Try harder: rugby league to face tough tackle in Scottish schools
Rugby league is coming to Scottish schools, and it has a surprise revelation once it gets there: it is closer to football than rugby union.
This year is a landmark one for the 13-a-side game, which has very little heritage in Scotland. The Saltire Schools Cup starts this month, giving Scottish S2-3 and S4-5 pupils the chance to compete against each other; previously, they would have entered a competition for English schools.
Mark Senter has overseen forward strides in the adult game since becoming Scotland development manager in 2000. The sport has long had a toehold in Glasgow, but now there are 10 senior clubs stretching as far as Elgin. The set-up in universities has improved, too, so he is turning his attentions to youth.
There were seven teams entered in the Saltire Schools Cup at the time of going to press, all from the west of Scotland, but coaching is taking place over a far wider area.
There are 250 school-age regular players, and 1,200 youngsters who have had some exposure to the sport. Within five years, Mr Senter hopes rugby league will be played in every secondary school in easy reach of a senior club.
Already, there are strong role models. Chad McGlane, 19, a former pupil of Glasgow's Smithycroft Secondary, only took up the sport in S2. He has gone on to become one of Scotland's most promising players, and has been invited for a trial at Hull, one of the best teams in England's elite Super League.
Rugby league has had an at times bitter rivalry with 15-a-side rugby union, but Mr Senter sees the two codes working "hand in glove" at Scottish youth level.
The league season straddles the summer, when union takes a break, so talented pupils could play both to hone their skills all year round.
There are differing but complementary specialist skills: league's non-stop tackling, for example, has made its defensive coaches sought after by professional union teams.
To teachers with little or no knowledge of rugby league, Mr Senter says it is in some ways more like football than rugby union: "It's a very simple game - all you need is a ball and you can get started." Rugby union, in contrast, has highly technical specialist positions and group skills, such as rucking, that take years to master.
Touch rugby, which is long-established in Scotland as an introduction to rugby union, is perfect preparation for league, Mr Senter says, with its uncomplicated, contact-free rules that prioritise passing and running. Any teacher confident in touch rugby could coach rugby league skills, he believes.
Mr Senter has found an opening for the sport in deprived areas, such as Glasgow's Easterhouse estate. There, children are inevitably football daft and sceptical about rugby, which they perceive as the preserve of upper- class boys. This is ironic given that, while union has long been strong in Scotland's independent schools, rugby league's north of England roots are resolutely working-class.
Such misperceptions, he believes, are the biggest barrier to rugby league taking off in Scotland, for the same children sing a different tune after experiencing the rough-and-tumble joys of a sport that is often talked up as the toughest in the world.
"They love the physical contact," Mr Senter says "That's something they don't get with football."
A TALE OF TWO CODES
Rugby league originated after an 1895 split from the Rugby Football Union in England over player payments: northern teams had more working-class players, who could not afford to play without compensation.
Rules were changed to produce a more entertaining, flowing game. League supporters to this day are dismissive of union's stop-start rhythm.
Rugby union stars seeking to make a living from sport, such as Jonathan Davies, the great Welsh player of the 1980s and 1990s, used to switch to rugby league's professional set-up.
Since rugby union went professional in 1995, the flow of players has largely gone the other way, as with Jason Robinson, a member of England's 2003 rugby union World Cup-winning team.