David Barnes

George Watson’s College ran out comfortable 44-8 winners over Edinburgh Academy on Friday evening to book their spot in the Scottish Schools Under-18s Cup final on December 4, when they will take on their great rivals Stewart’s Melville College.

Congratulations to both teams on making it to the showcase event at Murrayfield.

However, there is something demoralising about the fact that it is these two great Scottish rugby nurseries that will be locking horns. While this is the first time in three years that either school is represented at the final, before that there was an unbroken run of a full decade when one and/or other was involved.

Indeed, the last time a non-private school appeared in a final was way back in 2006-7 when Bell Baxter High School from Couper in Fife, containing future internationalists Peter Horne and Chris Fusaro, swept all before them.

Marr made a decent fist of breaking the private school hegemony this year, reaching the last four, but ultimately came up well short in a 59-0 semi-final defeat to Stewart’s Melville at Inverleith.

Stuart Edwards, the Stew-Mel head coach, was magnanimous in victory, insisting the game had been much tighter than the score-line suggests. As a product of the state school/club system – having come through the ranks at Stirling County – his concern at the widening gap between the big-hitting fee-paying schools in the east compared to the rest of the country is both deep and sincere.

However, it is not his employers’ fault their rugby programme is so well resourced and professionally run. The challenge is to create a situation where that level of rugby can be replicated beyond the likes of Stew-Mel and Watson’s. There are no easy or quick fixes, but some solutions are achievable.

Marr head coach Gregor Ness had an interesting chat with Edwards before Thursday’s game when he heard about the Edinburgh’s school’s recent tour to Canada, the number of rugby and strength and conditioning sessions the players have each week and the level of analysis they do on the opposition before each game.

Realistically, it is hard to see how a state school can hope to compete against that.

One sure-fire way of raising standards is by exposing players to higher level rugby on a more regular basis. Marr were at a significant disadvantage going into the Stew-Mel game due to the current conference structure which means they have played this first half of the season almost exclusively against teams in the west of the country in the L200 Conference, which is a standard significantly below the level Stewart’s Melville have been exposed to in the top tier Colt Conference.

It is also a nonsense that there is so little integration between Under-18s getting their rugby from a school and those getting their rugby from a club, with different conferences and cup competitions.

“The school season is a bit of a sprint,” says Ness. “We’ve now played all our conference and cup games and we are still a month away from Christmas. It would be good to have some more matches against the big rugby schools, but that is maybe not as appealing to them.

“We try to register as many of our players as possible to play senior rugby with the second or third XV during the second part of the season, mainly so we can keep them engaged during the next six months while they are making plans about what to do next with their lives.”

This is a big part of the reason why the conversion rate of Marr College players into senior rugby is so impressive. Of the 15 players who started last season’s Cup quarter-final defeat to Dollar, 12 have moved on to play for the senior club this season while the other three are still under-18.

You are unlikely to see as many Stew-Mel school players carrying on into senior rugby, but you will get a much higher percentage entering the elite game. Jack Blain, Connor Boyle, Jamie Hodgson, Ross Thompson and Callum Hunter-Hill have all been emerged from the school in recent years to feature for the Edinburgh pro team or the Scotland Under-20s.

The concern is that the development of elite players is increasingly focused on a few leading private schools, while it is becoming ever more difficult for the significantly bigger number of players in “the community game” to countenance making that step.