Schools rugby: Plate format in need of a rethink

THE Brewin Dolphin Scottish Schools under-16 Bowl final on Wednesday concluded what has been a protracted and, at times, a fraught season for schools rugby in the second and third tier competitions that should merit a rethink of the format.

The season just ended adopted a new formula for the Plate competition, which hitherto had been the safety net of the Cup. That is to say that preliminary and first round losers in the Cup then made up the Plate competitors. While there was merit in this approach, the Plate essentially became a losers’ competition. This season the Plate was a stand-alone competition between the Cup and the Bowl. Schools were invited to choose what they considered to be their most appropriate level. Moreover, in contrast to the Cup, the Plate was played regionally in the first phase, the winners of which then progressed to the national knock-out stage.

On paper it looked an attractive format. But the reality was somewhat different. Take Kelvinside Academy, for example. The Balgray side experienced no-shows in their district quarter and semi-finals before playing out a one-sided final to qualify for the national Plate.

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Sadly no-shows are a feature of the Brewin Dolphin competitions – even in the Cup.

Another gripe, aired in this column, was the playing of the Plate and Bowl finals on the back pitches at Murrayfield when the occasion demanded a “proper” ground with a stand. That used to be the case for the Bowl and Plate finals but sadly there has been a change of mind.

Yet another disappointment expressed by supporters attending the recent Plate and Bowl finals was the absence of programmes. That may seem a trivial point but the glossy programme is an important souvenir of the occasion for many young players, not to mention their parents.

As for the Cup, is it to be a competition for independent schools? Or rather a small and select group of such schools? It is conceivable that if the present structure remains, then a number of private schools might opt for the Plate as is the case already.

One option to involve more state schools in the Cup would be composite sides, as the rules allow. But that would test loyalties to the limit and may be a non-starter.

However, outwith the Cup competition it is essential that there are more matches between private and state schools. Merchiston, it is rumoured, would like to play against South Schools at say under-15 and under-18 levels. If this were to go ahead it could act as a pathfinder for others to follow.

The obvious answer, though, is for schools to engage with clubs, initially for one-off matches, but in the longer term to form some kind of league.