WHATEVER the highs and lows of schools and youth rugby in 2021, the one common sentiment was relief that after a dramatic shutdown in early 2020 the game returned to something like its old self this autumn.
Of course, the return to competitive rugby was not a simple matter of pressing the ‘resume’ button, and particularly for those players transitioning from younger age groups to senior levels. In schools rugby this was particularly felt by S5 players stepping up to 1st XV level having missed out on a season of under-16 rugby.
That problem, however, was surmountable. Not so was the ever presence of the Covid virus that had wiped out the previous season and which, in different guises forced too many cancellations, it seemed, often resulting in a skewed overall merit table.
Another ever present difficulty for, thankfully, only a minority of schools and clubs was insufficient playing numbers and unless this problem is tackled at the highest level then competitive age-grade rugby could be under-threat in some areas of the country.
One school that certainly does not struggle for numbers was Conference winners Stewart’s-Melville College where at under-18 level it has been possible on some Saturdays to field four senior teams. Numbers alone, however, did not result in Stewart’s-Melville’s success: rather it was a group of committed coaches and a system at 1st XV level that effectively mirrors the professional set-up.
In the event, Stewart’s-Melville finished top in the prestigious U18 East Conference A, pipping close rival Dollar Academy in a tight finish. Add in Merchiston Castle School and George Watson’s College and we have a quartet of dominant schools pulling clear of the rest. That sense of a gap developing is confirmed by the ‘Whole School’ table which shows the big four, headed by Stewart’s-Melville, filling the top places.
Strathallan, after a number of glorious years in which they produced players who were subsequently to play for Scotland, Edinburgh and Glasgow, found it difficult to stay with the front runners. It would be premature, however, to write off the Perthshire school.
Relatively lesser playing numbers have affected the competitiveness of Edinburgh Academy and Heriot’s as well as Fettes albeit the latter, if not as strong at U18 level, showed up well this season at younger age groups.
In the West Schools Conference A, it was Hutchesons’ Grammar School who took the honours in the U18 age group, just ahead of St Aloysius College, both schools qualifying for the National Schools Cup. If the U18 age level was a disappointment for Glasgow High School, then the Anniesland outfit more than atoned with Conference success at U16 level.
North of the Forth/Clyde corridor, Glenalmond College won the U18 Caledonia Conference ahead of Dundee High School and Morrison’s Academy, but in the ‘Whole School’ table it was Dundee High who commanded the heights ahead of Robert Gordon’s College. Could this suggest a renaissance for these two schools, both of whom have previously contested the Schools Cup final?
Given the emphasis and investment that many in the private schools sector direct towards success in rugby it is hardly surprising that state schools rarely appear in the upper echelons of the schools game, a notable exception being Marr College. A quick delve into Conference results below the top tier reveals that a number of state schools are quietly doing well. Polished performers in the East Conference B are Linlithgow Academy and Lasswade High School who finished respectively second and third behind Loretto.
North Berwick High School, whose recent alumni include the Glasgow Warriors flanker Rory Darge, topped East Conference C just ahead of an always competitive Preston Lodge High School, the latter benefitting from a rugby-orientated policy in East Lothian.
Another bright spot in schools rugby was the form of Balfron High School in West Schools Conference B. Balfron, who operate in conjunction with Strathendrick RFC, finished first in the U16 table and second at U18 level behind top team, St Columba’s, the overall ‘Whole School’ winners of this Conference ahead of a resurgent Lenzie RFC.
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If state schools rarely appear in the higher altitudes of the schools conferences it is because state school pupils generally play their rugby in the club system. That often means that a club will contain state school pupils from a number of secondary schools within its catchment area. A case in point is Boroughmuir RFC, who provide the counterbalance to the dominance of independent schools in the Scottish capital.
Boroughmuir have successfully built up a strong youth club, drawing from a number of state schools in Edinburgh and establishing their own professional approach through an academy structure that offers young players expert skills coaching and strength & conditioning programmes. Former Edinburgh second-row Alex Toolis has just been unveiled as the new academy and performance manager at Meggetland.
This season Boroughmuir dominated the National Conference at U18 level, winning all eight of their matches and capping a very good season by finishing as the top Scottish side in the Merchiston Rugby Festival back in October.
But overall in the National Conference it was GHA who emerged top in the ‘Whole Club’ table to suggest that the Braidholm outfit is both successfully harnessing the talent that is present on the south side of Glasgow and operating a sound coaching strategy.
Tailing GHA was Stirling County, always one of the powerhouses in youth rugby and a club that in many ways set the template for others to follow. Significantly, County came out top in the U16 table of the National Conference pointing towards a successful U18 side next season.
The newcomer on the National Conference block was Mackie, who capped a promising season by occupying second place in the U18 table, while perennial challengers Ayr/Wellington had their best set of performances in the U16 age group, finishing runners-up. The second layer of the National Conference resulted in a ‘Whole Club’ win for West of Scotland ahead of Biggar, Currie Chieftains, Highland and Perthshire.
The National Conference planned to contain Hawick Youth and Melrose Wasps but both opted to stay in the Borders Semi Junior League at U18 level and the Borders Town v Town from U16 downwards. The Semi Junior League which contains English clubs Carlisle Colts, Morpeth, Alnwick and Tynedale, still has a number of rounds remaining but at this stage Hawick Youth lead the competition ahead of Gala Wanderers and Melrose Wasps. At the other end of the table, Duns and Jed Thistle have both suffered from a drop in playing numbers making amalgamation a likelihood in the near future.
In the Borders town v town conference the dominant club at U16 level is Peebles Colts who have won all their games thus far and sit three points clear of Gala Red Triangle, whose performances endorse the sentiment that Gala rugby in general is enjoying an upsurge. But overall in the ‘Whole Club’ table it is Melrose Wasps/Earlston High School who lead the charge.
Elsewhere, Ellon dominated the Caledonia Club Conference to take the overall title ahead of Aberdeen Wanderers, while in the West Conference Dumfries just pipped Whitecraigs for the ‘Whole Club’ win. But credit to Livingston who won the U18 competition in this conference.
Conference rugby has undoubtedly been a success for both schools and clubs but it would be complacent to think that all is well. Numbers are still fragile and in many ways the performances of a few top schools and clubs disguise many deficiencies in age group rugby in Scotland. But that is a discussion for another day.
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