Rugby: Gary Armstrong leads calls for return of district set up in Scotland

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THE success of the South of Scotland's first match back in 14 years as a district team of unpaid players has brought renewed calls for clubs to find a way of restoring the historic district championship.

Borders players and coaches have been seeking a return of the old amateur district side since the professional Border Reivers was disbanded in 2007 through SRU cutbacks, the amateur district having disappeared with the onset of professionalism.

The South and Caledonia, who lost their pro team in 1998, had hoped to meet to relaunch their districts together, but could not agree dates for a fixture due to the demands of the Scottish Hydro Premier programme.

The South looked across the Border to Northumberland, traditional warm-up opponents of the past for the Scottish inter-district campaign and found willing opposition.

Nearly 2,000 supporters braved the icy chill at Netherdale on Wednesday night to witness the historic revival and the South run in five tries in a 37-3 win, after a minute's applause for South and Scotland scrum-half Duncan Paterson, who died last week.

Among them were current Scotland coaches Gregor Townsend and Stevie Scott, former coach Jim Telfer and other ex-internationalists who wore the South colours, including Doddie Weir, Gary Armstrong and Cammie Murray.

Armstrong, Scotland's last Five Nations Championship-winning captain, commented: "It was great to see the red-and-white hoops again and the standard of rugby was good with both teams really trying to play.

"It's great for Borders rugby to have the South back and see a good crowd, and it would be nice to think this could be continued with the other Scottish districts, because I think players and rugby across the country would benefit. But that will depend on whether they can space for the games."

The South players wore their club socks and plans for the future include moving the game between Border grounds to increase the sense of ownership of the team among all of the region's clubs, something the professional side never achieved.

The South skipper this week, Scott Wight from Melrose, said: "It was a great honour just to be selected for the South team with all the interest it has generated coming back, but to captain the team in the famous red-and-white hoops and to a win is pretty special.

"It wasn't all perfect and we got a bit sloppy in the second-half and all credit to Northumberland for the way they came back at us, but we're delighted we gave the South fans a victory. The game has given the players involved a massive lift and it would be nice to get more, and maybe a Scottish Inter- District Championship, because more players would benefit as well then."

With the South coach, Craig Chalmers, also being Melrose chief, he is acutely aware of the difficulties of restoring the inter-district championship in a club season which runs from pre-season training in June to a finish in May for most of his players. But he insisted it should be considered.

He said: "We only had a couple of sessions, but we started the game well and a few things we worked on came off with good line-breaks which was great to watch.

"That's the thing about representative rugby – you're bringing together quality players and everything steps up a level. When I played you were looking at this as a platform to push yourself for Scotland honours, and though things have changed this could still be a platform for players to show themselves for the club international side.

"So a championship would be great. It would mean probably cutting the leagues to ten teams, but if you're talking about improving our rugby, and our players, we should be doing that. Glasgow are keen and Caledonia are keen and hopefully when they see what went on this week they will be encouraged to make it happen.

"This was the first time most of our players have played in front of 2,000 people; it was definitely a success. Now we have to look to improve and build on it, looking for games maybe with touring sides, or nations like Spain and Portugal who are getting some funding now for matches. Why not? There are lots of ideas and this will gain momentum. This game was a start and a winning start and so it's a good base to build from."

The Border League clubs managed to restore a South team largely because they are a body of club officials, but John Thorburn, the league secretary, admitted that it was not so easy for the other districts in Scotland after clubs voted to change the representative structure and disband the old districts.

"That is a hurdle in the other areas," he said. "We have kept the Border League and that was crucial to organising this and the discussions we'll now have about future games moving around Border grounds. But we had Caledonia clubs represented at the game and they were impressed and are keen to do something for their areas. We don't know if a championship will get off the ground next year, but for the moment we're happy that a good crowd turned out on a pretty dirty night and the players were happy.

"It's about the players at the end of the day and the fact the players from both sides enjoyed the occasion added hugely to the feelgood factor around Netherdale."

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