Schools/Youth Rugby: conferences make a welcome return after enforced lay-off

Alan Lorimer questions whether stopping youngsters from playing sport was an appropriate way to mark the passing of a monarch

Last year's Under-18 Schools Cup Finalists - Merchiston Castle and Stewart's Melville - meet again in National Schools Conference One this weekend. Image: © Craig Watson - www.craigwatson.co.uk
Last year's Under-18 Schools Cup Finalists - Merchiston Castle and Stewart's Melville - meet again in National Schools Conference One this weekend. Image: © Craig Watson - www.craigwatson.co.uk

AFTER what was a difficult weekend of cancelled matches for youth and schools rugby, the programme for both sectors of the game looks set to go ahead this Saturday, much to the delight, one would expect, of energy-overloaded youngsters throughout Scotland. 

Opinion will be divided on Scottish Rugby’s decision to impose a blanket wipe-out of fixtures, but which stance you take will, in all probability, depend on your attitude to monarchy and all its ramifications. Most, one suspects, will agree that some gesture towards the passing of Queen Elizabeth was appropriate, but the question to be posed is: What was the best way to conduct this?  

Scrolling through the comments section on The Offside Line website, the general tone seemed to suggest that Murrayfield’s actions were off the mark compared to those south of the border where a full Premiership rugby programme went ahead in England (a nation where support for the monarchy is much higher than in Scotland). Moreover, youth rugby was permitted in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.


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The fundamental question was whether NOT playing rugby was indeed ‘a mark of respect’ or whether a collective response was the better way to express true feelings.  Many in the rugby community believe that the late Queen would have wanted sport to go ahead for the compelling reason that trying to do your best in a game of rugby is a much better way of paying homage than many of the alternatives, which might include sitting in a pub watching English Rugby on TV.

And then there is the very real likelihood that an own goal might have been scored in the sense that youngsters who may have been sympathetic to the monarchy will now feel an alienation towards the institution. Would it not have been much better for all if young players had simply taken part in a collective act of remembrance just prior to kick-off.

Furthermore  it’s doubtful if Princess Anne, herself an Olympian, a BBC Sports Personality of the Year, the mother of a Scottish Schools international player, and the patron of Scottish Rugby, would have approved of this negative way of showing ‘a mark of respect’.  Was she consulted? And on the matter of cancellations, what would have happened had the late Queen died two days prior to an international match at Murrayfield or in the middle of the Commonwealth Games?

It’s unlikely that we shall ever find out what was behind Murrrayfield’s decision-making on the matter. Was this a knee-jerk reaction taken without much thought of the psychological consequences on young players or was it about fear of offending the establishment?

 

Assuming there are no further edicts from Murrayfield, a full programme of youth rugby – both schools and clubs – will take place this coming weekend.  In the schools game, only one game in the  Inspiresports National 1 Schools Conference has been played. That was at Dollar on 3rd September where Edinburgh Academy confirmed their predicted strength this season by opening their Conference schedule with a 17-0 win over the Clackmananshire school.

This coming Saturday, Dollar have a chance to pick themselves up when they face George Watson’s College at Myreside. Watson’s will go into this match with an almost new team as their coach Mike Ker explained. “We are young, talented, but learning all the time. They are a very coachable bunch of boys who want to improve and play at the highest level they can. This team is largely the guys who won the under-16s cup last year, with only four returning players from last year’s under-18s squad,” he said.

In North Edinburgh, Fettes College take on Strathallan, who go into battle fresh from a tour to Italy that involved both the  under-18 and under-16 squads and numbered some 65 players. If that signals that the Perthshire school means business this season after a few quiet years then the news that Strathallan is setting up its own Rugby Academy confirms its ambition.

Overseeing this project is Andy Henderson, who guided Strathallan’s 1st XV to a string of notable successes before stepping back from frontline coaching. The former Kirkcaldy and Caledonia back-row outlined what he hopes to achieve from the new project:  “I am now developing a rugby academy within the school to try and provide another layer of development for players with potential. The outcome, hopefully, is that they improve and are then good enough to be considered for Caledonia and above.”

At Colinton, Cup winners Merchiston Castle School play Conference winners Stewart’s-Melville College in a much anticipated match that was won last season by the Inverleith side, albeit the result was reversed in the Cup final. Stewart’s-Melville, coached this season by Haden Lingard and assistants Jason Hill and former Scotland centre Joe Ansbro, have experience in their back-line where scrum-half Jake Burns, stand-off Jamie Cane, and centres Thomas Russell and Benjamin Roger, all return for a second season at 1st XV level while in the forwards flanker Freddy Douglas will be an influential player. Also adding to the College side’s strength is scrum-half Hugo Alderston, who joins from Royal High School.

Merchiston, with home advantage and a number of returning key players from last season’s successful side, including stand-off Isaac Coates and No 8 Tom Currie, who played for Scotland under-18 in France last April. Both have been named as co-captains.

“We find ourselves in a very fortunate position with having eight of our cup winning squad returning. However, we are well aware of the strengths across all the schools within our conference,” stated the Merchiston coach, Roddy Deans. “We recently took 60 senior boys on our pre season trip to Italy. That has really increased our competition and brought the squad closer together. We are very excited to see how this squad performs. However, our feet are firmly on the ground.”

 

Meanwhile, in the Inspiresport National Club under-18 Conference, Mackie are again at home, this time for their match with high-flying West of Scotland,  who currently share top spot in the table with Boroughmuir, each with two wins from two rounds. Mackie, who had a big win over GHA in their last match, will want to back this up with a good performance against West, but the Burnbrae side have wind in their sails and will be hoping their more experienced players, notably their half back pairing, can guide the team to victory.

Sharing top spot in the conference table are Boroughmuir, who are at home to a GHA side seeking their first win. Muir, who established themselves last season as a massive force in under-18 rugby, will come into this match confident after wins over Mackie and Stirling County.

For their part, Stirling County are in a similar situation to GHA, but must hope they can register their first win when they play Ayr/Wellington at Bridgehaugh.

In the Borders Semi Junior League, four of the home clubs will be facing English opposition for the first time this season. Gala Wanderers, smarting after their heavy defeat to what is an exceptionally strong Peebles Colts side, are at home to Morpeth, while Hawick Youth entertain Tynedale, and Carlise Colts travel to Duns.  The only side playing away in these cross-border fixtures is Kelso Quins who take on Alnwick.

Elsewhere in this league, Selkirk YC, struggling with numbers, face a likely mis-match against Peebles Colts, while Jed Thistle host Melrose Wasps.


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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.

4 Comments

  1. Difficult to predict the Border Semi Junior League this season with so many 17 year olds being given an early
    chance to step up to senior rugby. Only time will tell if it’s a positive move. For some it may be the challenge they need to progress, for others, the step up may be difficult, and another year at U18’s would allow them to continue their development in a less physical environment. I’m sure the coaches will have the well being of the players in mind.

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