Schools Rugby: Schools and U-18s suffer mismatches

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A 72-3 win by George Watson’s College over Robert Gordon’s College sets the Brewin Dolphin Cup winners on course for their first unbeaten season since 1970/71, with only Kelvinside Academy standing in the way of Watson’s achieving this record.

The scoreline tells the familiar story of a mismatch, which does little for the players involved. “We need more competitive matches week in week out in the first half of the season with the top schools playing each other twice at a time of year the weather is at its best with no risk of cancellation,” said Ally Donaldson, Watson’s director of rugby.

That lack of really competitive matches was certainly reflected in Scotland’s 57-13 defeat by England in the under-18 international at Darlington. Just when the recent results against England seemed to suggest that Scotland were recovering from the two hammerings in 2009 by the men in white shirts, this performance by England showed a widening of the gap.

Of course, this was Scotland’s first match. And it showed, as head coach Eddie Pollock, noted: “It took Scotland 25 minutes or so to adjust to the pace of the game. England by contrast had played two warm-up games including one against the Leicester Tigers Academy under-19 side.”

But what has re-opened the gap this season is the introduction in England of the Premiership Under-18 league that has ensured that all the players involved in England Under-18 squads have had competition at a high level. “The Premiership Under-18 league has made a massive difference this season,” said former Scotland back row, Peter Walton, who is part of the England Under-18 coaching team.

England, who already have a huge player base, have been helped further by BMW backing age-grade rugby south of the border with a seven-figure sum.

Can Scotland come up with a similar strategy? The answer may come from a fresh look at creating a workable academy system in Scotland. “We need to re-jig the academy structure,” said Colin Thomson, the director of operations at Murrayfield, adding: “We want academy players to be part of the international team. Scotland were up against very strong players. We have to look at strength and conditioning to try to come up to their levels of pace and power.”

An academy in each region could make for more competitive rugby, with each side playing home and away and also taking on academies in the north of England. If the right competitive structure is not put in place soon – and that may impact on traditional school fixtures – Scotland will trail behind in age grade rugby, and some players could be lost to the professional game.