Until Rory Hughes made his debut in August, as far as anyone could tell no one educated in a state secondary school in Scotland’s biggest city had played for the national rugby team.
It is this Glasgow factoid that sums up the problems besetting the nation’s rugby: not enough people play, and those who do tend to come from private schools or a few scattered heartlands.
Now, however, the sport’s national governing body the Scottish Rugby Union is reorganising the way the game is played in schools, in a move it describes as “most comprehensive change ever to youth rugby in the country”.
With its new league system the SRU hopes to drive up the number of children playing rugby, which will mean more teams, more competitive matches and the nurturing of a “rugby culture” in places where previously the oval ball was alien.
Scotland may have started the 2015 World Cup with handsome victories over Japan and the US, but the team has been struggling recently. Many blame this on the lack of competition at school level. Most rugby-playing schools are accustomed to sporadic friendly matches, with the best rugby played mostly in the independent sector: private schools have won the under-18s Scottish Schools Cup in 17 of the past 18 seasons.
Under the new structure there will be seven schools “conferences” where teams of similar ability will play against each other. A particularly striking new rule is that schools will win points not only on the pitch, but also based on how many teams they have and their ability to retain players as they grow older.
According to Colin Thomson, head of schools and youth at the SRU and a former PE teacher, this is an attempt to reward schools for fostering a “strong rugby culture”.
The aim is for schools to have teams at five secondary stages and a clear pathway through them, rather than inexperienced players starting to play serious matches only towards the end of school and, inevitably, experiencing demoralising defeats.
“[It’s] just like you wouldn’t do Higher maths before you do the stages before that,” Mr Thomson said. “It’s about creating a culture of participation where younger pupils can aspire to be like the senior kids.”
Shawlands Academy in Glasgow’s Southside is in its fourth year as a “School of Rugby”. This is an existing initiative that allows players to step out of a small number of classes to work on their skills. It will ultimately be run in 60 Scottish secondaries.
Depute head Cath Sinclair, who oversees the programme, said that rugby appealed to pupils for many reasons – particularly its emphasis on respect for officials and “controlled aggression”, and the fact that the Glasgow Warriors professional team did not carry the baggage of the city’s big football teams.
The Shawlands School of Rugby selects not purely on talent but on determination – “You don’t need to be an elite athlete,” Ms Sinclair said– and it has had a big impact on boys with no significant male figure to look up to. It was “particularly exciting” that it appealed across the school demographic, Ms Sinclair added, as arrivals from Slovakia and Latvia played beside born-and-bred Glaswegians.
Ms Sinclair compares her school’s mould-breaking rugby players with a former student who went to the University of Oxford and won its undergraduate dissertation prize for English.
“I think it’s good for us to be seen to be in competition at a level that maybe people don’t expect – I see our competitors as the private sector and East Renfrewshire,” she said. “People wouldn’t expect an inner-city Glasgow school to roll up with a great rugby team, but I think rugby represents what we aspire to be. I want our kids to have every opportunity.”
Scotland and Glasgow Warriors player Duncan Weir went to South Lanarkshire’s Cathkin High School, where he played rugby and football, and signed schoolboy forms for Celtic.
The school’s rugby set-up relied on the determination of two teachers who fought for attention and resources. Weir believes increasing numbers of local rugby development officers have improved the chances of expanding, but that rugby still faces a battle in places where football has traditionally dominated – sometimes a school may have just one sports pitch.
“I tried rugby when I was 7,” the 24-year-old said. “I just picked up a ball and went on a few wee mazy runs – I remember loving it. There was a period of time when I was concentrating more on football, but guys like Ali Jones, who was a biology teacher, made sure there was rugby.”
In rugby, according to Weir, there are “strong values” and an expectation of respect for officials and opponents, plus a sense of camaraderie that ensures “you make friends for life”.
School rugby by numbers
There are 499 secondary school teams in Scotland (317 from state schools, 182 from independent schools).
Forty-seven secondary schools have five teams or more (24 state and 23 independent).
At the first World Cup in 1987, 58 per cent of Scotland’s team were educated at a state school, 38 per cent privately and 4 per cent outside Scotland.
In 2015, those proportions are 48 per cent, 13 per cent and 39 per cent, respectively.