Island echoes to the sound of Mull’s rugby volunteers

It’s been a decent fortnight for Scottish rugby all told, with the two pro teams winning three out of four games in Europe and signs of green shoots in the club game.

Hillfoots won the Club of the Month award after boosting youth numbers from 12 to 150-plus in just three years, while East Lothian council continues to lead the way with facilities with yet another artificial 3G pitch opened, this time in Haddington.

Meanwhile, in Edinburgh, a community facility that will host cricket, football and Lismore Rugby Club finally opened at Inch Park earlier this month.

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It wasn’t the only one, because the Isle of Mull RFC also opened their extended clubhouse last weekend, with the SRU chief executive Mark Dodson and president Ian McLauchlan both taking the time to travel.

If there is a good woman behind every successful man, there is a selfless volunteer behind every good rugby club, and Duncan Swinbanks is that man at Mull. . . or at least one of them. He played the game for many years and is currently listed as club secretary but he has done pretty much every task in between.

As well as a senior side competing in division two of the West Leagues, Mull run U18, U16 and U14 teams. They have coaches in each of the six primary schools on the island and also run a girls’ team. In fact the girls’ “Obermory” side (an amalgamated team from Mull and Oban) won the plate final at Murrayfield and I’m told that the Mull Sevens is on everyone’s “bucket list”, but then, how could the club fail after enjoying such an auspicious start way back in 1978.

“There wasn’t much sport on Mull back then except perhaps inter-village football,” recalls Swinbanks. “Then one day HMS Cleopatra anchored in the bay and challenged us to several sports including a game of rugby.

“The quartermaster said beforehand that we might find them a bit much to handle. The Welsh crew were the Navy champions who turned up in brand new red jerseys while we played in tattered old shirts and cut-off jeans. Anyway they kicked off and, at the very first scrum we passed the ball to our fly-half who side-stepped their star player before putting someone under the posts for a try. I’m not sure they ever recovered and we won!”

Mull’s young stand-off went on to bigger and better things since, six months later, John Rutherford won the first of his 43 caps.

Rutherford and Swinbanks had first met at Jordanhill PE College and the future Scotland star was visiting Swinbanks on Mull when the Cleopatra’s crew laid down their challenge.

One month after that match, a meeting was held and the club was formed. The new club wrote to the SRU asking for help and received the set of white “possibles” jerseys from the national trial. The club colours are now red, black and white – “we didn’t want to look too English” is Swinbanks’ reasoning – with his club reaching deep into the heart of this 3,000-strong community.

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According to the club’s development officer, Fergus Whyte, the clubs’ success is down to an army of volunteers.

“I think we have 14 coaches for the youth section which, given our size, are pretty good numbers.

“We are struggling a bit at youth level (U14–U18) but we still get as many as 140 kids out running about on a Sunday morning, which is not bad considering some of them have a 90-mile round trip from the far end of the island.”

Even that trek pales compared with those of the senior side, who face a 4-5 hour each-way trip just to fulfil their league fixtures every other weekend.

For all that, the club can boast several notable successes, including an under-18 cap a few years back for James McPhail, while Whyte’s own son, Ciaran, is in the Glasgow U17 squad. The boy has now moved to Glasgow Academy, defeated by 6,000 miles of travelling to fulfil his Glasgow obligations the previous season.

So who pays Whytes’ wages as the development officer – the SRU, the council, the club or a joint effort? “Oh, no,” he says, momentarily shocked. “I’m a volunteer like everyone else.”