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SRU tackles falling base player numbers

Building up age-grade rugby and club links should retain talented players, writes David Henderson

Iain Tomney, past president of the Scottish Schools Rugby Union, still retains a fixture card from 1981. The acting depute headteacher at PenileeCrookston Castle has spent most of his teaching career in the Glasgow secondary and remembers what now seem the halcyon days of schools' rugby.

Twenty years ago in Glasgow and West Renfrewshire, his school played regularly against 18 others. Now, only three out of 29 secondaries in the city have fixtures. Penilee, for example, once put out four teams against neighbours Govan High, where rugby is reviving with support from the Scottish Rugby Union's development officer.

City boys may play outside school in youth rugby but the foundations that laid the base for later participation in clubs faded away, as did young people's interest. That reality, combined with the advent of the professional game, lies behind the latest controversial move by the Scottish Rugby Union to restructure the game at school and youth level, or what it is calling age-grade rugby.

At a two-day conference at the SRU's Murrayfield headquarters three weeks ago, technical manager Dougie Arneil said: "In the early Eighties, clubs were warned that the effects of the industrial action in schools could prove catastrophic to the adult game in 15 to 20 years. Those warnings were largely ignored and the majority of the fragility in the game today is attributable to what happened then - not to professional rugby. This cannot happen again."

Failure to move quickly would, he said, condemn Scottish rugby to the margins of the world game.

The SRU plans to extend the Pathway initiative which has been trialled over the past couple of years. Essentially, schools and clubs have to work together far more to increase the numbers of children playing rugby and retain them when they leave school. The SRU has 29 development officers across Scotland to hep out, but the new strategy requires local co-ordinating groups to take the game forward.

Lee Smith, the development director for Oceania and a leading Australian coach, said: "Any effort in recruitment will be wasted if these players are not retained in the game."

Too often players fall by the wayside because of the poor links between schools and clubs. Even specialist rugby schools in the private sector could fail to persuade boys to continue.

Mr Arneil argues that opportunities for young players with career potential in the game are being "sabotaged" when perhaps as much as a third of their coaching time is lost due to bad winter weather. Players practised substantially less than they should.

The SRU wants a winter shutdown for age-grade rugby once competitive matches end in late autumn, followed by skills-based work and sevens in the spring.

However, independent schools, where about one in three of the 14,000 young rugby players are based, are reluctant to drop athletics and cricket in preference to rugby. So are state secondaries.

Mr Tomney welcomes the SRU's thinking regarding the game at youth level but insists that schools should retain their influence and structures.

"The SSRU accepts there has to be change but we have to make it acceptable. The status quo is not an option. Schools, I think, would believe there is a strong case for them being involved at under-16 level, because all youngsters are still at school. Also, if a school is strong, it should be encouraged to be strong," he says.

Mr Tomney argues the SRU club emphasis should be on plugging the gaps, making things happen where there is no schools rugby. However, he accepts there are doubts about the commitment of teachers to give up time voluntarily to school sport. "Ideally, we would like to see teachers running school teams the way it was, but that's probably gone. I've now got more to do before I do extra-curricular sport," he admits.

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