In Coatbridge, boys and girls have kicked football out of play in favour of rugby, writes Roddy Mackenzie
The Kirkshaws housing estate in Coatbridge is one of the toughest in Scotland and a stronghold of the west of Scotland football culture. So when, little more than four years ago, a patch of grass at Rosehall High was turned over to rugby, it must have seemed to the local residents like a blasphemous act.
However, Charlie Fawcett, the assistant principal teacher of physics at the school, who moved across Coatbridge from St Ambrose High four-and-a-half years ago, has found that Rosehall High has become a focal point for the game and, from nothing, now has a thriving programme for boys and girls.
It was a chance enquiry from a new pupil who had played rugby at school in Glasgow and had wondered about the possibility of playing the game in Coatbridge that led Rosehall High to consider the sport. (There was little organised football at the school.) Mr Fawcett spied a suitable piece of ground for a pitch within the school and, with a grant of pound;1,000 from North Lanarkshire Council, purchased a set of rugby posts.
By devising a programme based around healthy eating, the benefits of physical activity and warnings about the harm that alcohol or drugs can cause, Mr Fawcett was also able to tap into other agencies for money, including the National Health Service and Scotland Against Drugs. He has even managed to enlist support from the local greengrocer's.
An S1-S2 boys' rugby team was quickly cobbled together and, before too long, a petition was drawn up to start a girls' team.
Now, eight primary schools and seven other secondaries tap into the rugby programme, which has recently won funding for a year from Sportscotland's social inclusion initiative to involve youngsters from all backgrounds.
The school has found that touch rugby is an excellent way for primary school children to start, as boys and girls could play together, and it is an inclusive sport in which children in wheelchairs and ethnic minorities could take part.
"Kirkshaws housing estate was recently shown to be in the top 1 per cent for deprivation in Scotland," Mr Fawcett says.
"We were starting from a low base as there was nothing really here for anybody and there was very little after-school activity. But now we have a lot of children involved. Rugby is a game they can all play at some level.
"Everyone gets a polo top, shorts and socks. I think it is important to give them a sense of identity and for the children to feel they belong to something.
"It could work with other sports, such as basketball and volleyball, even something like hillwalking. But it is important that it is a sport they feel they can continue after they leave school and keep it up for life.
"We don't want to see young people giving up sport at 16 or 17. To belong to a club set-up would help to keep them involved."
Mr Fawcett brought on board Lorna MacAvoy, a former St Ambrose High pupil of his who was studying physical education at Jordanhill, and she has built the girls' programme.
"The girls' side has really boomed and we now have coaching every Saturday morning, when we can have up to 30 attending," explains Mr Fawcett. "We've opened it out to any girl who wants to come and we have some coming from as far as Livingston."
Because of this, the Monklands Girls' Rugby Club, based at Rosehall High, was set up for them. It avoids them playing under a school banner. "I think it's unique in Scotland," says Mr Fawcett.
In the past couple of years, Miss MacAvoy - who has just been appointed team manager of Scotland's under-18 girls' squad - has arranged a rugby exchange trip to St Denis in France and taken a squad to a rugby summer camp in Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire.
Rosehall High now has girls' teams at under-14 and under-16 levels and this session started an under-18 team for the first time.
So successful has the Monklands club set-up been that two girls who attend the regular Saturday sessions, Jennifer Miller (Airdrie Academy) and Tanya Griffiths (Deans Community High), have just been named in the Scotland under-16 development squad. Another three, Alix Bagwell (Rosehall High), Kirsty Lack (Bannerman High) and Angela Stryker (Bathgate Academy), have been included in the under-18 squad.
There are Rosehall High boys' teams at S1-S2 and under-16 levels, who play in the Lanarkshire League, and for the first time a senior team entered the Bell Lawrie White Scottish Schools Rugby Cup competition. They won their first round game against Douglas Ewart High before going out to Belmont Academy. There was the consolation of a trip to face Aberdeen Grammar, where the team lost but gave a good account of themselves.
Having set up a link with Coatbridge's Scottish National League club Waysiders Drumpellier, the schoolchildren are getting a good level of coaching, Mr Fawcett says. He also sees that teachers, volunteers and pupils who are involved in the programme are put through the Scottish Rugby Union's coaching and refereeing courses to ensure that the foundations are in place to keep it going.
Mr Fawcett has based a lot of his ideas around a trip to Australia a few years ago, when he attended the Institute of Sport in Canberra. "I spent two weeks there and it was an education," he says. "Over there, they look at the physical make-up of children before deciding which is the best sport for them. It was just a different approach. Whole families were involved in sport and everyone was included.
"I believe the same thing can work over here. We're trying to be dynamic, not static."