Alloa rugby has learned that nothing can be taken for granted when it comes to a supply of new players, but its future looks brighter, writes Roddy Mackenzie
Alloa rugby club has found out the hard way that if a sport is weak in schools, sooner or later that translates to poor performances by local clubs.
Alloa lost 11 of its squad at the end of last season, mainly through retirements, and to call this a transitional season is something of a euphemism. Club president Graham Pearson admits his club - currently in Division Five Caledonia A of the Scottish Leagues - is at its "lowest ebb".
"We used to play in the old fourth division, which is the equivalent of the national league first division now," he says.
The three secondary schools in the area - Alloa Academy, Lornshill Academy and Alva Academy - had all been strong rugby schools until the teachers'
dispute of the 1980s. The local game relied on the interest and goodwill of teachers to survive but competitive matches were few and far between after the dispute and player development started to wane.
Ten years ago, there was little rugby played in the schools and few players were feeding through to the club. This is a major part of its problem. It is a lesson that nothing can be taken for granted.
However, there are now signs of recovery, following moves made six years ago. By working closely with Clackmannanshire Council and Scottish Rugby Union, Alloa rugby club hopes to have a steady stream of schoolchildren through its ranks for years to come.
After receiving a grant as part of the social inclusion partnership programme, the club refurbished its clubhouse and became more integrated in the community. A youth football team has started playing at the club and the clubhouse is used for social events.
The club has now been awarded pound;10,000 from SportScotland to help towards appointing a new youth development officer to work in local schools. The Scottish Rugby Union, Clackmannanshire Council and Hillfoots rugby club will also contribute to funding the full-time officer, who is expected to be announced before the end of the month.
He will take over from former Scotland cap John Manson, who for the past six years has been rekindling rugby in the three secondary and 19 primary schools in the area. He has moved on to take up a regional development role.
In addition, three rugby apprentices will assist the youth development officer to ensure a full programme of activity in the schools.
In September 2004, Clackmannanshire Council appointed a specialist PE team to work in primary schools. Now every primary age child in the area has a minimum of 90 minutes of PE a week.
In P1-P3, children are given instruction in basic moves; in P4-P5 they progress to sports such as swimming, football, golf and basketball; and by P6-P7, athletics and rugby are in the programme. It is something Mr Pearson believes is significant, though he would prefer rugby to be available to younger children.
"Mini rugby can be played at P4-P5 age but the children aren't getting it until later," he says. "That's one of our aspirations and it would help our club-school link. The hope is that if you get youngsters playing rugby early enough, then they will keep on playing.
"There are not as many playing as we hoped and it's patchy but the grass always grows upwards.
"Rugby just fell away in the secondary schools after the teachers' dispute but now all three are back playing regularly and enter for the Scottish schools' cups.
"There are also a lot of tag rugby festivals in the area and these can attract 200 children.
"Our club is probably at the lowest ebb it has ever been. We have lost players over the years and started this season without 11 of the team that played last year. We've had to rebuild the team.
"This is why such a development as this can really help us on a long-term basis; it will provide future players for us.
"We now have under-16 and under-15 teams and there will be an under-18 team next season - the Clackmannanshire Colts - which we will run jointly with Hillfoots rugby club."
Tommy Gilchrist, who coaches the club's under-16 team, is not complacent about improvements in recent years. "Our main problem is losing school-aged players to Stirling County because of the size of their club," he says.
"But they can have 50-60 kids in a particular age group and only 20 of those can be involved in the team. It means the others are not playing regularly and can eventually be lost to the game.
"It's disappointing and disheartening to see players you have had coming on since they were 8 or 9 years old move on to a premiership club. I've nothing against players progressing but you want as many as possible staying in the sport.
"I would like to see an SRU edict that school players should play for their local clubs until they leave school. That would help local clubs get stronger and also keep many playing regularly."