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Jed Thistle's success only serves to highlight fundamental flaws in rugby system

Small communities often hide their lights under bushels, so I've long admired the chutzpah of the Jedburgh councillor who stood up at a town meeting a few years ago and declared that the place would have to be more proactive about trumpeting its merits to the wider world if it wanted to bring in more visitors.

Jed Thistle's victory in the National Youth Under-18 Cup against the much better resourced Ayr is testament to the work done in Jedburgh by the town's rugby development officer, Kenny Barrie
Jed Thistle's victory in the National Youth Under-18 Cup against the much better resourced Ayr is testament to the work done in Jedburgh by the town's rugby development officer, Kenny Barrie

So what message did he have in mind? That Jedburgh is home to a magnificent Augustinian abbey, established in the 12th century under charter from King David? That Sir David Brewster, founder of the modern science of optics and inventor of the kaleidoscope, was born there in 1781? That the town's most famous daughters include Mary Somerville, after whom the eponymous Oxford college is named, and Lavinia Derwent, author of The Adventures of Tammy Troot?

None of the above. According to this stalwart burgher of Jethart, the key to turning the town into a tourist mecca rested on a far greater distinction. The world should know, he announced with Churchillian gravitas, that Jedburgh had lately become Europe's biggest producer of plastic coathangers.

Now I don't know about you, but my holiday planning tends to revolve around the proximity of beaches, decent restaurants and maybe a spot of local culture. Industrial output has never figured high on my list of vacation criteria. But hey, each to their own.

Tragically, the fellow's suggestion fell on deaf ears and was never adopted. However, his philosophy was revived a few years later when a new sign was erected on the town's southern boundary. "Welcome to Jedburgh," it announced. "Home of Britain's Best Savoury Pie, 2009."

I was never quite sure what this sign was really saying. Do pies, like fine wines, have great vintages? Are they squirreled away by collectors and then sold on at Sotheby's many years later? Or could the use of the singular be significant? Perhaps the one and only true Pie was kept in a sacred place - possibly the abbey - and guarded like a holy relic?

We shall never know. A few months ago the sign disappeared, so visitors from the south now reach the town in a state of not-so-blissful ignorance about its place on the world pie map. Fortunately, though, Jedburgh has something else to shout about now. When it comes to rugby, the little Borders town has lately been making a rather big noise.

It began last month when Jed Thistle, effectively the youth team for Jed-Forest, pipped Ayr 11-7 to win the National Under-18 Youth Cup. It was a stunning achievement for a side drawn almost entirely from a town of barely 4000 souls and a local high school with a roll of around 400 pupils. No disrespect to Ayr, but the west coast club's resources are rather larger on both fronts.

And then, at the weekend, Jed-Forest clinched promotion from RBS Championship B with a 48-14 victory over Lasswade at Riverside Park. It was a storming finish to a campaign in which they had lost just one of their 18 games, and their title win means they will be back on the national stage next season, playing just one tier down from RBS Premiership level.

Ask anyone around Jedburgh about this glut of recent success and they will sing the praises of Kevin Barrie, the development officer in the town. Barrie, a fine hooker for Jed-Forest in his day, has coached a number of senior sides in the Borders, but seems to have found his ideal role in pulling together all the elements of the community's rugby efforts. The school, the junior team and the senior side are all working together superbly.

"Kev's doing a great job," the former Jed-Forest prop Neil McIlroy told me the other day. "There's a real buzz about rugby in Jedburgh now. What's happening there should be used as a model for the whole of Scotland." Local pride speaking? Well, yes, but there's more. Because Neil has moved on a long way from his time in the Jed front row, and these days makes his living as team manager at Clermont Auvergne, current leaders of the French Top 14 Championship. Succession planning is part of his brief. When a bloke in his shoes tells you that a club is doing something right then it probably means that they are.

Neil's words came to mind as I read a piercing analysis of the state of Scottish rugby penned by my old colleague John McLellan. Now, as John's recent gigs have included running Scotsman Newspapers and being chief spin doctor for the Scottish Conservative Party, he clearly enjoys life's more difficult challenges, and his dissection of the ails and travails of the Scottish game - he played at a pretty high level himself - was pretty close to the mark. And absolutely bang on when he stressed that the identification and development of young talent is a fundamental issue that requires a radical overhaul.

And a radical shift as well. The professional era is almost two decades old, but the Scotland team's supply lines are still pretty much where they were in the amateur era: private schools, the Borders clubs and a handful of exiles. What should have been a golden opportunity to widen the game's reach - let's not mince words here, we are talking chiefly about working class kids in the central belt - has been missed. Vested interests have preserved their old privileges in a system that still gives undue precedence to a handful of schools that might just as well be sited on planet Vogon as far as most Scottish kids are concerned.

Hugh McLeod used to say that the secret of rugby's success in the Borders was "different blood". Jim Telfer reckoned that it was because there was nothing else - he actually used a fruitier synonym - to do. Me, I've long believed that the area became a rugby powerhouse because its population simply isn't big enough to allow the game to be shaped along class lines. The last thing that matters in a Borders side is whether you spend your days as a millworker or a gentleman farmer.

Sadly, those divisions still seem critical in too much of Scottish rugby. The need, as John made clear in his article, is to move the focus of age-grade rugby from the Brewin Dolphin Cup - in which no state school got past the first round this season - towards a truly inclusive youth league.

The kids of Jed Thistle got their moment in the sun because they came from a place where it was possible. The SRU should be working a lot harder to give others the same opportunity. To do anything else would be a dereliction of their duty as governors of the sport.

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