SCRUM Columnist – and Glasgow University player – Matt Horsman takes a fascinating look at University rugby in Scotland:
This week I am pondering the question of how far University rugby has come in terms of professionalism and if it is an under-utilised method of developing Scotland’s leading rugby playing talent.
After several instances of University rugby gaining nationwide exposure over the past year – most notably Jamie Roberts turning out for Cambridge in the Varsity Match and the dramatic rise in prominence of Tomas Francis from a Leeds University bench player to a Wales internationalist in a few short years – I am keen to examine whether Scotland as a rugby playing nation is missing a trick.
I took time out to speak to David Ross, University of St Andrews’ Director of Rugby – whose side are currently playing in English Premier North B after promotion from the Scottish leagues last year – and Adam Nicol, a Scotland under-20 prop and playing member of Glasgow University RFC, to gauge their opinions on the matter.
When asked if he thought there were prospects in the University setup who could match Francis’ meteoric rise to fame, David was optimistic, but felt that these players could be given more of a chance.
He said: “There are definitely players playing University rugby who are good enough to play national age-grade and beyond, but due to the structure of Scottish Rugby – which favours the club route – selectors rarely come to watch University rugby and we are seldom asked to identify players for squads.”
David has strong estimations of skill and fitness levels across the board at University level, but also commented on an impressive set of facilities at top Universities that cannot be matched by many clubs.
“Some of the Universities have outstanding rugby programmes where S&C, video analysis, physio, massage, recovery, facilities and the high standards of games are all significantly better than some clubs, which should be taken into consideration.
“Despite all of our recent successes, Scottish Universities are still lagging behind English Universities. The professionalism and route to professional contracts is a fundamental part of the RFU performance pathway. I
“In Scotland, University rugby is not really on the performance rugby radar. The English teams all have links to Premiership academies so a lot of the players are doing joint sessions with academies and gaining a lot of high level experience.”
I asked Adam a similar set of questions and his responses about his own experiences were extremely positive.
When I asked him about the standard of University rugby and whether he was surprised in his first game he answered emphatically.
“Yes! I thought that maybe Uni rugby would be for people who still had a strong interest in rugby, but maybe didn’t want to keep up with regular club training or S&C programmes due to studying or other reasons,” he explained.
“However, shortly into my first game I realised that the players on both teams had very high skill and fitness levels.”
Adam is obviously playing at a higher standard than his University team mates and the criticism is often that playing in a non-professional environment can be detrimental for a player’s development.
However, when I asked him if he had found his experience beneficial he was again very upbeat.
“I think that it has really helped me this year as I was injured for the beginning of the season. Uni rugby allowed me to get some game time under my belt and build my confidence back up!
“My favourite moment in a Glasgow University top so far was coming off the bench to help us beat top of the table Edinburgh.
“I want to be playing as much rugby as possible to develop my game and I think Uni rugby is a great, more relaxed way to do so.”
The sense I got from both of these guys was that a rise in exposure to the University game for our young talents would be beneficial for everyone involved as results south of the border are showing.
And having personally scrummaged behind Adam this year as he devastated opposition packs, it certainly wouldn’t do the Universities any harm either!