Roddy Mackenzie questions whether the schools rugby cup competitions have become a victim of their own success, with state school squads mismatched against the private sector
In a bid to make the Bell Lawrie Scottish Schools Rugby Cups more inclusive and bring new schools into national competition, the Scottish Rugby Union seems to have tripped up this season. There have been several mismatches in the early rounds of the under-18 and under-15 competitions.
Scorelines of 131-0, 95-0 and 91-0 are of limited value to winners or losers and there is a danger that players could be turned off rugby. The competition organisers have been aware of such dangers and plate and bowl tournaments are in place for both age groups to ensure further rugby action for early round losers.
Part of the reason for the one-sided contests this year has been that the leading rugby playing schools, mainly from the private sector, have been introduced a round earlier, in the second round.
Yet many schools are happy to be involved, Kilmarnock's Grange Academy for example. It beat Paisley Grammar 61-28 in the first round of the under-18 cup competition before losing 60-0 to the High School of Glasgow, but their coach, Charlie Adams, argues that even such an overwhelming defeat was a positive experience for his players.
Grange Academy is traditionally a football playing school and Mr Adams is a relative newcomer to rugby, having played professional football with Kilmarnock, Partick Thistle and Clydebank. However, he is keen to offer as many sports as possible to pupils.
"It was a great experience for the team. My players all had the chance of playing on the superb Glasgow Hawks' pitch and all of the boys enjoyed it,"
he points out.
"The High School put on a meal for us and their captain said some kind words about our team afterwards. Not a bad word was exchanged between players during the match and the attitude of their players was first-class.
"Given how far in front they were, it would have been easy for them to showboat, but there was none of that.
"It was a refreshing experience for me. It was 60-0 just after half-time; the referee asked if we wanted to concede but, to my players' credit, they all wanted to play on."
In part explanation for the defeat, he says: "You have to consider that their team was made up of fifth and sixth year pupils and we had two sixth years, four fifth years and nine fourth years.
"We have some very talented young players and many of the team won the Ayrshire Sevens in third year and were just starting the fourth year. I'm sure in a couple of years, they would give the High School a decent game.
"This showed our players just what they have to aspire to.
"I think playing for the first XV is a real privilege in the private schools and there is a different attitude, whereas one of my players called off because he was playing football and you can't do anything about that when rugby is their second sport."
Mr Adams says rugby is a sport his pupils are keen to play. Indeed, 61 Grange Academy boys attended an East Ayrshire rugby festival earlier this month.
"We don't even have rugby posts at the school," he says. "We have to play at Kilmarnock Rugby Club, which involves getting a bus for the three-mile journey.
"Schools like the High School of Glasgow play twice a week, whereas we're lucky if we get a game once a month."
He adds: "I think the Bell Lawrie Cup competition is really well organised and if teams lose in the early rounds they get the chance to play for the bowl or plate.
"Maybe there is a case for some of the private schools not coming in until the third round, but our result against the High School has not put my players off the game by any means."
Musselburgh Grammar has had two mismatched games. Like Grange Academy, it is traditionally a football school and so two-thirds of its senior XV are S4 pupils. It beat Edinburgh's Firrhill High 91-0 in the first round but found Edinburgh Academy difficult to handle in the second round, going down 62-3.
Under-18 cup holders Dollar Academy dished out 67 points without reply against Madras College in their first match in defence of the trophy.
(Madras College had themselves beaten McLaren High 48-0 in the first round.) Dollar Academy had even used 10 substitutes after reaching agreement with Madras College's coach, Terry Trewartha, to make the game a more even contest.
John Foster, the master in charge of rugby at Dollar Academy, has already taken issue with the Scottish Rugby Union over a separate matter of why some under-18 youth sides are permitted to play in the competition if a school does not have a first XV. He believes the cups should be exclusively for schools.
Mr Foster admits there needs to be some adjustment to avoid so many one-sided matches in the early rounds and he suggests there might even be a case for setting up a separate competition.
"If you look at the past seven years we have played in the competition, it is roughly the same nine or 10 schools who have played in the quarter-finals," he points out. "It is the same power base.
"Maybe we should look at taking out the high-flyers from the year before and seeding them in the later rounds.
"Maybe it is also time to look at setting up a competition for schools that play less than 10 fixtures a year, so that they are all playing against similar standards and we avoid many of the mismatches that have occurred this year."