THE inaugural Tri-Nations Festival of Rugby, hosted by Merchiston Castle School last weekend, and won by George Watson’s College, has been hailed a big success by Merchiston director of rugby Roddy Deans – despite the two day event being shortened by half because of torrential rain on the scheduled first day of the tournament.
“It was a great experience for the clubs and schools that took part,” he said. “It was a shame about the weather which meant that all the games had to be played on Sunday. As a result we had to trim the competition by cutting out the semi-finals of the Cup and Plate.”
English teams Bedford School and Seaford College, along with Ulster representatives Ballymena Academy, ensured that the competition was a stiff challenge for the Scottish teams, with Deans stressing the point that Scottish sides have to look beyond their goldfish bowl in order to expose young players to top level competition and drive up standards. “If we continually play against each other we’ll never get out of our comfort zone,” he reasoned.
Up until this year, Merchiston have taken part at this time of year in the prestigious St Joseph’s Rugby Festival but Deans believes that it has now become a tournament suited only to the very top English schools. “The problem is that it has now become a ‘size’ issue. Many of their players are men,” he explained.
Former Hawick flanker, Deans, is hoping to expand the Merchiston Festival to twelve teams next year but revealed that in light of the way the St Joseph’s tournament has turned the choice of guest sides must be given careful consideration.
“We have to be clever about what teams we invite,” added Deans, who then pointed out that a number of English schools have become too strong by offering 100 percent scholarship to boys who are already international age-grade players.
Not that the teams from outwith Scotland were lightweights. The Ballymena Academy side are unbeaten this season and their squad contained ten players who are in the Ulster Academy.
“I’d also like to see more club sides, like Ayr or Melrose, take part in our festival,” suggested Deans. This year Boroughmuir and Stirling County were part of the eight team line-up and the first of those sides in particular stepped up to the challenge. “Boroughmuir almost beat Dollar and Ballymena,” Deans pointed out.
Boroughmuir’s Academy manager, Scott Anderson, talked up the value to his club of taking part. “Playing these top school teams is great for our development,” he said. “We would want to be in a position to play them more regularly.
“Having these competitive games week-in and week-out would help our players get even better. And it would be better for Scottish rugby if more boys were exposed to a higher level of rugby.”
Dollar head coach Don Caskie, whose side were runners-up to the host club in the Plate final, was equally positive about the event. “It was excellent,” he said. “Shame about the weather on Saturday but managed to get a full day on Sunday. Well organised, a really good standard on show and very competitive. The boys really enjoyed it and we look forward to next year.”
Cup winners, Watson’s reached the final with pool wins over Stirling County (21-0), Bedford School (20-0) and the hosts Merchiston (14-10), before taking on English side Seaford in the Cup final where a try by Angus Hoffie and a conversion by Euan Maguire gave the Myresiders a 7-0 win. Each match was played over 25 minutes.
For their part, Seaford’s route to the final was via wins against Boroughmuir (20-0), Ballymena Academy (24-7) and Dollar Academy (21-6).
Merchiston, who finished second in their pool to Watson’s with satisfying wins over Bedford (10-0) and Stirling County (16-0), won the plate final with victory over Dollar (19-0). Dollar had progressed through the pool stage with wins over Ballymena Academy (9-7) and Boroughmuir (10-7), before losing to Seaford College (6-21).