For a club as steeped in history as the University of St Andrews Rugby Football Club, with the first ever rugby international between Scotland and England in 1871 starring four St Andrews students, the sheer forward-mindedness of the club in 2014 may come as a surprise. Yet speaking to David Ross, the director of rugby at St Andrews and the only full-time director at a Scottish university, the sense is that the past is precisely what motivates this drive; a drive arguably unmatched by any other sports club in the Auld Grey Toon.
Ironically it is through discussing the recent Golf Club controversy that Ross’s sense of the Rugby Club’s history becomes clear. At every game, and every social, Ross talks of how players are not simply “representing St Andrews circa 2014”, but a “150 year-old institution”, of which the current players are merely the current incarnation. Hence, were anything untoward to occur at a social, whoever is responsible is, in effect, also responsible for 150 generations of rugby playing students. If such a claim rings hollow, it is worth remembering how the inaugural fixture of every season “perhaps the biggest game of the year” for Ross, despite only occurring at the season’s start – is literally 150 years old; the Varsity versus Edinburgh in London, which routinely attracts over 1,500 spectators. That the Rugby Club be conceived by Ross as an historic “institution” rather than a mere club is therefore understandable. What marks out the Rugby Club’s current approach as truly unique though is the lengths it is prepared to go to live up to its history.
In effect, current women’s and men’s first team players could not be given any greater scope for self-improvement. Meticulous and seemingly exhaustive statistics are compiled on the performance of every single player, every single game, by the Club’s very own performance analyst. Regardless of playing position, stats are provided for virtually every action a player undertakes; actions which are themselves graded according to level of success. For example, a player’s ‘tackles’ are graded according to three possible outcomes: ‘failed’, ‘successful’ and ‘dominant’. A player can then see their precise tackling success rate in percentile terms; there is no need whatsoever to rack their brains to try and remember how successful they were. Even full-backs can see their tackling statistics in full, regardless of how relatively unimportant the art of tackling may be to full-backs, just as they can see full statistics on how successfully they ran with ball in hand. This statistical analysis is complemented, even more remarkably, by full video footage of every single player, which is given to the players to pore over every Friday, a full five days in advance of Wednesday BUCS games. Lower down the Club hierarchy, the men’s 3rd team is often motivated by the chance to play in sevens, tens and full fifteens tournaments staged at Murrayfield, the national stadium. It is unsurprising, therefore, that all teams occupy their respective leagues’ upper echelons, with the Women’s 1sts top, the Men’s 1sts and 3rds in second, and the Men’s 2nds third from seven. The women’s and men’s 1st teams in particular possess phenomenal points differences of over 170 each; something rarely achieved over the course of an entire season, let alone before Christmas. Evidently, in purely sporting terms, the current incarnation of the Rugby Club could hardly be doing more to live up to its past.
But what is equally noteworthy is the way in which watching footage of poor performances, and training with Murrayfield as potential motivation, must help develop a thick skin and level of self-awareness useful in life as well as sport. Along these lines, a pervasive sense is gleaned from talking to Ross that the Rugby Club is aiming not merely at sporting development, but at personal and even moral development. It is no coincidence that the very same first team players who are provided with such rich feedback, are also expected to coach the next generation of youngsters every weekend at the local Madras College.
Granted, there may well be longterm benefits to this in purely rugby- playing terms, in that talent with futures in the professional game could well be unearthed at Madras. Ross himself, after all, has at some point coached no less than five of the recent Scotland XV who played the All-Blacks this autumn. But these are not benefits that will bring to bear on either the University Rugby Club or the students doing the coaching. It seems fair to say, then, the real benefits of students coaching in the community (and coaching during their time off, let’s not forget) are the personal qualities of discipline, patience and generosity it develops. As Ross himself puts it, the Club wants its members to develop as “individuals, and not just rugby players”.
Without wanting to sound too philosophical, the Club’s whole way of operating seems to presuppose the twin principles of duty – duty both to others, and the duty every player has to him or herself. Where sport often has a reputation for being a moral vacuum; a self-contained and fastidiously self-centred activity, the Rugby Club here at St Andrews stands apart. The overarching duty though, the duty which motivates the other two, is duty to live up to the Club’s own past. Simply put, the Rugby Club is too established, too historic and too successful to demand anything less than operation at the very upper limit of its means. It is currently setting the standards for sport at St Andrews, in both high-end performance and lower-level community and coaching work, and laying the foundations for years to come – all inspired by its own past. Perhaps, then, looking back to the future is less of a mistake than a certain 1980s comedy would have you believe.