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.
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:
- Merchiston Castle School
- Glasgow Caledonians
- Durham School
- Seaford College
- Edinburgh Reivers,
- Dollar Academy
- Mount St Mary’s College
- Boroughmuir RFC
- Barnard Castle School
- Collegiate School
- St Benedict’s School
- Dame Allan’s School
- Norwich School
- Peebles RFC
- Wycliffe College
- 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.