Youth rugby has become a scrum over too few players. A new integrated policy may be the way forward. Roddy Mackenzie reports
The Scottish Rugby Union is taking bold steps to broaden the base of children playing the game. In particular, the SRU is taking a firmer grip on the development of the schools' game, particularly for the older age groups.
The SRU is aware that clubs and school teams have been effectively competing for the same boys in the past and excessive demands can be made on young players. An integrated policy is being put in place this season and, although this has been a transitional year, the SRU is encouraged by the early results.
Its Pathways Programme, which has not been formally announced yet, seeks to develop talent in the sport, but it is not an elitist programme. The scheme, argues the SRU, is about broadening the base of youngsters playing the game and preventing players from being discarded too early. It will bring players together at under-15, under-16 and under-18 levels once a month in their own districts.
Colin Thomson, senior development officer for age-grade rugby at the SRU, knows that changing the structure of schools and youth rugby is a delicate issue. He was reticent about going into too much detail about the Pathways initiative, but he was prepared to sketch out the scheme, which is the most significant development in schools rugby for years.
Mr Thomson emphasised that the programme is player driven and reiterated the need to increase the number of youngsters playing the game.
"There are schools playing at a higher level than other schools - not just the independent schools but others like Marr College, Galashiels Academy and Earlston High," he said. "We want to raise the level of raw talent in the state schools and try to bridge that gap so that there is a broader base.
"We are getting a clearer focus of what everyone's needs are, but there is obviously a big difference between the likes of Merchiston Castle and Eastwood High.
"In the past, there have been two representative structures for youngsters, but by making one structure we can get more resources for it."
The SRU also wants to keep a closer watch on who is coaching young players and the number of games they are asked to play. "We want to reduce the number of games that young players are involved in," said Mr Thomson.
"In the past, you could have the situation of someone playing for Stirling High School in the morning, Stirling rugby club in the afternoon and then have a Midlands schools trial or a match on a Sunday. This was not good for the player from a social sense, a rugby sense or an educational sense."
As a former teacher, Mr Thomson knows well the problems affecting school sport, but he believes the state of the game has to be addressed. "We want teachers involved, but there has been a shrinking base of teachers in recent years. We want them to help educate clubs and coaches on the way forward," he said.
He admitted that there are areas still to be finalised, such as governance of the scheme and where overall control lies, but he emphasised that although the initiative means the Scottish Schools Rugby Union is losing some of its control over the game, it is not being squeezed out. The SSRU has, he said, "come full circle" on what it originally thought about the scheme.
Mr Thomson sees the clubs as providing the framework to support the schools' game and the access to qualified coaches, and said the schools' accreditation process which is already in place will continue.
David Stibbles, the honorary secretary of the SSRU, said the scheme will be a significant benefit for schools. "It means that schools receive a one-off payment of pound;300 if they are attached to a club and there are other incentives built in which mean it's a windfall for us all."
Some question marks remain over schools' events. Scotland now looks unlikely to be represented in the schools' equivalent of the Five Nations Championship. Although the Scottish schools did not compete last season due to costs, the event remains attractive with Italy now joining in. But the tournament is not played on a level playing field: because of the different age bands of European countries, Scottish teams in the past have been six months younger than their opponents, which can seem a considerable gulf at under-18 level.
There is also the matter of who administers the national schools' cup competition and whether it comes under the SRU banner.
The SRU hopes to make a firm announcement on its Pathways project soon, but it seems generally accepted that it is the best way forward for the game. There does not appear to be a threat to the SSRU and Mr Stibbles remains confident about its future role. Ian Tomney, the SSRU president, emphasised that it is in everyone's interest to pursue an integrated policy. "We're in a period of transition but we want to work out a solution that is best for everyone."