Schools/Youth Rugby analysis: can Murrayfield’s plans to push rugby in state schools ever succeed?

Alan Lorimer considers Scottish Rugby's plans to boost rugby in state schools and reflects on the broader challenges which stand in the way

Strathendrick/Balfron HS played Berwick in the quarter-finals of last season's Schools U16 Shield. Image courtesy: Strathendrick
Strathendrick/Balfron HS played Berwick in the quarter-finals of last season's Schools U16 Shield. Image courtesy: Strathendrick

FEW would envy those charged with what seems a near-impossible task: that of trying to revive rugby in Scottish state schools or even introduce the sport into areas historically unpersuaded by the oval ball game.  Last week’s document from Murrayfield, slickly presented with pages of flow charts and bullet points, was heavy with ideas, and were they to succeed would bring future benefits to rugby in Scotland.

Overall this was an aspirational presentation, although some may prefer to describe it as wishful thinking. And, given that the plan may entail stepping into unknown territory, “wishful” may be the more accurate appendage. But, while there were some excellent suggestions in the plan, what was not discussed in detail was the list of formidable barriers standing in the way of re-stimulating rugby in the state school sector.

The notion of spreading the gospel to the several hundred state secondary schools in Scotland or more precisely to the 95.3% of pupils educated in the maintained sector is certainly ambitious, but the resources mentioned – only six designated development officers specific to the plan and a relatively small sum of money allocated to it – seem totally inadequate to tap into even a small fraction of what is a huge potential mine of sporting talent.

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But maybe such a  reality is already built into the plan. Maybe only ‘viable’ schools will be targeted, schools that have already shown interest in making rugby part of an extra curriculum programme or schools that already encourage team sport. If, however, a large number of state schools are on the radar, then the risk is that a scatter-gun approach might result in the money available being too small to have any great effect at the individual school level.

Many in Scottish rugby will ask the question: why focus on schools rather than clubs?  There are already a number of clubs in Scotland doing sterling work in promoting rugby from mini to under-18. Most of the Borders clubs strive hard in this area while elsewhere in Scotland the likes of Boroughmuir, Stirling County, Dumfries Saints, West of Scotland, Ellon, Dunfermline, Highland, Mackie, Ayr and many more do an excellent job. So why not expand on this sector. As a side thought, it’s worth noting that rugby in France at youth level is club-based and judging by recent successes across the Channel, it seems to work.

Of course club rugby and schools rugby are not mutually exclusive and indeed the best models show these two agencies working together, often with a club-sponsored development officer offering coaching in a neighbouring school or indeed a group of schools. The beauty of this arrangement is that young players can then establish a link with their local club at which they may or may not further their rugby career at senior level.

Some clubs cover the entire age spectrum of sub-senior rugby and often do so successfully judging by the large numbers of minis seen on a Sunday and from which future teams in the midi age-group will emerge. But attendance will almost certainly depend on parental involvement and willingness to spend time with offspring at weekends.

The attraction of Murrayfield’s plan for state schools is that it could impact on youngsters who do not come from a rugby background. Reports emerging from a trial in Dundee suggest that success can be achieved in non-traditional rugby areas and often among youngsters who enjoy the physicality of rugby and who are perhaps among those less engaged with classroom based education.

The other major advantages of working in the school environment are the captive audience aspect and also being able to have sessions in daylight. The latter point is important and is exploited by the private schools. Clubs, by contrast, have to train at night, which for many – youngsters and parents – can be problematic. Indeed, several coaches in youth (and senior) rugby report that, come the change of the clocks at the end of October, there is a drop-off in numbers attending training.


Of course, gaining access to schools will depend very much on the attitudes of head teachers and indeed of local authorities, who, may be pro rugby or antipathetic to the sport. Much too depends on how PE staff regard rugby and how willing they are to participate in after school sport – not a ‘given’ these days.

Moreover, persuading non-specialist teachers to become involved in helping out with rugby could hit a wall of resistance in the current climate of potential industrial action over both pay levels and increased workloads, albeit there are some in the profession who see teaching as much more than delivering their own specialist subjects.

Government involvement is key

Murrayfield’s outline plan for the next few years is spelled out in carefully thought-out detail but the big omission, it seems, is the absence of any reference to the Scottish Government. If any radical change is to happen in state schools, be it in sport, music, drama or indeed academic subjects, it seems that government must be involved, not least because of budgetary considerations.

If there is to be a new era in which schools are more than exam factories then that might require a radical rethink about, for example, the length of the school day to allow time for sport, and perhaps a rethink about whether PE should be scrapped as an academic subject and revert to its erstwhile role of teaching sports skills, be that rugby or modern dance – all in the domain of government.

The issues, now very familiar, about the effect of sport on personal well-being and mental health, around sport being central to anti-obesity strategies, and about the high correlation between involvement in sport (or any physical activity) and academic achievement, all seem obvious, but they can only be absorbed into the school context if government fosters the right climate.

Rugby could play its part in being part of a new movement (or an old one reheated) of applying the traditional mens sana in corpore sano philosophy to contemporary education. But would rugby succeed on its own or should rugby join with the other major sports to make a combined approach to government?

The public perception of Scottish education is that it has slipped from its lofty position of bygone eras and that it needs to be improved. Could adopting what happens in the independent sector in terms of the importance of sport be a way of raising the quality of Scottish education?

If government sees it this way then they might want to embrace Murrayfield’s plans.  Right now we’re a long way from that point but an approach to government by rugby would, at least, be worth a try. The conversion, however, might be trickier.

Analysis: Scottish Rugby is cash rich for now but tighter management of costs is required

About Alan Lorimer 369 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.


  1. It’s amazing what can be achieved without the help of the SRU.

    Imagine what could be achieved if the SRU actually listened to people who know what they are talking about and acted upon that.

  2. Scottish Rugby have no clue about rugby in PE.
    They love to use the lingo in their documents, “aline with SAoL” the SAoLs (significant aspects of learning) were superseded by benchmarks years ago.
    They see rugby in school PE as a stand alone sport. That’s not the way PE works. We don’t coach pupils to learn skills. We don’t set up drills and have different stations for positions etc. we have 33 pupils who aren’t interested in learning one sport, some don’t want to be there.
    What we do is teach benchmarks (decision making, communication etc.). So for example I over 4 weeks mix rugby with football, netball. They pupils learn about transferable skills just as movement, tactics etc. We don’t spend an hour teaching the spin pass in technicolour detail.
    So SRU need to look at their “alternative” formats of rugby as games like end ball, rugby rounders, rather than 7s, tartan touch etc.
    during my teacher training SRU took my uni class for 3 rugby session. The coach educator (who is now the national coach educator) had us for a warm up have someone on our back. They needed to climb over your head, down your front and under your legs and back to your back without touching the ground. People were dropped, fell etc.
    Then straight into contact. 2v1. The 1 kick the ball high for the attack to field and then play. Kids can’t kick nor field a high ball let alone without having someone try tackle them.
    Then onto line out, taught us full lifting.
    Just shows how much the Sru are out of touch with PE.

    The solution
    Hire someone in the game development dept who is a teacher. Have them create resources to teach the bench marks through the vehicle of rugby. Exposing pupils to rugby but not as a game.
    Create a course that is accredited by SQA that schools can deliver. Schools that succeed with rugby (getting teams) is when they have a rugby achievement programme (RAP) where pupils choose rugby as a course. They get one afternoon of rugby: get rugby training, S&C, nutrition, referee qualification, coaching qualifications etc. Schools value projects if they provide the pupils with something that helps them move onto a positive destination. An SQA award meets that criteria.
    I wrote units for the SQA and have developed courses from scratch. It is very doable.
    They need to organise the festivals and fixtures. DOs are out of touch with schools and only focus on schools with rugby. They need to have accountability for the schools who are not at festivals and games. I have seen our DO once (4 years ago) and after promising the world, never returned. We have to rely on clubs helping us.
    They need to accept that they have lost the after school battle. Many schools have established timetables for clubs. I know that every night there is a club on, football, netball, basketball then pupils have out of school clubs. Pupils won’t try rugby as they want to go to their other clubs. So SRU need to support schools by having festivals during school hours. We have a one last week, 4-6pm, all our pupils said no thanks I have football at 5pm.

    There is so much SRU could do in education to promote all aspects of the sport. Playing, coaching, first aid, refereeing but they don’t understand it is about giving the pupils experiences, SRU just want to quickly find new talent. Let kids enjoy rugby (rugby tennis, rounders, end ball) and let clubs develop specific skills.

    Here is what they are up against. I have a football company come in, 100% free and take our pupils for football. They develop life skills (teamwork, communication, feedback) through football. The kids get core skills and certificates. They get Nike kit every few months as a reward. They then offer to continue this as they move up the school with using football to achieve a SQA higher award.
    Pupils love it. School loves it. Parents love it.
    Do our school teams do Better ….. no
    But we have kids who now go to primary schools and take football clubs, we have pupils refereeing, pupils working with the local football community trust to play or coach. Leading to more players at club Level.
    All for free.

    There is a rugby version of this from a private company who will charge you £12000 to take 20 pupils and give them no qualification.

    • Thanks for that Mr Rugby. I appreciate your insights here

      We aren’t owed anything from schools and it’s arrogant to think we can just come up with stuff and they will fall over themselves to make it happen.

      I fully agree we should be looking to support activity and enjoyment rather than learning rugby skills specifically. Creating the athletes of the future would be a much better project as highlighted by David Epstein in Range.

  3. Although I am not sure all these statistics are entirely accurate here is size of the problem Scottish rugby is facing
    Players male under 13 playing rugby union in 2016 from Wikipedia
    Australia 26k
    England 694k
    France 165k
    Ireland 57k
    New Zealand 64 k
    South Africa 320k
    Wales 12k
    Scotland 9.5 k
    No figs for Argentina or Italy

    It’s a miracle we compete at all and we probably would not unless we used players born in other countries .

    Off those 9.5k how many are in private education more than half I suspect .

    Truth is we have a mountain to climb just to catch up with just Ireland on 57k ( and that’s from a similar population ) .

    They have done a fantastic job and you only need to travel around the republic to see the importance of sport to them .

    Fantastic facilities local newspapers and web sites covering youth sport at all levels . Its part of the culture and it appears it has full state backing .

    Thank goodness we beat them at football !

    Scottish rugby cannot be expected to fund a push for sport it has to be government that takes the lead . Rugby has to be part of it along with football golf tennis etc etc . If we as nation do this it will be massively beneficial in terms of heath and well being for years to come .

    The NHS will save a fortune far greater that the investment put in – its a no brainier !

    • France 165k primarily recruited and organised by local clubs who have never seen heard of a DO. The FFR are not directly involved at all, neither is the govt. Looking to schools, Murrayfield or Holyrood to solve local issues is an attempt to shift responsibility to someone else to solve problems that can only have a local solution. Handily we can also absolve ourselves of any responsibility if they fail. There are however examples of clubs who have taken up the challenge and implemented programmes that attract and engage youngsters. They should be further encouraged and used as examples for others to follow. The idea that there is a simple, shiny centralised solution to this issue if we merely hand it to someone else may be attractive to some but is in fact an act of comfortable self deception.

  4. Some evidence based practice already exists. I don’t think numerous trials are required. 10 years ago Balfron High School was a football oriented state school with a handful of boys who at weekends played rugby at Stirling County or West of Scotland.The same as any other state school. Through a partnership with Strathendrick RFC, we started with 1 team a mixed S1/S2 side and built a fixtures list against both clubs and schools who would give us games. We then created 2 midi age groups sides then 3 as Strathendrick mini rugby teams moved up to midi level. When we got 4 teams, we applied to the SRU to join a schools conference. They wouldn’t let us until we provided evidence of our ability to compete, so we arranged friendlies with all of the conference sides and the boys performed well against them. The following year we were allowed into conference rugby with our 5 teams. Our teams now regularly get wins over 5-6 different independent schools each year and reach the latter ends of cup competitions. This is with a single school with a school role of circa 850. We now also have 4 girls team (1 mini, 3 mini) too. Getting from zero to conference level (5 teams) took 5-6 years and we built up our coaching volunteers from only 2-3 coaches up to now around 40. All of the issues and barriers mentioned in this article are ones we faced. Our success was down to belligerence, positivity, partnership and community dedication from a lot of people in making this possible. We would be pleased to help other clubs/schools make the same journey as we have learned a lot along the way.

    • interesting.
      When did Balfron drop out of fielding a side – they were fielding one late 90s at least and produced a couple of internationalists!
      Good to read they are back.
      I would caution a wee bit – a small school but not a typical catchment area

  5. Any major initiative has to start small with a series of non-identical trials where each aspect of each program is monitored to see what does and what does not work. Once these learnings are in place you can then build an effective program. This will be, if handled properly, a program that will take 5-10 years to reach fruition. It needs to encompass both the schools and the Clubs bringing both together so we can make the most of everyone’s skills and resources. A shotgun approach won’t work this needs a carefully targeted approach with x Clubs and Y schools in Rugby and non rugby areas part of the initial trials. Quite rightly as the article states without at least the support of the Local Education Authorities and preferably the Scottish Government it will be very hard to generate any significant results.

    • Did you even bother to read Jeremy PP’s comment? The evidence already exists.

      We’re not developing a vaccine for global use – building a strategy on increased state school rugby is not a high risk endeavour.

      We need to get on with it or accept being perennial also-rans while watching similar sized nations outperform us at all levels.

      • TRy looking atimes of posts -RodB posted 4 hours before jeremyPP’s very interesting post. I’m sure RodB will be interested to read it


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