At long last there’s a light at the end of tunnel for the grassroots of Scottish Rugby, but there’s still a long way to go before our sport fully emerges from the shadows of the coronavirus pandemic.

I have been monitoring the Scottish Rugby Union’s response to Covid-19 and particularly the medical aspects. With a couple of exceptions, the SRU and its coaching staff and the members of the national squads and professional clubs, players and coaches alike, have responded well to the pandemic and I think that’s due largely to the cooperation between the SRU and the medical advisors of both the Union, the National Health Service and the Scottish Government. When the inevitable public inquiry into the handling of the pandemic is eventually held, I have no doubt that Scottish rugby’s medical response will be declared exemplary – contrast and compare, please with the Scottish Football Association and some of its member clubs.    

The key to the success so far has been the communications with the clubs. Though I have heard a few minor complaints there is considerable evidence that the communications about Return to Rugby have been first class – as long as clubs have Covid-19 Safety Coordinators with access to the internet, and as far as I know that is most of the clubs that are members of the Union.

The latest bulletin was clear and concise and comprehensive. No club could plead ignorance about what is expected of them at this point, which technically is Level 4 of the Return to Rugby guidelines.

The General Guidance remains: “It is the responsibility of the club COVID-19 Safety Coordinator to ensure that full risk assessments, processes and mitigating actions are in place before any rugby activity takes place. All activity for all age groups must take place outdoors. There should be an overall focus on minimal numbers to allow activity to take place and reduce risk. Ensure that hygiene measures are implemented at all times.” That’s pretty tough but given the fact that there are still substantial numbers of cases being reported each day – though the numbers are falling at last – and since there are pesky new variants around, no one could sensibly argue against these guidelines.

The online bulletin does make depressing reading if you are just an ordinary player in an ordinary club. If you are over 18, you are not permitted to play against other clubs, you can’t play touch rugby and you can’t even use a scrum machine. I am aware that the guidelines will become more relaxed in the coming weeks, and with the expected progress I am growing more confident that there will be a full return of rugby later this year, but it may be that the start of next season will have to be delayed, though with the general ongoing progress, we should see competitive club rugby at all levels next season.

Schools rugby might even be back sooner, though the lack of coaches in schools could be a problem. Which brings me to the whole issue of getting the grassroots of Scottish rugby sorted – not just restored to where they were before March last year, but way much better than that, because Scotland has fallen behind other nations.

No doubt the powers-that-be will quote increased numbers of player at all levels, at least until the end of 2019, and the growth of mini and youth rugby has been heartening to see. Yet we need to see much more emphasis on getting youngsters into the game as quickly as possible, and for a start that means overcoming the reluctance of many parents to allow their boys and girls to play rugby. Anecdotal evidence is often the best kind, and if you talk to many parents, as I have done, you find that unless they played rugby themselves, they have an image of the sport as being injury-prone.

To re-build the grassroots at their basic level, I would start an education programme to show parents of young children and teenagers the benefits of rugby – the physical improvements it can bring, the confidence, the learning of teamwork. I would also show how the sport has taken action to minimise the risk of injury, and how rugby has taken the lead, for instance, in dealing with concussion and possible concussion issues – one that football has only recently started to copy despite the massive evidence of heading a ball being a possible cause of brain disease later in life.

Schools rugby also suffers from the fact that teachers by and large are now not prepared to coach sports on a voluntary basis – why should they? Those that do are to be hugely applauded but I suspect their numbers are well down on past decades.

What is required is for the Government – you know, the one that shut gyms and swimming pools and kept fast-food takeaways open – to commit real money and resources to encouraging the grassroots of rugby, and other sports, in community clubs and schools for the sake of our children’s health.  After all, children now have human rights, enshrined in Scots law.