Pupils should be taught fitness, health and competition, rather than Standard grade PE, says a top Scottish coach. Roddy Mackenzie reports
bob easson has spent countless hours on a rugby pitch. Working with Scotland's international scrum halves in recent weeks, he enjoys nothing more than putting players through their paces.
But his role as a coach has changed considerably over the past few years and he now spends as much time at a desk. As soon as practice is over, he retreats to a caravan at the side of the pitch to analyse film of the past few hours and input data to his laptop.
As a high-performance rugby coach with the Scottish Institute of Sport since it was established in 1999, Mr Easson is working on the speed of pass over 10 metres for Scotland's international scrum halves, in an attempt to increase it ahead of this year's World Cup. He can even send video clips of a player's performance to his mobile phone for him to study in his own time.
All this is a sign of the new level of sophistication in Scottish sport that the Stirling-based institute has brought on board. Mr Easson, a former PE teacher at Kirkcaldy High and former assistant headteacher at Buckhaven High, uses technology as much as coaching manuals to improve performance.
This level of sophistication is not just being utilised at senior international level. Mr Easson, having coached Scotland at Under-18, Under-19 and Under-21 level, as well as the development XV, knows the value of getting young players into good habits early.
There is a shortage of rugby players coming through the schools. The days when Kirkcaldy, Buckhaven and Dunfermline high schools were putting out about 13 rugby teams every Saturday before the 1980s teachers' dispute are long gone. And with rugby having to compete with other sports for talent, it is vital to net players at a young age.
"There's a strong pathway for youngsters in Scotland. A youngster can start club rugby at P5-6 level and once he goes into secondary school be picked up by one of the local pathway teams at the age of 14 or 15 if he has talent," he says. "The best of these teams will come together at district level at Under 15 or Under-16 the first ladder of representative rugby.
"The best players will play their first games for Scotland at Under-17 level, where there is a Home Nations competition, and that leads on to Under-18 and Under-20 levels. After that, players will be selected as apprentices for clubs. Once you get into Under-18, a higher percentage will come through to professional rugby."
The high-performance coaches start identifying talent at around the age of 14 or 15, and would start giving advice on healthy eating and weightlifting technique in the gym. But once the youngsters get up to Under-17 level, it is, he says, more specific and the talented kids will have a more individual programme. "Between 15 and 17, the local academy coach would put together some integrated support on physiotherapy, strength and conditioning and even sports psychology. But at that age we'd just get into mental preparation for games," he says.
Mr Easson believes this "manufacture of players" is essential if Scotland is to continue to compete at top international level. He argues that there are only 8,000-9,000 adult rugby players in Scotland fewer than Madagascar which does not compare with England (250,000), France (250,000) or New Zealand (180,000).
"In terms of depth in numbers we're way behind, so we have to box clever to be the best we can be," he says. "The system we have here, in terms of the pathway, academy support for youngsters and institute support for senior national team players is as good as any. I was in New Zealand in January and our system is better."
One of the major strengths in Scotland, he believes, is the size of the country "we are not very big and so our networks are strong". Talent is identified fairly readily, youngsters are monitored and people keep an eye on them.
"When they get to professional rugby, then that has to be the focus but we don't lose sight of the fact that there has to be a balance when they are still at school."
Demands on schoolchildren can be considerable, he says. "When they get into the Under-17 national squad, they're in fourth or fifth year and have important exams. What you find more and more is that these youngsters are now being helped by their schools to get the balance right."
Coaches are not just looking for talent alone. There are other attributes that are important when it comes to selecting players. "We also look for resilience, stickability and determination and that's something we need to be looking at more and more," he says.
"Often you hear a player is really good when he is 11 years old, but that can be because he is so much bigger than the rest of his classmates. Within a couple of years, they might have caught up with him and he's not nearly as effective."
Mr Easson still hankers for the halcyon days when inter-school sport played such a big role in identifying talent. He is encouraged by the Active Schools programme which is getting sport back up the agenda, although he doubts there will be a return to the days when the likes of Kirkcaldy High put out not only 13 rugby teams regularly, but also 11 football teams and seven or eight hockey teams.
"The kind of guys who taught PE in those days had been trained just after the war. They came in and were either rugby men or football guys. A huge emphasis was put on games, and gymnastics and swimming," he says.
"I would almost go as far as to say, if I had the choice, I would ditch certificate PE and get into a programme to educate kids about physical education and about fitness, health and competition. I'd rather put the resources into that than get them to do Standard grade PE."