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

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

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