in the first of the semi-finals to set up a final showdown against Glasgow-Caledonia.

 

For their part Glasgow-Caledonia finished top of their pool after wins over Dame Allan’s Schools, Collegiate School and Seaford College before coming through the knock-out stages with victories over Boroughmuir and, for a second time, Seaford College, to book their place in the final.

In the Trophy final, Merchiston had the edge over Glasgow Caledonia, scoring tries by Oliver Gordon and Todd Bargerton both converted by Hamish MacArthur to secure the title for the first time, the district side’s points coming from a well worked second half try by Gregor Johnston.

At the conclusion of  what was a quality and exciting match, Deans praised his charges, but suggested that winning the Trophy was not an end in itself. “I’m delighted to win the tournament, but for us it’s not actually about winning: it’s about performance and building momentum for the rest of the season and in particular going into the Cup competition,” he said.  “To beat a well-organised and well-coached Glasgow-Caley side is the icing on the cake. I thought in the final our boys played intelligent, skilful and high tempo rugby. They scored at the right times.”

He added: “I’m happy for the boys but I’m more happy about the Festival itself. It’s growing and getting better all the time. I love the fact that the district teams are here and it was awesome to have representation from the SRU on campus over the two days. I really think we can further develop and make the Festival even better. We’re just getting going. Look at the St Joseph’s Festival [in Ipswich]: it’s been going for 30 odd years. I think we can keep this going and get other clubs and schools buying into it.”

For the competition runners-up, Glasgow-Caledonia, their head coach Kris Burney enthused about the Festival, emphasising how much it meant to his players.

“It’s given a lot of boys who might not usually be in this squad the opportunity to put their hand up,” he said. “Some of our [usual] boys were playing for their school this weekend, or were playing adult rugby or were away on holiday, so for us it’s good that we are broadening the base.

“We had a lot of under-17s in our squad for the Festival. It was a great experience for the boys. We had some players coming from Inverness and Oban. For a lot of the lads this was their first experience of being part of a combined Glasgow and Caley squad.”

 

Commenting on the final, Burney said: “We spoke about it being Merchiston’s occasion in front of a home crowd. I thought the boys did really well to come back after half-time and score. I think we gave a good account of ourselves.”

Edinburgh Reivers also made a big contribution to the Festival and met expectations by securing their place in the Trophy quarter finals after topping their group with wins over Wycliffe College, Norwich School and Boroughmuir, before losing out to past winners Seaford College in the last eight.

That then put Edinburgh Reivers into the semi-final of the Plate along with Dollar and Boroughmuir. In the event, the district side defeated Boroughmuir while Dollar triumphed over Seaford in extra time. Then, in the final, Edinburgh Reivers proved too strong for Dollar, who, if disappointed at losing to their district opponents, nevertheless could be pleased at producing their best form of the season over the weekend at Colinton.

For Boroughmuir, fourth in last year’s Merchiston Festival,  it was a tough and demanding tournament. The Meggetland side ended up playing Edinburgh Reivers twice – a quirk of the tournament structure – as well as having to face Glasgow-Caledonia. But they had the satisfaction of achieving wins in the group stages over Norwich School and Wycliffe College. Their last match was against Mount St Mary’s College, against whom they lost by one score in the Plate 3rd/4th place play-off.

“We had a fantastic time at the weekend,” offered Richie Lockhart, the Boroughmuir under-18 head coach. “I’m hugely proud of how the boys played. Their energy and physicality were first class. We learned a lot about game management and execution in particular playing against the two regional sides in three games.

“I’m also delighted that we played all of the squad across the weekend, rotating regularly, and everyone stood up really well.  We’d love to have more opportunities to play really challenging games like these. Hopefully Scottish Rugby can find a way to blend schools, clubs and even regional sides more regularly. Challenge and stretch has to be a core principle in the development of young talent.”

For Ayr and Peebles, the clash with school half-term holidays plus an accumulation of injures meant that both clubs had to field squads that were well below full strength, resulting in the competitive gap, particularly for Ayr, being wide at times. Peebles, however, competed well in their group stages losing to both Barnard Castle School and St Benedict’s School by a single score.

Merchiston Rugby Festival final placings:

  1. Merchiston Castle School
  2. Glasgow Caledonians
  3. Durham School
  4. Seaford College
  5. Edinburgh Reivers,
  6. Dollar Academy
  7. Mount St Mary’s College
  8. Boroughmuir RFC
  9. Barnard Castle School
  10. Collegiate School
  11. St Benedict’s School
  12. Dame Allan’s School
  13. Norwich School
  14. Peebles RFC
  15. Wycliffe College
  16. Ayr RFC

Elsewhere at the weeked, Gala Wanderers produced a powerful performance at the Greenyards to defeat their close neighbours Melrose 50-10 in the Borders Semi Junior League. For Wanderers, Sam McAneny scored a hat-trick of tries, Callum Corry bagged two and there were single contributions from Jamie Bell, Arran Little and Gregor Balmer. Rory Wilson kicked five conversions.

In other BSJL matches, Jed-Thistle had a 25-7 home win over Carlisle Colts while Kelso Quins lost away to Morpeth by 24-7 “We had a rather depleted squad due to injuries, school holidays and the Merchiston Festival but that gave an opportunity for younger lads to play,” said Quins’ team manager, Keith Green, whose side’s points came from a Rory Anderson try and a Charlie Lindsay conversation.


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About Alan Lorimer 340 Articles
Scotland rugby correspondent for The Times for six years and subsequently contributed to Sunday Times, Daily and Sunday Telegraph, Scotsman, Herald, Scotland on Sunday, Sunday Herald and Reuters. Worked in Radio for BBC. Alan is Scottish rugby journalism's leading voice when it comes to youth and schools rugby.

10 Comments

  1. Border Semi-junior league could have sent a barbarians team that would be more than capable of competing too,giving more Scottish lads a chance at this level.

  2. Just my opinion but not sure the Merchiston Festival is the right place for regional sides. I have been bringing my grandson to the festival for the last few years. He plays U15 now although not for any of the teams in this tournament. We come to watch the rugby. There is always great rugby on show and its great to see so many young lads enjoying the game. My grandson didnt think it was fair to have the regional sides competing and I tend to agree. Doesnt seem like a level playing field. I appreciate the regional lads need game time, etc. but surely there are other ways of doing this that isnt to the detriment of the clubs competing

    Im old enough to remember the Melrose 7s when it was clubs fighting it out and taking home the trophy. Its a completely different animal now and clubs are barely able to get out of the second round. I sincerely hope that Merchiston dont go down the same path. The first year i came to watch, Merchiston, Watsons, Stewarts Melville and Boroughmuir were the local sides battling it out with some scottish sides from further afield and a few english sides and it was a great spectacle

    I understand its Merchistons tournament and they will want to give themselves the easiest route to the Final but I did think it was a bit unsportsmanlike to have both Glasgow and Edinburgh in the same half of the draw, opposite to them. Although fair play to them for beating Glasgow in the Final

    Still it was a great couple of days and some fantastic rugby on show. I look forward to next year. Maybe an extra coffee van wouldn’t go amiss !

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    • Merchiston beat the team that finished 3rd and then beat Glasgow in the final. Hardly ‘easiest route to the final’.

      Impossible to seed a tournament like this. Luck of the draw and while there was a winner, surely allowing age group players an opportunity to play against teams they’ve never met before, challenge themselves in a ‘new’format and mix with others can only be good for clubs, schools, rep teams but above all the players and coaches.

      Roddy and his team should yet again be applauded for growing the game beyond the gates of the school.

      He doesn’t do it to please, but I find it incredible how many people can find fault in his actions.

      Well done, again, Deansy.

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      • No complaints for the last three years, when guest teams have won then, what this tournament actually shows is how far some club sides have to go for me, and pretty sure SM and Watsons have sent weaker teams or declined to enter, so hard to include them. Boroughmuir won 2 years ago, Seaford last year… so I think Merchi “giving” themselves an easy draw is spurious, Durham in the Semis ! Deans is a forward thinking all inclusive coach that should be lauded not derided with cheap shots. A fantastic tournament that’s opening rugby to the whole of Scottish youth. Far ahead of anything else on offer north of the border.

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    • I understand where you are coming from with the regional sides being included this year. I would rather have seen some more Scottish clubs or schools involved than the regional teams but it added some extra interest to the weekend.
      The Merchiston pool draw certainly raised some wry smiles and I also wondered if it was coincidence that the two regional sides were put in the same end of the quarters draw. However that became irrelevant with the Edin/Border team going out at the quarters stage. I am sure there must be some head scratching going on in the SRU pathway selection team when two teams of Scotland’s supposed best players can’t beat quality school sides. I expected those two teams to be more than capable of winning comfortably; if indeed those selections are the best we have. Some regional boys attended the weekend and barely got any game time for their side, hardly worth their while travelling both days for a few minutes game time, no-one likes to see players treated like that.
      That said the final was a close and enjoyable game to watch, well done to Merchiston on their win; a quality, strong side and a pleasure to watch play.

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  3. Everyone moans that clubs can’t play schools etc but year after year Merchiston are making it happen plus they’re exposing our players to high quality English teams.

  4. Can anyone confirm what the Age cut-off date for this tournament was please?

    FYI:
    International Age cut-off 1-January
    Representative District Age cut-off 1-January
    Scottish Schools year group Age cut-off approx 1-January

  5. Why is it so easy for top forward thinking coach/DOS to get something like this off the ground and grow year on year, but SRU don’t seem able, do they need more selfless fresh ideas, or indeed find the people that can and get them involved. They need to get invested in this sort of thing and very quickly. Once again Deans shows the direction it must take 🤔

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