AT A TIME when rugby is railing against falling player numbers, the rise of Dundee High School FP could act as a beacon of hope for the sport on Scotland’s east coast.
The player numbers in the city are lower than those of a decade ago, but the appearance of Dundee High School FPs in this afternoon’s BT Cup semi-finals, where they host Hawick at Mayfield (kick-off 3pm), is the kind of catalyst that many hope could regenerate rugby on Tayside. The High School of Dundee reached the final of the Bell Lawrie White Scottish Schools Cup this year, following up a narrow quarter-final defeat to eventual finalists Stewart’s Melville last season.
The senior club, having won the BT Shield last season, is also on the verge of promotion to BT Division One, with the result of the game between Biggar and Gala at Hartreemill this afternoon deciding their fate. Biggar need two points to pip Dundee, but should Gala, already secure as Division Two champions, win without conceding four tries, then the Mayfield outfit will join them on the up escalator.
This is not to suggest Dundee HSFP have suddenly become world-beaters. They have done extremely well with their resources to make it to the last four of the cup and, after a mid-season slump, to haul themselves back into the promotion race. However, that success on its own could be enough to inspire rugby players in the area, hopes Bruce Beckett, Dundee’s forwards coach for the last 18 months and the head of physical education at the High School of Dundee.
With rugby not the major priority of most PE departments in the area, the High School of Dundee is spearheading the development of the game.
"The school have had a couple of very good years in the last wee while," Beckett said, "and while I don’t know if there is a direct correlation between our success this season and the club’s there is a very good feeling about what’s going on.
"A big factor in the FPs’ drive was the appointment of the New Zealander Jason Hewett a few years ago. That set them off on the right track, and he was doing coaching and scrum-half clinics at school as well as improving the approach at the club. We have a good 1st XV this year, and have two boys with the full Scotland U18s, Scott Burnett and Alan Dimmock, and two, Peter Saunders and Richard Vernon, away to Italy with the Scotland A team, which shows the quality of the guys.
"The problem when they leave school is that they tend to leave Dundee - none of last year’s team have stayed in the city - but if the school continues producing the players we are, they go into the club and then the club gets into Division One I’d hope that might provide a greater incentive for boys - even those who have gone to Edinburgh or Glasgow for university - to come back and represent their city club."
Dundee HSFPs have fielded as many as seven former High School pupils this season, and five are involved today, which suggests the foundations are there to be built on. The improvement might not end up securing a cup and promotion this season, but the enticing prospect of success, the excitement and air of expectation around Mayfield at the moment has to be grasped.
In Scotland’s fourth-largest city, clearly not all talented young sportsmen are going to ‘make it’ with Dundee FC or Dundee United FC, so Dundee HSFPs could provide a more realistic local route to professional sport if it can continue the push towards that elite top division.
The only concern at Mayfield this afternoon, however, is winning a BT cup semi-final for the first time in the club’s history. They have been boosted by the return to fitness of Kiwi fly-half Mike Kerr. The experience of Lindsay Graham, a former league and cup-winning centre with Boroughmuir, Kiwi prop JJ van der Esch, Irish under-21 cap Neil McComb and Alan Brown, who was contracted to Glasgow earlier in the season, will be vital as they bid to unsettle a Hawick side who steamrollered Division One side Aberdeen Grammar Schools FPs 41-13 at Mansfield Park two weeks ago.
Over in Glasgow, the Hawks are two games away from their first BT Division One and BT Cup double, having secured the BT Premiership Division One title at the end of February. They did so unbeaten, but Melrose did hold them to a 15-15 draw in the Greenyards league clash in November and the Borderers have been in extra training for the past couple of months to concentrate on this one last chance of serious silverware.
Melrose coach Andy Henderson, buoyed by the return of skipper Kelly Brown and scrum-half Jonny Weston from the Scotland sevens success in Hong Kong, said: "You have to beat every opponent if you’re going to win the cup, and we’ve obviously been drawn against the league champions, but we see it as just another hurdle en route to the final at Murrayfield.
"They’ve got some big forwards but if we move it around and play a fast game we’ll have the edge."
Dundee HSFP (v Hawick at Mayfield, 3pm): D Mason; D Gray, L Graham, C Rankin, R Lemon; M Kerr, S Wilson; JJ van der Esch, D McLaren, C Whittaker (capt), R Hawkins, K Rosebottom, A Brown, N McComb, G Ooman.
Hawick: C Murray; J Houston, G Douglas, C Neish, K Hedley; A Green, K Reid (capt); J Rickard, R Deans, D O’Connell, G Petrie, I Elliot, F Pringle, B Keown, D Landels.
Referee: J Steele.
Glasgow Hawks (v Melrose at Old Anniesland, 3pm): S Low; S Gordon, A MacLay, S Duffy, W Henry; M Rainey, I Monaghan; E Milligan, F Thomson, G Macfadyen, R Maxton, S Begley, G Francis, M Sitch (capt), N McKenzie.
Melrose: H Lawson; G Caldwell, J Murray, J Rimmer, G Thomson; S Ruthven, J Weston; R Higgins, W Mitchell, I Cornwall, J Bradburn, S Aitken, S Johnson, K Brown (capt), A Clark.
Referee: I Ramage.