First of all, an apology. It has been a while since this column was last written; such has been the amount going on in the world of Fifteen Rugby.
The first month of so of the 2014/15 schools rugby season has been as good as any that I can remember, the quality of some of the matches has been sensational at times, and I happen to have been lucky enough to have already witnessed one of the best games of school rugby that I have ever seen.
What has been particularly striking though is the increase in interest in schoolboy rugby. Outlets such as ourselves and In At The Side can perhaps claim some very mild credit for that, however it is social media that has really driven this surge of interest.
As someone noted to me whilst at Wellington Collegeâ€™s outstanding win over Millfield an Iffley Road on Wednesday, in years gone by to find out about a school 1st XV and its players you had to rely on either knowing someone there or on them having an up to date website, and an understanding of what people want to see on it that was ahead of its time.
Now, schools have vast social media networks, the players themselves are all active, even some coaches. The information is out there and that has helped the fanbase that was always there to be able to be more actively involved and to therefore express their interest.
Another part of the reason for the swelling of interest is the level of professionalism now seen at school level. Players are filmed every game, analysed, they know what to eat, what to drink, how to get the maximum from the gym â€“ people know that they are watching and following a quality product.
Yes games have been filmed and players have gone to the gym for many, many years yet in many schools it was all done without any great direction, people just knew it was a good idea – now every schools does it, and does it very, very well. There is no doubt, the job of Director of Rugby at a top rugby school is now pretty much a full time job in itself.
This year we have really begun to see the effects of that level of professionalism in the Aviva A League. Previously the second tier Premiership competition had been very much used as a chance to give the wider squad of Premiership clubs a bit of game time, with a few youngsters chucked in for good measure.
This year it has been packed to the rafters with 18-21 year olds, players pretty fresh from school and ready to go. Maybe this is just a talented year, but the more likely scenario is that this just is not luck, it is because these players have been part of the academy set ups for years, those academies have strong relationships with the schools, who are more professional than ever, and as a result the players are more ready for the deep end when they leave school. Even at school, as Sam Aspland-Robinson and Callum Sirker among others have shown.
There is no question then, all of this has helped boost the interest in and popularity of schools rugby, which as editor of Fifteen Rugby is great to see, and for school 1st XV players is brilliant â€“ for many this is as good as it gets and to see the interest must be a source of great pride.
There are downsides though, in a lot of ways they are the same as some gripes that people have about the pro game â€“ mainly that the little guy is being eased out and the gym is becoming too important. There is a certain truth in that, the increase in physicality at school level does mean that there is less room for the â€˜knees and elbowsâ€™ flankers for instance.
It is why I have a great deal of admiration for the likes of Millfield and Wellington College though, they have taken those â€˜professionalâ€™ steps as much as anyone and have a certain pressure to win and usually do. However both place a huge emphasis on playing the game, throwing it wide and having a go, allowing players to run and make decisions. That is how it should be, school rugby is supposed to be fun, supposed to be about trying things out.
Funnily enough, allowing players to play like that tends to be pretty good for their development too, a rugby player that is confident to make decisions with the ball in hand is an asset at any level.
Another innovation this year that has really helped to drive interest is the introduction of the new Schools Champions Trophy. First of all the schools involved have really bought into it and are keen to start arranging next yearâ€™s calendars to accommodate it better, and other schools are keen to enter it too.
Part of the reason for its success has been that it has been able to draw the likes of Tonbridge and Epsom College into national competition. Its one term format has proved a hit for the schools, and the strength of the competition and the fixtures that would never otherwise have happened are it with the fans. Without doubt it has been hugely well received and has helped drive the all round interest in schools rugby, and it is only in its trial year.
One real positive that it has also brought with it is that this season, unlike any before that I can remember, we (collectively as opposed to as Fifteen Rugby) have a genuine possibility of being able to accurately identify the best school team in the country this year.
Not because the winner of the Champions Trophy will be the best team, there are some outstanding teams who are not involved, but because its existence has pitted, and will continue to pit, top schools against each other who would not ordinarily do so. Ally that to the fact that this yearâ€™s regular fixture list sees even more competition between what looks like being an elite group or four or five at the top, and there is a real chance of something of a consensus emerging.
It will be subjective though, it always is, but there is a chance that some of those arguments will be little less arguable than in previous years. Of course we could be completely wrong, each side could beat some and lose to others and leave us no closer to an answer!
One thing that is looking certain though is that this is looking like one of the great schools rugby seasons, and weâ€™re still a week away from the St Josephâ€™s Festival â€“ what a competition that is going to be again!
I canâ€™t wait for the rest of the season to unfold.
By Angus Savage
What have you thought of this seasonâ€™s school rugby so far? And what is your opinion on the ever-increasing professionalism in the school game? Get in touch with Angus on twitter, or the website through the comment box below or on @FifteenRugbyXV
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