by ALAN LORIMER
EIGHT finals was a lot to take in over the course of the same number of hours on Wednesday of last week but while the showcase matches on the international pitch at BT Murrayfield for the most part reinforced business as usual, which is to say the dominance of the independent sector, two schools, in particular, helped push the claim that state sector rugby is not as moribund as some would believe.
These two beacons of hope, Howe of Fife/Bell Baxter HS and North Berwick HS, shared the under-16 Shield title after drawing 14-14 in an enthralling match that lived up to its billing. Of course some 15 years ago, the Cupar school made headlines when defeating Dollar Academy to win the Scottish Schools under-18 Cup for the first and, as yet, the only time, in their august rugby history. Now it seems they could be back in business.
And if you look back through the record book then you’ll find North Berwick HS listed among the winners in the early years of the Cup, a time when the leading independent schools, with the notable exception of St Aloysius College, chose not to be part of the competition.
Both schools over the years have produced quality players, North Berwick’s most recent success being Rory Darge, but there are others like Chris Dean, who started their rugby at North Berwick before continuing their schooling in Edinburgh.
The success of both schools illustrates what can be achieved with the right systems in place, systems that involve a huge input from the local club (the Howe of Fife/Bell-Baxter HS name is, in itself, a slight giveaway). Furthermore both are in the Murrayfield-sponsored Schools of Rugby programme, that encourages such strategies to evolve.
Whether Howe of Fife/Bell-Baxter HS is regarded as a club or a school side is perhaps irrelevant but the Cupar side, like North Berwick, was in the schools competition because they chose to play in a schools conference rather than throw their lot in with a youth league.
The same is true for Marr College, whose success is down to a strong partnership between school and club, that involves high level coaching from the Marr Club development officers. Marr College play in the West Schools Conference in which at under-16 level they topped the table with five wins from five rounds of the competition.
Marr just missed out on a place in the final of the under-16 Schools Cup, having been pipped at the post by a late score from Strathallan in their semi-final tie at Troon that resulted in a 20-18 win for the Perthshire school. Had Marr College reached the final and faced Stewart’s-Melville College, then who knows what the outcome might have been.
Marr College, however, did have representation on finals day at Murrayfield through their under-18 side, who played in the Plate final against George Heriot’s School. In the event the Goldenacre side started brightly to build up a useful half-time lead, and then scored a late try to seal a 27-17 win, but Marr College were competitive throughout.
Another state school catching the eye was Linlithgow Academy, who contested the under-16 Plate final against Loretto School. In a tight game, the result was 15-13 win for Loretto, but the West Lothian school deserve plaudits for coming so close to a title win and for putting themselves on the map, and adding to the impression that state school rugby, with the right support and linkage with clubs, can be vibrant.
If state school rugby is offering up evidence, albeit in small quantities, then the less high profile side of the independent sector, and in particular the West of Scotland schools, delivered a reminder that Glasgow is not the sleeping giant of rugby, a view that has formed largely because of the consistently high standards being achieved by the big six in the top Conference.
Hutchesons’ Grammar School won the West conference, the reward for which was a place in the Cup quarter-finals and a home tie against Strathallan School at Auldhouse. The result was a frustrating 13-17 defeat to the Forgandenny outfit, who themselves exited from the competition in the semi-final after losing to the eventual winners, Merchiston Castle School, by just five points. All of which suggests a narrowing of the gap, if perhaps not a final closure.
Two of Hutchie’s fellow West Conference members, St Aloysius College and Glasgow High School, however, were able to showcase their skills in the under-18 Shield Final, played on the international pitch. The game ended in a 30-22 win for the more physical St Aloysius College side but for much to the final Glasgow High School showed that under the coaching team of Finn Gillies and Gregor Hunter they are back to the level for which they earned an enviable reputation in decades past.
If there were to be a sympathy award then that must surely go to Loretto School in the under-18 Cup quarter-final against eventual finalists, Edinburgh Academy. That tie at New Field in Musselburgh ended in a 10-10 draw but under the ‘away’ team rule of the competition, Academy went through as winners, leaving Loretto distraught and like others who have suffered a similar fate under this wretched way of deciding a drawn tie, wondering if this competition regulation requires re-examination.
Elsewhere on finals day, Morrison’s Academy, who have struck up a useful partnership with Crieff HS and Crieff RFC, confirmed that they are on an upward trajectory by achieving a comfortable 41-7 win over Lomond and Helensburgh in the under-18 Bowl final.
It is, of course, the under-18 Cup final that is the glamour event on this special schools day, and there was certainly huge anticipation of the meeting of Merchiston Castle School and Edinburgh Academy, which proved well-founded with these two sides producing an absorbing contest that resulted in a 19-7 win for Merchiston and a successful defence of the trophy for the Colinton school.
For a second successive season Merchiston showed that they can peak when it really matters, by overcoming an Edinburgh Academy side that had won the Conference meeting between the two sides. It was a carbon copy of last season when Merchiston, having lost to Stewart’s-Melville College in the Conference, overturned that result to comfortably win the Cup.
Merchiston’s coach Roddy Deans, attributes, to a large degree, his side’s success in the Cup to participation in the Merchiston Rugby Festival, held in mid-October. Deans thinks that exposing his players to the styles and physicality of a number of top English schools opens the minds of his charges and prepares them well for rugby action in November and December.
He certainly proved his point. Merchiston set a high tempo from the kick-off and looked as though they might rack up a massive score at the end of 70 minutes. That dynamic approach in the first half eventually took its toll as their battery levels went south just as the opposite happened for Edinburgh Academy, who took the honours in the second half but not enough to claw back what had been ceded before the break.
The 19-7 win for Merchiston was a fair reflection of Merchiston’s overall control of the game but for Academy, making a first appearance in the final since Chris Dean led his side to victory some 11 years earlier, it was a sign that, under the coaching of Chris Martin, himself a Schools Cup-winner for Bell-Baxter HS in that stunning win over Dollar Academy back in season 2006-7, Edinburgh Academy have put a difficult period behind them and are answering the challenges of a new era.
Overall, the 2022-23 Cup/Shield/Plate/Bowl season will be remembered for its brevity and, in a way, for its lack of inclusion. A Cup competition that has only three rounds and only eight starters (six of them from the top conference) would seemed to be aimed at maintaining the status quo. The other flaw in this season’s competitions is that entry into whatever level was deemed appropriate was determined by overall ranking in conferences.
So if, for example, an under-16 team in a regional conference had performed exceptionally well, but the other teams in that school less so, there is no chance of that team playing in the Cup competition. It’s also true the other way round: an under-16 team in the top conference might have had a poor season, yet it will automatically go into the Cup competition when in fact the Shield or indeed the Plate might suit it better.
What seemed preferable in previous years was a larger entry to the ‘Cup’ and safety nets thereafter so that teams would find their appropriate level. It is, of course, administratively easier to run these competitions more or less in line with the conference structure but the risk is that it creates a hegemony of schools that is self perpetuating.
Much of what is said above is the price to be paid for compressing the school rugby season into a short period between September and early December. The pros and cons of this particular miniaturising move, however, must remain a discussion for another day.