In times where we are all searching for any kind of hope and joy in a world that feels more hopeless and joyless than ever, there is something which has brought me personally some real happiness – my community rugby club and in particular the rapid development of women’s rugby. But this does flag up some things Scotland just doesn’t seem to get right.
So first of all, congratulations to the Biggar Woman’s team (my partner plays for them) who travelled to Dundee yesterday to play Dundee Valkyries in a play-off for a place in the top division. After an amazing season and despite some erratic refereeing and a really powerful performance by Dundee, Biggar just managed to secure promotion with a try in the last five minutes of play. (Commiserations to Valkyries who were excellent.)
It is the more inspiring given that Biggar Women’s team was really only relaunched five or six years ago and this squad has only really been together for two or three Covid-disrupted seasons. But the foundations go deep down into the club. A few years ago Biggar ‘rebranded’ itself with the motto ‘one club, one family’. It really emphasised the all-family development of local rugby.
To my eyes the biggest beneficiaries of this have been the girls and women of the club. This message – that they are part of one rugby family and not just an adjunct to the men’s game – has had a real impact. My eight-year-old son plays at mini level and more than once this year teams that play against us tell us they are impressed that our mini teams contain as many girls as boys.
The mixed teams divide when they reach high school and here signs are even more encouraging. My daughter plays for the Under 14s and they take their rugby much more seriously than I did at their age (and I played a good level). She trains four days a week and plays on a Sunday.
At the start of the season the team had 12 players. There are now 23 players in the squad and they have a real momentum. It is that which has fed through to the adult game – Biggar has won Scottish girls’ championships at every level up to and including Under 18s in recent years.
This is my first observation; the strides forward in women’s sport in recent years has been amazing, but so much more needs to be done. Clubs which develop momentum in their women’s game can really build great teams. But they struggle for fixtures because there just aren’t enough clubs who have that momentum.
In Biggar that was driven by the women themselves with the active support of the club. But if there is going to be a strong ecosystem of women’s rugby across Scotland then much more development work and support is needed in clubs if they are going to develop that momentum.
In Scotland there seems to be far too much dependence on shortcuts and too little interest in the foundations of what makes success
But this reflects something deeper and more fundamental about grassroots sport in Scotland. It reflects a recurring problem in Scottish policy generally – there seems to be far too much dependence on shortcuts and too little interest in the foundations of what makes success.
In Holywood they know that nine out of ten films will fail to make their money back – but that is how you find the one in ten that makes it back in bucketloads. It has seemed to me that Scottish policy has for a couple of decades now convinced itself that if it can only get its ‘metrics’ right then it can beat the Holywood system and only ever invest in that one-in-ten money-makers. It hasn’t worked.
It feels like the same in grassroots sport. In the week running up to Biggar’s play-off, the Scottish Rugby Union called up one of the key Biggar players to the Scotland squad – and told them that was it, they had to leave Biggar (two other players had previously been told they had to move on if they wanted to reach the Scotland setup). She had been an integral part of a team and everyone is from the same community, is close to each other. To take her away with a couple of days’ notice is not right.
And yet that is the norm for a club like Biggar. Us smaller clubs have always been treated as little more than ‘feeders’. Scotland seems to think the way to become a successful rugby nation is to undermine the clubs and ‘asset strip’ them to strengthen a tiny number of professional teams.
It’s a kind of sporting neoliberalism – everything and everyone is always ‘for sale’ and a club can spend a decade supporting and developing a player to be told one day that the player has been instructed to leave the club (clubs don’t get any compensation for that). How do you grow a strong grassroots sporting infrastructure if clubs are treated as part of the food chain?
It has been depressing for me to see the decline in some of the once-great clubs of Scottish rugby. I wonder what would have happened if we had gone in another direction at the time of professionalisation , right up to our national game which, for all the lovely rugby it has played in recent years, sometimes looks a bit like a South Africa/England mash-up B-team.
I dream of a Scotland which could get its nose out its belly button, stop trying to shortcut its way to success now and had the patience and commitment to really invest in the future, to invest in a Scotland where people play sport for joy and for friendship, week in, week out
This idea of ‘rootless growth’ seems to be everywhere in Scotland, from a local sporting club to the Scottish Government’s main economic strategy. It’s the belief that the Scottish economy doesn’t need to have patience and develop its own indigenous base. It’s the idea that housing is best delivered by letting big business build white boxes in a field on the edge of town whether or not it is designed to add to the local community.
And it is a grassroots sports attitude that leaves clubs constantly feeling that they are battling to build and grow without the support they need. It takes time to grow deeper roots, but it is deep roots which drive the strongest growth – Italy’s Under 20s just beat Scotland’s in the Six Nations. Others are building, are we?
None of this takes away from the elation everyone felt yesterday. Winning in a country that doesn’t take women’s rugby seriously enough and where a club has just had its hands tied behind its back in the week in the run-up to the highlight of the season just motivates a little club like Biggar. It has to.
And none of it takes away the joy I’ve felt this year. The politics of independence have sucked up so, so much of the last ten years of my life that making time to stand in the rain with friends and watch my team play has lifted me more than any single thing that has happened since the end of lockdown.
Seeing the enormous enthusiasm my partner and her team and my daughter and her friends have for the game is every bit as joyous. It reminded me very clearly what sport is about – the emotions, the commitment, the friendships, the joys, the bitter disappointments, the hangovers…
In some ways grassroots sports appear to me to have come on a lot since my day, but in others it feels like they’ve gone backwards. I dream of a Scotland which could get its nose out its belly button, stop trying to shortcut its way to success now and had the patience and commitment to really invest in the future, to invest in a Scotland where people play sport for joy and for friendship, week in, week out.
If you could see the joy on the Biggar women’s faces as the champagne sprayed everywhere or the excitement of me and my daughter jumping up and down on the touchline willing our team forward, you’d dream of it too.