Why the Borders under-18s system desperately needs a revamp

FOR those rugby fans who watched Scotland under-18s play their English counterparts at Mansfield Park recently, the 20-8 scoreline in favour of the visitors might have made them feel reasonably happy with the state of age-group rugby north of the border, but another statistic would have troubled them deeply.

That is, the stark fact that, in a Scotland squad of 29, there was only one Borders player, Frankie Robson from Kelso. So, the fans may have wondered, what has produced the state of affairs that in the spiritual heartland of Scottish rugby, where the oval ball game still rules, there is such a sparse representation?

The answer is not clear and may lie in a number of areas. Take for example the selection process which made room for only one district match in which players could show their worth. That was a district championship game just prior to Christmas, played on a near-frozen pitch at Dunbar. In the event, Borders were cuffed by an Edinburgh side full of city independent school players already up to speed after playing in the final stages of the Brewin Dolphin Scottish Schools Cup competition.

Hitherto there had been three rounds of a district championship in which players from all four regions could stake a late claim for inclusion in the Scotland squad and for Borders players this has always been a vital lifeline.

But it is not only the selection process that appears flawed.

Why, it may be asked, is the Scotland Under-18 squad reverting to being predominantly a private schools squad, when the independent sector in Scotland accounts for only 4.5 per cent of Scottish education?

The answer is that there are a number of private schools – mainly in Edinburgh – which have forged ahead in rugby and in essence have become specialist rugby academies. They play against one another on a regular basis and as such are fed on a rich diet of high-level competitive rugby throughout the season.

Little wonder, then, that the Brewin Dolphin Cup competition is essentially a competition for four or five leading schools.

Meanwhile, this high-intensity competitive rugby, the day-to-day coaching sessions and the colossal sums spent on outside helpers, simply cannot be replicated in state schools, meaning that a huge number of youngsters are never exposed to the levels experienced by their privately-educated peers.

The result is that selectors will pick the ready-made products rather than players who show potential. After all, the pressure on national coaches is to produce results rather than to develop potential.

So, what can the Borders do about this? Well, for a start, they have a ready-made product in the semi-junior league that has produced countless players capable of going on to play at top amateur level and, indeed, in the professional game. Look at Gala and Selkirk if you don’t believe in the progression from successful semi-junior league to senior rugby.

The flaw in the semi-junior league, however, is its insularity. Yes, it gives participating clubs 22 games throughout the season, but what it does not do is expand the horizons of the better players.

How then to stretch the ambitious players? Former international referee Malcolm Changleng, who returned to the Borders to take up a faculty post at Earlston High School, believes that room must be made in the season to develop the better players.

“If it was up to me, the Under-18 clubs would play only one round of fixtures, with the top four playing off for top place (11 matches plus semi and final), he told TheSouthern.

“The season would be designed to allow a league Saturday and then a development Saturday on rotation.

“This would allow more players to experience semi-junior league rugby and allow Pathway matches space to be played (on development Saturdays).

“The Borders clubs would be encouraged to seek fixtures outwith the region against sides such as Stirling County, Merchiston or Dollar.

“The biggest weakness of the SJL is that Border players are playing a very similar style of rugby and the best players don’t learn to take on teams with a different strategic style. The current SJL takes up all Saturdays.

“This improved planning would allow mini tours on a spare Saturday to play clubs from the north of England, Caledonia, Glasgow and Edinburgh, where more learning of the different patterns of play would be refined.”

Can this be achieved? It may take a big leap, but if Borders youngsters are not to be marginalised at national level then radical solutions must be examined and answers other than ‘aye been’ put into practice.