Few of the 4,600 crowd who watched the two Brewin Dolphin Cup finals played on the international pitch at Murrayfield last Thursday night could not have enjoyed two exciting and entertaining matches between teams with exceptional levels of skill. But while the grand finale of the under-18 and under-16 cups is always a great spectacle, the competition itself fell short of riveting interest.
Both the under 18 finalists, George Watson’s College and Merchiston Castle School, through no fault of their own, had to play only three rounds as a result of the withdrawal in the first round of both Strathallan and Glenalmond. But even four rounds hardly make for sustained interest.
Then there was the matter of a change in the age eligibility dates from 1 January to 1 September, which further dissuaded state schools from entering. “We simply don’t have boys in that older age bracket. It wasn’t fair to look at one sector and make it easy for them.” said Ronnie Jeffries, head of PE at North Berwick High School, one of the few state schools, which until this season, has always entered the Cup.
Jeffries added: “Perhaps now there is an opportunity to re-evaluate. The Plate is now the state schools’ Cup. Maybe it’s time we had an independent schools Cup and a state schools Cup running side by side.”
The Plate, because of its structure, has certainly provided greater interest. “We’ve enjoyed playing in the Plate. If there is no change I can see more and more of the smaller independents coming into the Plate” observed Jeffries.
This season the Plate/Bowl competitions embraced among others, Gordonstoun, Kelvinside Academy and Wellington School and results in the west of Scotland might suggest it would be a better route for some of the Glasgow schools struggling to keep pace with the higher standards being set in Edinburgh.
The advantages for schools who opted for the Plate are that in the initial stages the competition is played out on a regional basis and there is a safety net in the form of the Bowl for first-round losers. The Cup by contrast is national from the outset and is straight knock-out with no lower tier into which to fall.
Many see the idea of a schools Cup as being artificial and will argue that now that the age criteria are the same for schools and clubs in Cup competition then the two streams should merge. Already there are a number of informal fixtures between schools and clubs.
Creating a combined school/club Cup/Plate/Bowl competition is worth consideration if age grade rugby in Scotland is to unlock its full potential.