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Rugby image fades as it gains ground

Youth rugby is no longer just the domain of independent schools. More state schools are starting to compete, writes Roddy Mackenzie

Rugby is the fastest growing school sport, ahead of football, hockey and basketball, according to the Scottish Rugby Union, and it is shaking off its image as the preserve of independent schools.

This season's Bell Lawrie White Scottish Schools Rugby Cup competition has attracted a record 87 schools. Significantly, 14 of the 15 new teams are in the state sector.

By working closely with the title sponsor, the SRU has succeeded in making the competition the standard-bearer for the revival of schools rugby.

However, Graham Cormack, the SRU's rugby development manager for Caledonia, which covers "everything north of the Forth Road Bridge, including the Highlands and islands", admits there is still some way to go to recover from a drop-off of interest in the sport in schools in the past 10 years.

"There were a number of factors that led to schools dropping rugby," says Mr Cormack, "and I don't think it was any one factor above the others.

"The certification of physical education did not help, as teachers had an increased workload and, in some cases, rugby did not fit in.

"I think PE departments in some areas were more comfortable with indoor sports as it was an easier alternative to outdoor team sports.

"Facilities had deteriorated and pitches that had not been drained for years had become boggy and unplayable.

"And there was also the question of insurance and teachers not wanting to become involved in the responsibility of a contact sport."

Mr Cormack explains that when interest in the sport declined, the SRU made a concerted effort to get it back on the curriculum through introducing tag rugby, a non-contact version of the game, at S1-S2 level. Once children had become hooked, the natural step was to introduce them to the full 15-a-side game.

Mr Cormack has seen many schools come back to the sport to such an extent that most rugby-playing schools are now taking part in the schools cup competition.

"It is not just the state schools, as Gordonstoun had not played in it for a while but came back in this year, and some of the independent schools previously did not see the necessity of playing in a national cup competition," he says.

"A good example of what the cup has done can be seen at Nairn Academy in Highland. It was a very strong rugby school because the PE principal teacher was very active, but when he left little rugby was played. However, a parent of one of the boys was a rugby coach and he got it started again.

This year they entered for the schools cup and beat Aberdeen Grammar in the first round."

The schools cup competition is now in its 20th year. However, it is only since the current sponsors, the finance and investment company Bell Lawrie White, became involved two years ago (when 56 teams participated) that the competition has taken a leap forward. The company, which backs the competition with a five figure sum, has just committed to another three years.

Director Marc Wilkinson says: "We were given a number of options by the SRU but the schools cup fitted the bill as we were keen to support youth sport.

It is a national competition, which appealed to us as we have seven offices throughout Scotland. Also, school rugby is an exciting sport to watch.

"We wanted to try to raise the profile of the competition and get more schools involved. We're now helping out with balls, kit and transport and travel costs.

"We want more children to play and we find the cup gives schools a focus.

"We want to make the competition as inclusive as possible and, although the 16 seeded schools in this year's competition feature many of the traditionally strong ones, there are some new schools breaking through.

"If teams lose in the first round of the cup, they get games in the bowl and plate competitions, so they are getting at least two or three games," Mr Willkinson says.

The SRU has found that, with schools being drawn to play outside their local region, new contacts are being made and leading to fixtures being played outwith the cup competition.

The schools cup final has now become a big event. For the past two years, more than 5,000 spectators have attended. The pre-match entertainment includes guest speakers and professional players and the parents of the schools players are invited along.

"Many of these boys will never get the chance to play at Murrayfield again and we want to make it a special occasion," Mr Willkinson says.

"Five years from now, I'd like to see even more schools involved - although we'd need to look at the logistics - and 10,000 at Murrayfield for the final."

Mr Cormack is optimistic about the future but believes that the Scottish Executive needs to give sport a helping hand.

"I find that sport still relies a lot on volunteers and schools must still be treated on an individual basis. If a teacher who is interested in one particular sport leaves, then that sport can die too," he says.

"I think it will take the Government to recognise that teachers involved in extra-curricular sport need to be rewarded for their work and not leave it to individual schools to decide that." (see age grade)

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