After starting with a clean slate, rugby league is scoring well in primaries and secondaries, Roddy Mackenzie reports
Starting from scratch can often lead to better results, as rugby league is demonstrating in Scotland. For a sport with little history here, the game is springing up in schools and catching on fast.
While football continues to struggle with structures that were set in place more than a century ago, those in rugby league are concentrating on construction work. The sport had the luxury of starting virtually from zero almost four years ago and has been able to build through schools and local communities.
"In 2001, there was little evidence of any junior rugby league activity in Scotland, with no apparent pathway and no clubs for young players to attend," says Mark Senter, Scottish Rugby League's development officer.
"But the tides have turned and we have gone from one development officer - myself - based in Glasgow and dealing with all of Scotland's junior needs, to a team of four full-time staff.
"All the officers have the same objectives: to increase participation in rugby league in schools and clubs and to provide opportunities for everyone, everywhere to gain access to the sport.
"They also assist local authorities to achieve key objectives of tackling obesity, youth crime and disorder and providing simple pathways for participants to reach their full potential."
These objectives were made apparent by Scottish Rugby League's commitment to set up programmes in areas of social inclusion, which have proved very productive in uncovering untapped talent, he says.
There are now, Mr Senter reckons, some 2,000 schoolchildren playing the game in Scotland. Though he admits there is some "mopping up to do in the adult game", the emphasis is on the junior players. Certainly, the project is gathering pace.
There are now eight community junior clubs in Scotland, all based in the west: the Bellahouston Bears, Darnley Devils, Drumchapel Wildcats, Easterhouse Panthers, North Glasgow Sharks and three new junior community clubs that were set up last October in North Lanarkshire: the Cumbernauld Cougars, Kilsyth Pumas and Motherwell Broncos. All the clubs are linked closely with schools, and there are plans for another in the Cryston area of Glasgow, where a suitable venue is still being sought.
The Pumas, for example, cover all the feeder primary schools to Kilsyth Academy and the club will have established under-10, under-11 and under-12 teams this year as well as setting up an under-13 and under-14 structure through the after-school programme run at the academy.
All three new junior clubs were made possible through the Active Sport Rugby League programme, which is designed to develop the sport for boys and girls at late primary and early secondary level.
The programme is delivered in four modules. Module one is a six-hour coaching programme (one hour a week) focusing on core skills, with the emphasis on fun, games and participation. It is delivered to P4 and P5 children in schools near a community club site, and there is a festival for all players at the end of the six weeks.
Module two deals in under-9 and under-10 festivals based at the community club, with games taking place fortnightly and open to all who wish to take part.
Developing core skills is again the emphasis in module three for P6 and P7 pupils, but this is also the opening stage for S1 and S2 pupils to prepare for the Powergen Champion Schools tournament, which is open to schools across Britain and run on a regional basis down to the last 16. The final six play off on a national basis, with a final at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, prior to the Challenge Cup final, the showpiece of the professional game.
By module four, pupils are diverted to after-school clubs and other clubs in their area that are playing in regional and national leagues.
The eight community junior clubs play festival fixtures regularly, taking turns to host them. Under-10s play the small-sided game before graduating to the full 13-a-side game at the age of 13.
Drumchapel Wildcats, set up last August, is the newest club in Glasgow and the first to be established in the rugby union stronghold of the west of Glasgow. Based at the Donald Dewar Centre in Drumchapel, it has links with Drumchapel High.
"There is not an issue with losing children to rugby union," says Mr Senter. "These players were all raised in rugby league. We did take a few of the players to watch Scotland play Australia in the rugby union match at Hampden, and I don't think they were too impressed. Many commented on how slow the game was compared with rugby league."
While Glasgow and North Lanarkshire are the strongholds of the junior game in Scotland, there are plans to expand the community club model.
"We are planning to set up a pilot programme in Stirling in April," says Mr Senter. "It would be centred on Bannockburn High and its feeder primary schools."
Mr Senter is well aware that as well as unearthing players, he must encourage coaches and teachers to get involved. Without coaches, any initial enthusiasm from the festivals will dry up. More than 70 coaches were put through courses last year and there are now two courses for teachers and coaches.
The Junior Rugby League Organisers Award is a six-hour introductory course that covers officiating and administration as well as coaching. The follow-up Rugby League Leaders Award is a 10-hour course aimed at volunteers aged 16-plus. It offers more instruction in coaching methods and aspects such as organising festivals.