The SRU has hailed the first year of its groundbreaking Youth and Schools Conference structure as a success but admits it is just the start of a journey it hopes will significantly build rugby in Scotland.
For the first time, schools across the country able to produce teams at every secondary school age level (S1, S2, S3, U16 and U18) were grouped together into conferences based on quality and the number of teams they field.
Colin Thomson, the SRU’s head of schools and youth rugby, reported yesterday that match fulfilment rates at under-15, under-16 and under-18 have increased to 75 per cent and that standards have been improved by having more meaningful rugby.
The union’s flagship youth policy survived a challenge at the annual general meeting in the summer and has been rolled out, with a commitment to keep the same system in place next year, too.
One of the contentious issues was the ruling that youngsters could play for a school or club, but not both and, while the new structure still has its doubters and critics, the feedback from those who took part in the inaugural competitions has been positive. The system is multi-layered but at the top tier of schools and clubs with five teams or more, 11 conferences were established – sixschool, four club and a Borders inter-town competition. This involved 24 state schools, 23 independent schools and 40 clubs.
While it is encouraging to note the large number of state-school educated players in the current national team, building the sport in that sector remains one of the great challenges facing Scottish rugby.
Thomson feels they have started on the right track and said: “People have embraced that challenge and we’ve not had to investigate any complaints of players playing twice [for school and club].
“We’ve got lots of positive examples of clubs taking up the challenge of developing other players from other surrounding state schools.
“For example, Stirling County have been running a Central schools tournament midweek and have been getting a huge number of players from that, so that they are now able to field two teams at every level.
“With Currie, too, who had a high number playing in their youth teams from independent schools, we have gone into partnership with them going into Currie and Balerno High Schools and getting more players down to the club so they can meet that requirement of one player playing once.
“We can’t rely on clubs taking players from a school that’s already playing five teams. That’s lazy development.”
Former Scotland coach Frank Hadden has been helping get the policy off the ground and emphasised the player welfare angle.
He said: “It’s something that I have been badgered about more than anything – ‘why can’t my son play twice at the weekend. It’s ridiculous, he was thoroughly enjoying himself and you’re stopping him’. My stock reply to that is that the conference structure is different and more intense.
“There is already anecdotal evidence of schools and clubs preparing harder. Instead of just doing just one session a week they are doing two or three and maybe strength and conditioning work too.
“So, as the intensity grows, the Sunday should be part of preparation for the next week by being a rest day.
“As soon as you get to third year it’s much more physical and it’s crazy for us to even suggest they should be playing twice at the weekend and maybe we need to protect them from their parents.”
Glasgow Hawks opted out after proposing an unsuccessful delaying motion at the agm, but Thomson said, “We have been working with Glasgow Hawks and asking ‘how do we accommodate you in this?’ The reality is that Hawks pull from Glasgow High School, Glasgow Academy and Kelvinside Academy, who all play in the conferences. So how can you enhance that experience by bringing your rugby expertise into the schools? Or how can you get another group of players?
“So let us help you get into St Thomas Aquinas, Knightswood Secondary, Drumchapel. Working with Glasgow City Council we have put a rugby teacher into St Thomas Aquinas, which had no history of rugby but within two months had two teams with 40 players playing. So it can be done.
“It’s about refocusing towards developing the game rather than collecting a group of players who are going to win something.”