WHILE the schools season was completed with time to spare there was less good fortune for the equivalent youth competitions. Yes, the Mitsubishi Conferences were finished by December but the Cup denouement, which was due to take place on the international pitch at BT Murrayfield in late March, had to be abandoned, leaving the outcomes to be left to biased/unbiased imagination.
The loss of the Youth Cup finals was something of a blow to age-grade rugby. And not just for the event itself, but for the chance to have a further look at players capable of stepping up to international age-grade level or of making the jump to senior rugby.
The semi-finals of the Cup seem an epoch away but here is a quick reminder of what actually unfolded at Heriot-Watt University’s magnificent Oriam indoor facility on the first weekend of February. It was the second year in which the penultimate round was held indoors, a decision that guaranteed the four semi-finals went ahead whatever was chucking down outside.
At under-18 level, GHA faced Hawick Youth in the first of the semis and it looked as though Hawick might atone for last year’s disappointment at the same stage of the Cup when they led 17-10 at the break. GHA, however, upped their game in the second half with sparkling performances from centre Jacob Peacock, full-back Luca Bardelli and replacement scrum-half Rory Blackwood to win 27-17.
The second semi at under-18 level looked on paper to be a shoo-in for Ayr/Wellington, a side which had swept through the senior level of the Shogun Conference unbeaten and which had all the firepower to play a winning game. That, however, was to ignore the grit, determination and Borders nous of their opponents, Jed Thistle.
Ayr certainly looked to have secured their place in this year’s Murrayfield final when they led 22-10 deep into the second half from two tries by wing Danny White and a second half solo effort from full-back Aidan O’Connor. Jed, had played a less flamboyant style of rugby, preferring to rely on the power of their forward pack, and as the game wore on it was clear that Ayr were not coping with Thistle’s mauling strength. That weapon had produced a penalty try in the first half and when Jed added another score from a driven line-out with five minutes remaining it seemed an upset was on, proof of which came with a final minute penalty try for collapsing the maul to give Thistle a 24-22 win.
At under-16 level, the competition was no less fierce. First off was Mackie Academy FP v Peebles. Mackie had not been in a semi-final before but they certainly made up for any previous missed opportunities by playing a fast style of rugby, typified by the running of talented full-back Harris Mitchell that resulted in a 41-19 win for the Stonehaven side.
If the first of the under-16 semi -inals had produced an avalanche of tries then the second match between Boroughmuir and Hawick Youth was much more about sophisticated and brave defence, the 12-10 win for the Meggetland side saying everything about the closeness of the two sides.
Just how the two finals would have worked out is anyone’s guess but it is certain they would have produced extremely viewable matches at Murrayfield had all sport not closed down.
Pre-Christmas, Ayr may have had had the satisfaction of a clean sweep at under-18 level in the Shogun Conference but it was Boroughmuir who took the overall honours when all the different age-grades were taken into account, a credit to the Meggetland club’s progress since setting up its Academy three seasons ago.
Stirling County, always at or near the top in Scottish youth rugby were second both overall and in the under-18 section of the Shogun Conference. Biggar were the best of the rest ahead of Highland and West of Scotland with newly promoted Perthshire and Hamilton taking up the other two positions.
It is clear that Boroughmuir, Ayr, and Stirling have pulled away from the other teams in the Shogun and they will form the nucleus of next season’s Super Conference that will draw in Hawick Youth, Melrose Wasps and Marr College.
At the other end of the Shogun Conference, Hamilton struggled for numbers but the signs are that the North Lanarkshire club is making progress at lower age levels. Perthshire, too, found it hard going in the top tier and they probably will enjoy their rugby more without the prospect of facing the big beasts of youth rugby. Like Perthshire and indeed West of Scotland, Highland are ambitious and, although cyclically weaker at under-18 level this season, they have the set-up to be a force. Biggar, too, are producing strong youth teams, the graduates from which are feeding into what is a thriving senior set-up.
It is easy to focus simply on the top tier of Youth Conference rugby but the regional conferences provide insight as well. Although the Shogun Conference is billed as the first tier competition, some clubs in the Borders might beg to differ. The Borders Semi Junior League, that embraces English clubs Carlisle and Tynedale, is for the most part hugely competitive.
At under-18 level, Melrose defeated Jed Thistle in the final round to take the league title, with Jed second and Kelso Quins, showing a welcome return to form, third.
Meanwhile Mackie’s strong showing in the u16 Cup semi final was mirrored in the Lancer (Grampian) Conference, where the Stonehaven outfit topped the ‘whole’ club table largely through finishing winners of the under-16 and under-15 sections. Mackie, however, were challenged strongly by the joint second club Deeside/Garioch and Ellon.
The other section of the Lancer Conference, the North/Midlands grouping containing Dundee Rugby and Moray Huntley, added up to virtually nothing with the latter unable to muster full teams for the home and away fixtures.
However once the two Lancer Conferences were combined in the Lancer-X competition there was real competition albeit over only four rounds. The X-conferene was won by Granite City at under-18 level and by Ellon, followed by Mackie, in the ‘whole’ club points tally.
Given their subsequent form in the Cup semi-final, it was hardly surprising to learn that GHA had gone through their Galant Conference (A) undefeated in a competitive under-18 group that included second-placed Currie and third finishers Cartha QP, who then went on to defeat Boroughmuir in the under-18 Cup before losing narrowly to Jed Thistle in the quarters.
Looking at Scottish club rugby at youth level , there is the impression that it has yet to fulfil its big potential. There is a number of extremely organised clubs (and not all in the top tier) driving the game forward and this will be seen in next season’s Super Conference. Elsewhere geography remains a barrier to progress and particularly so in the north of the country.
Relative isolation often means difficulties with numbers, in arranging matches and in developing young players but the hope is that those with potential can be identified by the FOSROC academy system. If the regional academies in tandem with some of the excellent coaching at club level works then the talent pool in Scotland can be significantly increased and widened. And right now that is just what Scottish rugby desperately needs.