by STUART RUTHERFORD
MELROSE coach Rob Chrystie was in a buoyant mood on Monday afternoon as he looked ahead to this weekend’s BT Premiership play-off Grand Final against Ayr.
Saturday’s match at The Greenyards kicks off a fortnight of fixtures that will make or break Melrose’s season. The following week they face Ayr again in the BT Cup final, before they take on Gala in the Border League final on 26th April. It has been an incredible first season in charge for Chrystie – who had worked as an assistant at the club during the previous three years under John Dalziel – however, the former Bath and Border Reivers scrum-half is under no illusions as to the difficulty of the task at hand.
“This is what you do it for. The format of tournament is obviously now knock-out, but I think it is great for the game. It really makes it exciting and hopefully we will draw in a decent crowd on the back of it. I think if we put in a performance, we will go pretty close, but we know how tough it will be,” said Chrystie.
“We definitely aren’t thinking about the treble, however. Currie was our last league game, and once that was over, it was onto the Sevens [Melrose reached the final of their own tournament at the weekend before losing out to harlequins]. Now we focus on Saturday’s match, its as simple as that. There is no point looking too far ahead. We just need to prepare as well as we can for Ayr and hopefully put in a performance that we can all be proud of.”
Melrose and Ayr have gone tit for tat in this year’s BT Premiership, and only four points separated the two teams as the Millbrae outfit were pipped to the post at the end of the regular season – meaning Chrystie’s side have home advantage in the Grand Final.
Although Melrose came out on top when the two sides met at the Greenyards back in December, Chrystie is taking nothing for granted and believes Saturday’s contest will be like night and day in comparison to that previous clash.
“It’s a different game altogether, and there will be different players on the park. Both Glasgow pros – Adam Ashe and Pat MacArthur – were playing for Ayr that day. Whilst we had Lewis Carmichael, and unless he is going to fly back from Australia, I don’t think he will be taking part,” he reasoned.
“If you look at the history of the play-off finals, since it has gone to a knockout tournament, they have all been extremely tight. Heriot’s obviously won up at Ayr last year, and there was only three points in it. Whilst the year before, we lost up at Heriots by two points. Its the old cliche about small margins, but I’m hopeful that it will be someone in a Melrose shirt who pops up to win it, rather than someone loses it.”
Melrose and Ayr have met in each of the last two season’s semi-finals, with Ayr romping to a 48-10 victory in 2016, and Melrose battling to 22-20 triumph in 2015. With the two teams progressing to this year’s final, it has the feeling of a clash that is long overdue. Chrystie was part of the coaching team in 2016, and witnessed first hand how dangerous an outfit Ayr are when they get a sniff of blood – but he believes his side has progressed significantly since the Millbrae mauling.
“I think there has just been a really good work ethic from the group and the squad has matured over the last few years. They’ve obviously had some tough times as well, so they’ve had to go through that, but they’ve all spent a lot of time together which has made them a really tight unit. We’ve got a lot of young guys coming through as well, which in turn pushes the standard up from below,” said the 39-year-old.
“It’s also what we do off the pitch; from our director of rugby Mike Dalgetpty, to our fitness coach Bill Noble – there is a lot of people at the club who do a massive amount of work behind the scenes to put the team in the best place possible to perform on a Saturday. So it’s a massive collective effort from throughout the whole club.”
Regardless of whether Chrystie’s side is successful on Saturday, we can safely say that Chrystie’s first season has been a success.
“Not much has surprised me this season. It has probably surprised my wife more than anything – just the amount of time I’m on my phone,” he quips.
“The support that is within this club has been brilliant, though. I suppose the one thing I have learned, however, is to just listen a bit more. Being a young coach, you have your own ideas, and you wan’t to batter on with them, but this year I’ve learned to just breathe at times and make the right, calculated decision. We live and learn though.”