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Schools grab hold of rugby league

The message to schools that rugby league is fun and for all continues to spread, reports Roddy Mackenzie

If there are areas of Scotland that rugby league has not touched, it seems only a matter of time before it does. The game has gained a strong foothold in schools in the two years since Mark Senter was appointed development officer in Glasgow with the remit to increase awareness and participation in rugby league. Now he is the national development officer.

In Glasgow, Mr Senter estimates that 4,000 schoolchildren have had a taster of the game and there are now around 1,000 playing regularly in three secondary and 37 primary schools, either during curriculum time or in after-school clubs.

Pilot schemes are running at S1 level at Dunfermline High and Inverkeithing High in Fife. The game has also spread to Edinburgh.

In other areas, Mr Senter admits, the interest is more sporadic. This season's adult national league has had to be trimmed to six clubs because some teams did not have a strong enough base of players or administrators.

Four rugby league service area camps have been set up: in Glasgow at Cartha Queen's Park Rugby Club, in Lanarkshire at Braidhurst High, Motherwell, in Edinburgh at Portobello Rugby Club and in Fife at Dunfermline High. The top 40 players from these will be selected to attend a national camp to choose a Scotland under-13 team to play Wales in Cardiff on June 27.

As international games cannot be played until under-15 level, this will officially be a Welsh region against the Scottish region match but it will be a significant landmark for the game in Scotland. Wales has been playing competitively for two years, so if Scotland does well, it could help development work and future funding applications.

Mr Senter has to submit a four-year funding plan to Sportscotland by the end of July. Part of the plan will be to appoint regional development officers. He also hopes that a strong club such as Edinburgh Eagles will be able to apply for funding in its own right.

There are already moves to attract younger rugby league players. To date, P6 and P7 children have been the main starting point but this month P4 and P5 children at some schools will be given the chance to try the sport.

"The children love the game," Mr Senter says. "While it is a modified version, with no scrimmaging at primary school level, there is still tackling and they appear to enjoy that.

"I think we press all the right buttons in that both boys and girls can play and we also cover a lot of ethnic backgrounds. We have a lot of asylum seekers who play in Glasgow."

Mr Senter says rugby league festivals will be organised this term to involve as many children as possible.

Rugby union clubs potentially compete for the same schoolchildren but Mr Senter believes the two codes can co-exist and could even share players at a young age. "In Glasgow, which is predominantly a football city, they just see it as rugby and generally do not think there is a difference between the two games," he says.

"If anything, the rugby clubs have been helpful. We have good relationships with Fife Southern, Musselburgh and Broughton - who host our strongest team, Edinburgh Eagles - and it helps that we play in the summer and rugby union is more of a winter sport."

Mr Senter knows that Scotland's success in youth matches over the next year will determine how seriously rugby league is taken by Sportscotland and will be crucial to the success of funding applications.

The game still has a long way to go before it can produce a team capable of matching sides in traditionally strong areas such as Yorkshire, but the first steps have been encouraging.

Professional games involving leading English clubs have been played in Scotland and television coverage is increasing the fan base here. It may not be too fanciful to think Scotland could yet have a professional rugby league team competing nationally.

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