THE race for the National League Division One title – and with it automatic promotion to the Premiership next season – has come down to the wire, with Edinburgh Academicals and Jed-Forest tied on 99 league points each going into their final matches of the campaign this Saturday afternoon.
The sides have each won 20 of their 21 fixtures in the campaign so far, with 19 try bonus points picked up along the way. Their only defeats have been in the away fixtures against one another, leaving them 26 points clear of third placed GHA.
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Accies, who are top of the table with a significantly better points differential, take on fifth placed Selkirk at Philiphaugh this weekend; while Jed will do battle with fourth placed Dundee HSFP at Morgan (Mayfield is unavailable). The mathematics are quite simple: if Accies win with a bonus point then they are champions, but if they fail to achieve that and Jed pick up more league points from their match then they will take the crown.
The odds are stacked in Accies’ favour, but head coach Derek O’Riordan is not taking anything for granted.
“I wish it was as simple as saying that we just need to turn up and do what we have been doing all season, but we know from experience that it isn’t that easy. We let the occasion get to us a little bit when we played Jed-Forest down there back in March, and this will be another tough afternoon if we don’t get it right,” he said.
“It is in our control and we know we are capable of getting the job done, so that’s good – but we know that there is still a lot of work to do. Training has been good all week and we’ve been able to focus on the little bits and pieces we need to get right, and we’re just looking forward to getting out there and finishing what we have started.”
It is not quite a death or glory occasion. The losing team will have another opportunity to snatch promotion when they take on Glasgow Hawks – who finished second bottom in the Premiership – in a play-off match on 5th May.
That was where Accies ended up last season and they lost in agonising fashion to Hawick. It was a bitter pill to swallow at the time, but lessons were learned and the team’s form this year has convinced O’Riordan that Britain’s oldest club is now truly ready to return to the top flight.
“Maturity has been the key. We brought in Sam Johnson and Richard Mill at half-back and they have given us a lot of control, Jamie Sole has developed into a real leader and Robin Snape coming back from France has added some serious dog to the back-row,” he explained.
“We’ve developed the way we play to a style better suited to our personnel. We proved in our cup games against Heriot’s [won 29-24] and Stirling County [lost 22-15] that we can live with Premiership opposition and we’ve already started recruiting for next year, which has nothing to do with us expecting to be promoted but just our desire to keep improving as a squad.”
Accies expect to finally break ground on their long-awaited Raeburn Place development in June, and they have joined forces with Edinburgh University to conjure up an ambitious bid for a Super 6 franchise.
“It is an exciting time at the club but from my perspective it is all about what is happening on the park now. We have Selkirk in front of us and although we won fairly comfortably when we played them at Raeburn, we know they are a different animal at home. Graham Marshall has said his team are desperate to do their Border pals a favour and quite right, too,” concluded O’Riordan.
Meanwhile, Kevin Barrie of Jed-Forest believes that his club is also ready to make the step-up.
“There’s a lot of boys in the team – such Ryan Gibson, Clark Skeldon, Robbie Yourston, Rory Marshall and Grant Paxton – who were part of the Jed Thistle side which won back to back National Youth League Cup titles in 2014 and 2015, and they are only in their early 20s so just reaching their peak as senior players. Alongside that we’ve got some experience there in the likes of the Young twins [Lewis and Gregor] and Darren Gillespie, and we’ve not been scared to recruit when we need to, with Monty Mitchell and Blake Roff providing a real hard edge from New Zealand,” he explained.
“We know it is a big step up into the Premiership but now is the time to do it. With the league structure changing next season, it doesn’t look like there will be relegation, so that would give us some breathing space that hasn’t been there in the past.”
“We’re a small town club but we are ambitious, and we’ve worked hard on and off the field to make sure we are in a good place to push forward … but we need to get Dundee out the way first!”
“It always seems to be our games against Dundee which get called off. We played them up there in a re-arranged fixture at the end of April last year and it was a high scoring match. We ended up losing 55-33. I won’t complain if we get something similar this weekend but the winner the other way around.”