More time and money must be spent on youth rugby as new season kicks-off

Alan Lorimer considers some initiatives which can improve the player development pathway

Boroughmuir are presented with the National Conference Trophy at Meggetland
Boroughmuir are presented with the National Conference Trophy at Meggetland

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. 


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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”.

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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”.

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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.


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About Alan Lorimer 339 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.

24 Comments

  1. As Super 6 (Franchises/Licensed Clubs) already have full time coaches/ S&C etc, surely it makes sense for all the better u18 and u16 players to be at these clubs. Perhaps have a Super Age Grade League.

  2. The funding is huge but if you broke it down to start say with 20 districts based on local teams 2 coaches each with very importantly people skills to bring in the youngsters, go into the schools, get the kids excited, make participation really fun etc = £40k each with on-costs = £1.6m seems a lot. But 10 businesses in each district each putting up £8k with clear benefits in terms of the local promotion they get (plus limited benefits at Murrayfield, Glasgow or Edinburgh) there has to be a way of generating the funding.

    • That’s 40 coaches, where are the 40 very good coaches, £20k each ? Who coaches all these teams and looks after them when they play matches. Only scratching the surface.

      • Iain your maths are terrible 40 x £40k = £1.6m as stated above and if we can’t create 40 youth coaches we have an even bigger problem….
        Also as in everything you can try and boil the Ocean or start with a manageable project and build from there.

    • Interesting ideas Rod. Perhaps clubs might want to tap into any available cash that might be going to fund their youth set ups?

      Shows that this is a multi dimensional problem which can’t be fixed easily. It will require collaboration from all. That means clubs working together along with SRU to create projects to try out different ideas.

      One suggestion though – each town/area will have very different issues. So one size won’t fit all. For example getting some development folks in to get the pipeline going from primary into secondary might be useful. For others it would be a quality youth coach.

      Totally agree with your suggestion to get streamed and try some things out. If it works great. If not try something else.

      • I agree one size won’t fit all. Work with the locals to decide what is needed. Set up a central sponsorship generation team for this number of sponsorships 200, a team of 2-3 should suffice. Then see what works, everything must have agreed KPIs and deadlines, if it does not start to work after 12 months from initiation, stop it and implement one of the schemes that does work.It is the way any sensible business would operate its not Rocket science.

  3. Create the independent school model in certain state schools. That will need massive funding and a massive increase in top level coaches, paid teachers willing to take rugby as an extracurricular activity. This will cost millions and government support. Until you have rugby as a key sport at schools as they have in Leinster and SA we will bumble along. It really hasn’t changed much in 60 years, independent schools and rugby schools in the Borders producing a disproportionate number of top class players per capita.
    You could scrap all the funding Super 6 gets, the funding clubs get and we wouldn’t scratch the surface of this issue.
    30 rugby schools around Scotland, each with 3 paid rugby coaches at £30k each. 20 teachers at each school getting £5k remuneration circa £6 million if my maths is right.

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    • Hi Iain
      How many full internationals have the Borders produced in the last 10 years. The resources put in do not match the return. Correct me if I am wrong there have only been 4 full International players out of the Borders in the last 10 years.

      • CC, that’s a pretty decent hit-rate from a tiny population (with age-skewed demographics), so well done to the Borders! Punching above their weight, as ever.

  4. It was mentioned we are doing well at 18s level can anyone tell me how the squad selected for the tournament down in Wales a few weeks back got on. We can hammered in all 3 games but don’t worry they were just development games. The BS coming out of the powers that be just now is sickening and it is only going to get worse. And when these people bugger off who is left with the aftermath again.

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  5. We no longer have an academy system in Scottish rugby. But we do have excellent Premiership and Nat1 clubs with very good coaches. Given the funding that they get, we need to keep things simple. Incentivise clubs to develop U21 players.
    Which to be fair many of them do well. Avoid the shoehorning of project players by the SRU into clubs, in fact avoid any kind of SRU meddling in club player selection and pick an U20’s squad from the best performing boys in the league selected by the club managers. Club rugby has to come first so the best private school players will have join a club and compete with the rest of the boys for a place. Simple honest and fair.
    Would make a nice change.

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    • As a massive club rugby fan I agree wholeheartedly with you. However the counter argument is that club rugby cannot produce players at U20 level to match those of our international counterparts hence the need for the Super 6. Who is right?

    • “Club rugby has to come first so the best private school players will have join a club and compete with the rest of the boys for a place”.

      Why?

      Hopefully you are aware that school rugby ends at 18. Your recommendation will actually will make things worse not better and pays no heed to what the schools are trying to achieve with their rugby programmes.

  6. ‘So good are the private schools at producing top level players.’ So, Scotlands starting XV. How many have come through Scottish private schools? Kinghorn, turner, fagerson, Ritchie, by my estimation. Fagerson and Ritchie 6 form sports scholarships. Private schools may produce players of a higher standard aged 18 than club players, but they are not producing large numbers of top level international players. And look at Scotland 18s and 20s. Really struggling against international opposition. Top Scottish schools cannot compete against top English schools. They are big fish in a small pond. Not the players fault. The best rugby players have a breadth of sporting and life experience. Find a way of distributing all players, regardless of their schooling m, across clubs. The best will rise to the top, and will be fully rounded young men.

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    • “Top Scottish schools cannot compete against top English schools”

      And your evidence for that is what exactly?

      The best of the Scottish schools can compete 15 Vs 15. If you took the time to look at the results of the top conference schools playing schools the likes of Sedburgh etc you would see that.

      The problem is the lack of depth but that is no different to rugby at all levels or even football for that matter.

  7. ‘So good are the private schools at producing top level players.’ So, Scotlands starting XV. How many have come through Scottish private schools? Kinghorn, turner, fagerson, Ritchie, by my estimation. Fagerson and Ritchie 6 form sports scholarships. Private schools may produce players of a higher standard aged 18 than club players, but they are not producing large numbers of top level international players. And look at Scotland 18s and 20s. Really struggling against international opposition. Top Scottish schools cannot compete against top English schools. They are big fish in a small pond. Not the players fault. The best rugby players have a breadth of sporting and life experience. Find a way of distributing all players, regardless of their schooling m, across clubs. The best will rise to the top, and will be fully rounded young men.

  8. Some worthy points here. The idea of keeping 2 x U18 Scotland teams/squads similar to U16 is a good shout. I do also think that careful feedback to club coaches from pathway is a missed opportunity and should be formalized. A written report should be sent to both the young person, parents and club coaches so that their development can continue on an upward trajectory. Too often clubs have to pick up the pieces of disenchanted youngsters cut from pathway without the specific knowledge to help guide them to achieve the next level.

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    • Doesn’t matter how many sides are fielded at 18s, if those deemed the best players haven’t had the competition up to that point that would develop them properly. If the Leinster schools system is deemed the gold standard, let’s look at why that is. Leinster schools are huge, affordable instititions, offering scholarships to this who can’t afford the comparatively small fees. Every talented rugby player in Leinster, and talented GAA players who fancy a crack at rugby, will play for a Lei stet dchool. This results in a large number of very good schools, not 3 or 4 reasonable teams, and 10 ordinary ones, as is the case in Scotland. Or, look at France. Club based, not schools.

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      • Leinster private schools are indeed affordable – fees less than half of what they are in Scotland – but that can’t be replicated here unless the Scottish independent sector becomes part-funded by the state, as in Ireland. You’re right about French youth rugby being club-based. We could do that here in Scotland if the equivalent amount of funding were made available. French clubs are generally municipal and have a revenue stream. We have to devise a system for youth rugby that is appropriate for conditions in Scotland. As the article states it will need good coaching at club level and financial backing – at least in the short term – to improve the standard of youth rugby around the country.

      • I believe that 2 x U18 teams means more young men working harder in their skills development, S&C and general standard. This can’t be a bad thing surely? The SRU has acknowledged some years ago that the youngest 1/3 in every age group have statistically less chance of being selected due to maturity levels.Should your date of birth govern your chances of future success? Keeping the group wider helps the younger/late developers stay in the mix so they can flourish later on. The science on this has been proven across multiple sports. It now requires the SRU to “walk the talk” given that they presented this data in their own conference slides. Fair play they expanded the U16 age group (2 teams) but it also needs to happen at U18’s and possibly U20’s.

      • I believe that 2 teams means more young men working harder in their skills development, S&C and general standard. This can’t be a bad thing surely? The SRU has acknowledged some years ago that the youngest 1/3 in every age group have statistically less chance of being selected due to maturity levels.Should your date of birth govern your chances of future success? Keeping the group wider helps the younger/late developers stay in the mix so they can flourish later on. The science on this has been proven across multiple sports. It now requires the SRU to “walk the talk” given that they presented this data in their own conference slides. Fair play they expanded the U16 age group (2 teams) but it also needs to happen at U18’s and possibly U20’s.

      • I believe that 2 teams means more young men working harder in their skills development, S&C and general standard. This can’t be a bad thing surely? The SRU has acknowledged some years ago that the youngest 1/3 in every age group have statistically less chance of being selected due to maturity levels.Should your date of birth govern your chances of future success? Keeping the group wider helps the younger/late developers stay in the mix so they can flourish later on. The science on this has been proven across multiple sports. It now requires the SRU to “walk the talk” given that they presented this data in their own conference slides. Fair play they expanded the U16 age group but it also needs to happen at U18’s and possibly U20’s.

      • So if Ireland is the standard we are aiming for, here are some interesting stats (put together and posted on an Irish forum – link below).

        There are approx 250 professional Irish players.
        52% came through private school systems. 20% from just 2 schools.
        Leinster has 72% of players from private schools.

        But really, who cares what school they went to? Instead of constantly harping on about players having attended a particular school or insisting that they join clubs (as others on this board have suggested), we need to look at what they are doing to bring so many players through to play at the highest level.
        My guess is that participation numbers and coaching levels are at the heart of it.

        https://www.boards.ie/discussion/2058240245/where-do-irish-professional-rugby-players-come-from#Comment_118884947

  9. Very interesting ideas Alan.

    Strikes me we aren’t short of ideas just the intent to put them into action. As Einstein said “the thinking that got us to where we are is not the thinking that will get us to where we want to be”

    The focus on getting players through to U20 is one of those faults (IMO). The player base in Scotland is woefully small. We can’t survive on those numbers. We need more players period.

    We also need more volunteers – coaches and other club roles, or the clubhouses where this rugby will be played at won’t exist.

    Milan Brown is onto something with the private school comment. They are already “there”. It’s the other less developed players than need the support. Of course what is unmentioned is that this schools have money. Lots of it. Yes they offer bursary’s to the less well off but those are marginal in the bigger picture.

    As an aside, what are the accurate numbers for Senior male players playing more than 10 matches per year? Murrayfield know as they have the SCRUMs database to extract the data from. I get that we don’t want to admit to having less than 5000 (or is it closer to 4000?) regular male players but one needs to acknowledge the problem if we are ever going to resolve it.

    As with Super 6, Murrayfield can make change happen, even when clubs are opposed. I suppose some may fear cutting off one’s nose. It clear we can’t keep on doing the same thing and expecting different results. Einstein knew a thing or two

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