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Rugby stalwart nears endgame

After 35 years dedicated to schools rugby, guiding players to national heights, Jeff Cooke is getting ready to leave the main field, writes Roddy Mackenzie

Jeff Cooke is something of a rarity these days. As he counts down the days to his retirement at the end of the term, the Lenzie Academy physical education teacher is still turning out four rugby teams every Saturday in the school colours and taking practice for 90 minutes after school every Monday to Thursday.

Mr Cooke is one of those teachers who was supposed to be extinct after the teachers' dispute in the 1980s. He has continued to volunteer to take extra-curricular sport and, indeed, takes pleasure in it.

During 35 years of teaching in East Dunbartonshire - five at Bearsden Academy and the past 30 at Lenzie Academy - he has guided hundreds of rugby players. He has influenced many to go on to reach their full potential and for some, such as centre player Andy Henderson, that means playing for their country.

Donnie Macleod, principal of PE at Lenzie Academy, says: "He has put a lot into schools' rugby over the past 30-35 years and deserves some recognition for it."

When Mr Cooke arrived at the school in August 1974, there were eight rugby XVs playing every Saturday and it is a credit to him that he still turns out teams at S1, S2, S3 and senior levels. Many schools' teams fell by the wayside altogether after the teachers' dispute. Mr Cooke, however, has been determined to keep up the strong rugby tradition at Lenzie Academy.

"We took a decision to carry on throughout the dispute," he says. "Though we were not popular, even within sections of the school itself, we felt we owed it to the children to continue. If we stopped, as many schools did, then there was a danger that rugby would never be started again."

Mr Cooke acknowledges that he would not have been able to maintain standards without the school's strong link with Lenzie Rugby Club. It provides referees for Saturday matches and the school feeds the club with players. He is also assisted on Saturdays by the school's former depute headteacher Donald Smith (now retired) and players' parents.

Only a few state schools in the west of Scotland regularly turn out teams at S1, S2, S3 and senior levels, so there are no local schools leagues, but Mr Cooke says his teams are content to play friendly matches against other schools.

However, he believes the revamped Scottish Schools Cup competition has rekindled interest as state schools get a chance to test themselves against the best private ones. Though private schools are still strong when it comes to the final stages of the competition, the gap between the school sectors is narrowing.

"It is a good competition and there were over 80 schools involved in the last one," Mr Cooke says. "It's good in that it does not discard you if you lose in the first round. It then gives you a chance to play in the Bowl and the Shield competitions. It also gives the smaller schools a chance to play against the big private schools, like Merchiston Castle or Dollar Academy, an opportunity that wouldn't otherwise be there."

Mr Cooke believes that physical education should be about enjoyment and health more than certification.

"I think there is still a case for having a group of people who want to concentrate on the recreational part of PE and give up their time for extra-curricular activities. But these sorts of people are looked down upon," he says.

"When all is said and done, the boys you remember are the ones who have shown the dedication to turn up for matches when it is snowing or blowing a gale, the ones who have turned up no matter the weather to play for the school, as opposed to those who have sat in a classroom sitting certificate exams.

"Scottish sport in general is in a poor state because the authorities have not recognised the value of the people who give up time to take sport. You can get money for supported study but not for sport.

"I can take a group of 20-30 boys for an hour-and-a-half after school and get nothing for it, whereas a teacher can take 15 pupils for supported study and get pound;20 an hour. It's no wonder teachers don't want to take extra-curricular sport.

"It's not happening just in rugby but in other sports like football, hockey and volleyball."

With concerns about child obesity, Government money finally will be poured into PE in schools in an attempt to tackle the problem. Maybe in 30 years, the balance will be back to the way Mr Cooke remembers it was in 1974.

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