A local school initiative has taken Perth rugby into a different league, writes Roddy Mackenzie
While the Scottish Executive aims to put a golf club in every nine-year-old's hands by 2009 as part of the clubgolf initiative, the goal in Perthshire is to thrust a rugby ball in such callow grips within the same timescale.
Perthshire rugby club has not only been progressing through the senior national leagues with such haste that it has advanced to the premiership for the first time, but its careful nurturing of its grassroots over the past three years has also given the game new life in Perth.
Three years ago, Perth Academy was the only one of the four secondary schools playing regularly. Now, through the club's React 2 Rugby initiative, the game has also taken root in Perth High, St Columba's High and Perth Grammar. What is more, P6 and P7 pupils in the 25 cluster primary schools have all been exposed to the game and the programme is being extended.
The rugby club has been set up as Scotland's first centre of excellence for the game and the Scottish Rugby Union is urging other clubs to follow its model. Edinburgh's Forrester rugby club has now set up a similar programme and 3,000 children from some of the most disadvantaged areas of the city are playing.
Perthshire has shown that if you can get into local schools, this can lead to increased club membership.
Sam Kaleta, a Samoan international player, was appointed development officer for the club three years ago and he established much of the interest among local children. That role has been taken over by Colin McKelvey. He worked last year with two coaches who had undertaken Scottish Vocational Qualifications and took rugby into the schools. This year, he has five SVQ coaches to help reach 4,000 schoolchildren in the area.
In addition to taking lunchtime and after-school sessions, the coaches have a hands-on approach to PE lessons.
"The React 2 Rugby programme has been a huge success. As well as going into the secondary schools, we have been taking P6s and P7s and introducing them to the game. This year we intend to go down to P4-P5 level," explains Mr McKelvey.
"We come in and take a lesson, but an important part of the programme is getting teachers helping out with teams. We can get the programme off the ground, but we need teachers and volunteers to maintain it, as we simply cannot be everywhere. It's a case of teaching them and then handing it over to them.
"We've had such a positive response from the schools and are now looking at a girls' section. The girls approached us.
"It's not just about rugby; there are health and lifestyle issues. If we can get that message across, so much the better.'
Perth Academy is still the only one of the four secondaries to have entered the Bell Lawrie Scottish Schools' Cup, but all are expected to be represented before long. Perth High, St Columba's and Perth Grammar have all had coaching at S1-S2 level and play in the local ptarmigan leagues in Perth and Kinross.
"Perth High has a rugby pitch but it was never used until we came," says Mr McKelvey. "The grammar school and St Columba's had an area where they could play, but no posts. However, it is not too far to take the players down to the club. It all strengthens the club-school link.
"If we can get children playing at an early age, we have a chance of holding on to them when they get older. I had one boy who gave up football training so he could play rugby, he enjoyed it so much."
It costs Perthshire rugby club about pound;62,000 a year to run the programme, but it has managed to tap into local and national government support and charitable foundations, as well as securing sponsorship from private sources.
Jerry Saunders, the club committee member who is responsible for managing the project and fundraising, sees the programme as the way forward for clubs.
"The club has led the way in this and we have managed to do it without any financial support from the SRU, although it has been very supportive in other ways," he says. (The SRU is pound;23 million in debt.) "We raise it through a variety of methods. For example, we have match-day lunches at first XV games. The club put on corporate entertainment packages for the Scotland v Japan match, which was staged at McDiarmid Park in Perth.
"It can be anything from the youth players bag-packing at supermarkets to players being sponsored to pull a fire engine across the North Inch in Perth. It's a bit different from marathon running.
"We try to be as innovative as possible."