by ALAN LORIMER
IT is all too easy to conclude that the Scottish Schools’ Cup is all about private school rugby and in the top tier, there is certainly no disputing that fact. Independent schools have taken control of that particular competition ever since they opted to join it back in the late 1990s and the chances of that dominance being challenged now seems tiny.
Only one state school, Bell Baxter High School from Cupar, has broken the glass ceiling [back in 2006-07] but that triumph now seems a long way in the past, perceptually reinforced by two of the team’s more famous graduates, Pete Horne and Chris Fusaro, now being regarded as senior players in the Glasgow Warriors set-up.
Prior to the likes of Dollar Academy and Merchiston Castle entering the Cup, the only independent school regularly taking part was St Aloysius College. They, along with Galashiels Academy, were the most successful schools during those early years, winning no less than five Cup Finals apiece between the tournament’s inception in 1983 and 1997.
So, in the current era, why can’t a state school be up there with the top independent teams? Much has to do with what has happened in state schools over the past 30 years. During that time, there has been a massive change from what used to be the norm of regular inter-school rugby on Saturday mornings run by physical education staff as well as non-PE teachers, to a different weekend lifestyle for youngsters.
Excessive workload – especially so in recent years – has effectively ruled out extra-curricular rugby for the sort of teacher who used to see involvement in sport as a vital part of school life, and not least for improving staff-student relations.
Perhaps the biggest seismic shock came with the introduction of certificated physical education. In a stroke, its introduction killed off much of Saturday morning sport as PE teachers were suddenly flung into a new world of course preparation, projects, assessments and day-to-day marking. Saturday mornings, hitherto seen as part of the school week, became a vital time for recharging over-used batteries and with this change came the gradual diminution of inter-school sport.
State schools, who had figured prominently in many sports, ceased to be the titans they once were and with this came a worrying contraction in the numbers coming through the now beleaguered systems. Fortunately, Scottish Rugby spotted this worrying situation and stepped in to fill the vacuum with a number of effective schemes to address the crisis.
Not all schools were affected. In the Borders, Scottish rugby’s spiritual heartland, it was virtually business as usual in extra-curricular sport, with S1 to S3 rugby offered by the schools while under-16 and under-18 rugby came under the aegis of the local clubs.
This tie-up between school and club has now been taken a stage further and is certainly evident at Earlston High School, who will be at Murrayfield on Wednesday for the under-16 Shield Final. Earlston have combined with Melrose RFC to produce a thriving rugby scene, reviving memories of the school’s glory days in the late eighties when no less than eight players from their teams went on to represent Scotland, among them Craig Chalmers, Graham Shiel and Carl Hogg.
Their opponents this week will be Marr College, who have a similar tie-up with Marr RFC.
Earlston High School, or to use their current appellation, Earlston High School Melrose Wasps, are working hard to achieve the standards of the private schools and certainly showed they are reaching their target when they defeated Glasgow Academy 50-0 in the Shield semi-final.
The big challenge facing this team is week-to-week high level competition. They play in the Borders Under-16 league and that competition all too often fails to test the better sides.
The consequence of this were evident in the third round of the main Cup competition back in September when Earlston High School Melrose Wasps lost to the eventual Cup semi-finalists George Heriot’s School. Since then the side has become stronger as their big wins over Balfron High School and then Peebles High School confirmed.
Earlston have also beefed up their fixture list having played and defeated Glenalmond [17-19] earlier this term, and with matches coming up against Merchiston Castle and the Heriot’s club side.
The modus operandi at Earlston High School is very much a template adopted by a number of school/club combines throughout Scotland and indeed it was the Bell-Baxter formula ten years ago. At S1 to S3 levels coaching is provided by external inputs, mainly from motivated parents, who are all Scottish Rugby-qualified.
At under-16 and under-18 levels coaching is offered by Melrose RFC’s development officers, which includes skills and conditioning help from the current Melrose centre Craig Jackson, the cousin of Scotland international full-back Ruairidh Jackson.
Strength and conditioning is done two mornings a week prior to the beginning of the school day at Melrose RFC and team training and skills sessions go ahead on a further two days. Additionally, eight players in the under-16 squad are in the Borders Academy and that means even more work.
The team has also had inputs from the former Edinburgh coach Rob Moffat, who was also once head of physical education at Earlston, and current Scotland coach, Gregor Townsend, who, it has to be said, has a slight interest in the side.
Playing at stand-off is his elder son Christian, one of four players in the side who represented East Under-16s in their double wins over West earlier in the season. The other representative players in the Earlston High School Melrose Wasps team are full-back Kieran Clark, centre Roly Brett and second-row Nick Henderson.
On last year’s finals day, Earlston won the Under-16 Plate, beating Glasgow High School 26-12, and a number of players from that team are back for a second tilt at glory, among them centre Harry Makowski, second-row Will Catterall and number eight Tristan Andrews.
And almost half of this year’s team will be eligible to play next season, including back-row Ruairidh Lindsay, whose elder brother Gregor was in the Plate winning side twelve months ago.
Melrose will go into the final against Marr having won all their Border League Under-16 matches and confident that they are on an upward curve. That belief will be tested at Murrayfield on Finals Day when the most recent batch of promising young rugby players to come through the school will be determined to emulate the successes of their predecessors.