Merchiston: Staying connected during uncertain times

players for Merchiston Castle School rugby team

Merchiston Castle School has produced a number of topclass rugby talents – from Bath and England number eight Zach Mercer to current Glasgow Warriors Stafford McDowall, Jamie Dobie and Scotland 7s star Patrick Kelly.

They have all come through the ranks of the school’s impressive rugby system, headed up by Roddy Deans, the Director of Rugby at Merchiston.

And while our lives have been paused for the past couple of months due to the Coronavirus and the measures put in place to prevent the spread of the virus, Deans and his team have been checking in with students on a regular basis, while the students themselves have been continuing their studies – and rugby training – from home.

Deans, who is also a PE teacher at the school, spoke exclusively to SCRUM
recently about the last couple of months and how it’s impacted on his role.

“We’ve been keeping all the boys connected through Zoom meetings – we are running weekly one-to-one, positional and unit Zoom meetings.

“Our leadership group are running the unit meetings which is valuable experience for them to develop their communication and leadership skills.

“As coaches we just drop in and listen to their discussions. Our boys are already very excited about next season.”

While Deans admitted the disruption to the school’s rugby calendar for 2019/20 has been minimal – they’ll miss only the Rosslyn Park tournament – he remains uncertain what the picture will look like when they do return.

“Best-case scenario we’re maybe looking at October and worst-case scenario next January, but everyone is so in the dark,” he said.

“We’ve just got to wait and see over the coming weeks and months where we’re going to be rugby-wise.”

Deans also hopes that when they do return, the players continue to play the game with a smile on their faces, both at Merchiston, and after they have left.

“It’s key for us that we can put a framework in place for the boys to enjoy their rugby and it’s important that they continue once they leave.”

“We’re talking now about staying connected, but it’s about making those connections while they’re at school and playing rugby with a smile on their faces.

“Every boy that comes through our school is going to have their own rugby journey – we’ve got a lot of boys in the professional game at the minute, and our programmes and staff are in place to facilitate that as much as possible.

“We’re not a rugby academy – Jamie Dobie came through the school and has now played for Glasgow. First and foremost he was here for his academic studies and looking at university, which was his main priority, but if they are good enough, an lucky enough to get a professional contract, that’s great.

“We just try and help them as much as possible.”

The current crop can learn something from some of the school’s former pupils, and they have tapped into teenage scrum-half Dobie, his Glasgow Warriors colleague McDowall and England back-row Mercer during lockdown to find out more about their experiences of the elite game.

Zoom call between staff and players at Merchiston Castle school.
Stafford McDowall (bottom) with Roddny Deans and Rob Moffat on a Zoom call

Deans continued: “We’ve been using a Friday night for a webinar and we’ve had Zach on talking about his rugby journey, right through to playing for Bath and England.

“He went on to talk about his aspirations – he’s only 22 and he’s played 80-odd games for Bath.

“The kids loved hearing that, and it’s good for them – we talk a lot about being a small school but producing these role models is important to us.”

While they are not seeing any use at the moment, the school possesses some top-class rugby facilities. Their pitches are used by both England and the All Blacks when they are in Edinburgh, and there is a gym where players can train.

“We don’t have an all-singing gym, but we’ve got an extremely talented strength and conditioning coach, Iain Noble, and he is amazing. We’re very well looked after on that side and the gym has got everything that they need. 

“The boys are really fit and strong, and they’re able to go and play at a high level, but the main reason we do that to keep the boys injury free.

“We want them to get good habits under their belt.”

Deans is also aware that, while the continuation of studies and rugby training – as much as possible while the players are at home – is important, he knows it’s important to make sure they are alright during these
unprecedented times.

“First and foremost, we feel it’s important to stay in touch with the boys as everyone is finding these times difficult.

“We will continue to support the boys as much as possible even if it’s just saying hello or having a chat to give them the opportunity to feel connected and safe. 

“Our goal for each boy is to use their time effectively and come out of lock down in a stronger position. This will then enable us to hit the ground running and be best prepare for our return to rugby.”

Looking ahead to a time when rugby does return, Deans knows he and his coaching team will need time with the players before they can resume playing matches. 

“We’re going to need to have a programme in place for how we return to rugby,” he said.

“Everyone is trying to help each other find the best model for getting back. Scottish Rugby haven’t released anything yet in terms of a return, but a betting man would be saying it’s likely to be the New Year.

“The cup and conference is normally finished by Christmas, so hopefully we can organise some sort of competition for the boys to finish their school year on a high.

“This might be a chance to have a look at summer rugby and see how it looks in better weather.”

Whenever rugby does return, Deans and the team at Merchiston Castle School will hope to continue the school’s proud traditions in
the game.

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