YOUTH CLUB RUGBY returns to competitive action this week with the first rounds of the inspire National One and Two Conferences getting underway amid concerns over general standards in the wake of Scotland’s poor result in World Rugby’s u20 Trophy event two months ago.
That competition, it will be recalled, resulted in calamity after the young Scots failed to win their group and in the process forfeiting their chance of making a return to the top tier Cup competition from which Scotland were relegated in the 2019 iteration. All of which raises questions about the preparedness of the under-20s and more fundamentally the whole youth system that underpins this age level.
Quick fixes have been implemented, most visibly the inclusion of a Future XV in the Super Series Championship, an initiative that seemed to hit the buffers following that under-20s select side’s massive defeat to Stirling Wolves last weekend, albeit that proponents of bringing the wannabes into the semi pro competition can point to their performance against Southern Knights in the opening round when the Future XV (bolstered, ironically, by some Wolves players) came within a point of toppling the Greenyards franchise.
Critics of Super Series rugby regularly query the rationale of spending a load of money on a layer aimed at helping talented youngsters step up to the pro game when actually the focus should be on ensuring there is a robust production line further down the age spectrum. And let’s be clear, it is a massive sum of money which over five years of Super Series rugby has, according to official figures, achieved only 19 players making the transition. If you do the sums that’s a huge cost to achieve relatively little.
So, would if not be better if at least half the budget spent on Super Series rugby went into developing players at an earlier stage so that the ‘part-time professional’ tier would then have a large cohort of under-20 players from which to develop for the next level. Moreover, those coaches operating with the Scotland under-20 squad would have a better and bigger pool of more skilful players with which to work. No base, no apex.
Of course there is already money spent on player pathways through the FOSROC regional academies and certainly the evidence from the recent matches at under-18 and under-16 age-groups would suggest that investment here is paying off such was the range of skills on display at Stirling in the first two rounds and Netherdale for the final matches.
But is that enough? One weakness evident in the FOSROC Series was that while each region fields two teams at under-16 level, that number is cut to just one team at under-18 level. So, straight away this reduces the population of players likely to stay in the game beyond 18 and crucially reduces the under-20 numbers.
Millan Browne, head coach of the winning Glasgow and the West under-8 side, who is part of the FOSROC Academy set-up, believes that there are a lot of players benefiting from the specialist input. “We’re exposing a lot of players; we go from 100 at under-16 to 60 at under-18. You could have two teams at under-18 but that would depend on funding”.
Crucially, however, Browne and his colleagues are involved in more than working with players selected for the pathway system and importantly extend their sphere of influence to raising standards of coaching in youth rugby, much of which is often undertaken by willing parents.
“So much depends on good coaching” avers Brown. “We’re now engaging with clubs a lot more. Chris Wade is the coach educator in South Glasgow and he’s making a massive difference already. He’s bringing coaches [from clubs] into our sessions. They see what we’re trying to achieve. There’s maybe eight or nine sessions we offer where they can come in and watch, for example strength and conditioning, line-out and set piece work. And that should make a big difference to local clubs”.
Another factor in West’s success in the under-18 FOSROC Series has been the coaching group’s ability to make a far reaching scan of all talent in their region. “We’re picking from a wide range of clubs and that needs to be replicated throughout Scotland,” suggests Browne, who thinks, controversially perhaps, that the FOSROC Academies should be for club players and not for private school attendees.
Browne certainly has a point. Private schools, year on year, produce skilful players, some of whom go all the way to represent Scotland. And considering they make up slightly less than five percent of the school population in Scotland they punch hugely above their weight when it comes to results in rugby.
And little wonder. Those independent schools who take rugby seriously offer what’s verging on a mini professional set-up, their top teams benefiting from high-level coaching delivered by mentors, some of whom have been in the professional system. They benefit from, what seems to the outsider, acres of playing fields; from big numbers (Stewart’s-Melville College, for example, have been able to field four under-18 teams); from parental support; from tradition; and crucially from being able to train in daylight and every day if they so choose.
By contrast clubs usually have smaller numbers, they do not have paid coaches and depend largely on willing volunteers, they have to train at night (a major disincentive after the change from BST to GMT) and they have limited facilities. Clubs also have to work hard to finance their youth sections, often having to put money into hardship funds for youngsters who simply do not have the wherewithal to afford rugby boots, travel etc.
So good is the private school system at producing top level players that it seems somewhat redundant to offer them places in the FOSROC Academy system. “We know they [independent school players] are there, so let’s get club guys into the academies,” Browne states.
Of course the fissure between private schools rugby and club youth rugby has always existed and is not helped by a reluctance to merge the two competitively. John Fletcher, Scottish Rugby’s Head of Pathways and Elite Coach Development thinks that removing this blockage would be a step forwards.
“We nearly got there just before Covid,” he said. “Everybody I speak to thinks it’s a good idea. I’m aware that clubs and schools do play against each other but not necessarily in the Conference. It is a principle of development that the best players need to play against the best as often as possible. It’s back on the table and people are talking about it.
“It happens at the Merchiston tournament and I think that’s a very good thing for Scottish youth rugby”.
Fletcher also endorses the idea propounded many years ago by the former Scotland and Lions forwards coach, Jim Telfer, that the best coaches should be deployed at youth level.
“It’s done in a number of countries in a number of sports” observes Fletcher. “It’s not necessarily the best but more about the most appropriate. In my view, you need more skills coaching in the pathways than possibly in some of the more performance environments. I just think we need to consider carefully who are the best coaches for this level.
“Peoples perceptions are that the older the age-grades you coach then the further up the ladder you’re going. And that so often is the case with the salary,” Fletcher points out. “But there are countries who look at their coaching structure from a different perspective.
“Belgian football is the classic. Their pyramid is upside down. They have a lot of skilful coaches working in their pathway. In Scotland we need coaches everywhere. Coaching is a massive part of it and we can do a lot better in supporting our coaches”.
The question looking ahead is whether Murrayfield might be persuaded to divert some of the funds used to support Super Series into a financially backed plan to give club rugby the kind of coaching currently seen in the private schools sector. In other words, should Murrayfield be putting money into youth clubs to ensure that their charges not only benefit from better coaching but also have the personnel in place to attract more youngsters into the sport.
There is little doubt, however, that some clubs are grasping the nettle and piling resources into a productive youth system. Currently, Boroughmuir seem to be slightly ahead of the pack in creating their own elite academy and building a formidable youth system, whose results speak for themselves.
The Meggetland outfit are the current Conference champions and this weekend they will begin the defence of their title with a home match against West of Scotland. Head coach of the under-18 side, Richie Lockhart, will use the game as a chance to assess his squad.
“We’re nearly full strength for Saturday but it is difficult to call because there is so much competition for places across the squad, which is a great,” he said. “We’re still to see what our strongest XV is. That said, we need to rotate to give lads game-time and make sure we have as many players eligible for later cup stages … if we get there again!”
Opponents West of Scotland are coached this season by Gavin McGreish, who previously mentored the forwards. “The first game will be a real test, arguably the hardest of the season, against last year’s national cup winners,” he said. “But the squad is right up for it and are relishing the challenge”.
Competition will be equally strong at Bridgehaugh where Stirling County face GHA. County will be under the tutelage of Stuart Imrie, who has reasonable expectations of a good season. He said: “The squad has lots of potential to play exciting rugby. The 16s last season tasted some success in the Youth Shield and have trained hard this summer to make the step-up to 18s”.
GHA are coached this season by Shane McElhinney who takes over from Kevin McGrory. Yet another change at the top is at Mackie where Ross Foubister is in charge. Mackie, who had an encouraging pre-season win over Ellon, are at home to Ayr, again coached by Colin Duck. Ayr will have Commonwealth Youth Games Sevens gold medallist Jack Craig in their side together with a clutch of players who were in the Glasgow and West under-18 side.
In the inspire National 2 Club Conference, Dunfermline and Currie Chieftains meet at McKane Park, Highland are at home to Dumfries Saints and Ellon welcome Perthshire, with all six clubs aware of what is at stake this season following the decision to introduce promotion and relegation between the two national tiers.