South of Scotland 33
STUART SUTHERLAND @ Riverside Park
YOU may have been so absorbed by the unfolding events of last night’s historic election across the pond, that you missed another long anticipated battle taking place in Jedburgh. In front of a 1,200 strong crowd at Riverside Park, the South of Scotland faced off against Caledonia and in a similar vain to last night’s election results it was the red team which came out on top.
After much anticipation about the return of the South from supporters and players alike in the region, the selected side certainly didn’t disappoint, seeing away a spirited Caledonia outfit with a clinical performance. It was always going to be tough for both sides to perform on the night, after only two training sessions prior to the match, and in truth the lack of preparation was apparent with disjointed play being a running theme throughout the game. However, the home side held the trump card in the shape of their fleet-footed back three and used this much to their advantage to ultimately run out comfortable winners.
It may have been all smiles on the night for Kevin Barrie’s side; however, there has been considerable controversy in the run up to the fixture. Melrose and Stirling County – the leading teams in each district at the moment – both pulled their players out of the game, citing potential fatigue and risk of injury as the reasons. The question has to be asked: does district rugby still have a place in the modern game?
On a bitterly cold Tuesday night in November, it would have been easy enough to stay at home and simply watch the highlights of the match online the next day [see link at foot of article], but a sizable band of supporters from both regions made the effort to support their respective teams. It’s also worth noting that a dinner was held in the Jed-Forest clubrooms prior to kick-off which, like the match itself, was excellently attended, even by clubs such as Langholm and Earlston who had no real affiliation with the South’s current crop of players.
Next week – focus on Caledonia region
What also must be encouraging for advocates of inter-district rugby was the appetite of the players involved. There was no pre-season feel to this game and the endeavour on show from both teams, especially in defence, was exceptional. The South conceded only seven points all evening and shut out the visitors for the entirety of the second half. Their desire in defence was self-evident and at one point Gala’s Matt Carryer put in a monstrous tackle that you would expect to see in a match against rivals Melrose, never mind on a Tuesday night against an untested opponent.
Gregor Hunter, another Gala player, finished as a deserved man of the match and the stand-off was optimistic that his appearance for the South was the first of many to come.
“I don’t know what the logistics are of the team, but hopefully there is room for more fixtures in the future,” he said. “I think you see the smiles on the boys’ faces after the game and they absolutely loved the occasion and loved playing for the South. I definitely think there is room for it in the rugby calendar.”
Dundee HSFP’s head coach, Colin Sangster, took charge of the Caledonia team for this clash, and despite the result, he shares the sentiment that there is still a level of prestige that comes hand-in-hand with inter-district rugby.
“You can see how much it means to wear the jersey and I think it’s always been the case when playing for Caley. The result might not have gone our way but I thought in terms of attitude the boys gave 100 per cent so you certainly can’t fault them for lack of effort.”
But, clearly, not everyone is convinced that reprising the district set-up is the best way to bridge the gap between professional and club rugby. A handful of Scotland’s leading clubs in the BT Premiership believe that creating a semi-professional tier at the top of the club game would be a better alternative. However, like the district solution, there are major hurdles which must be negotiated for this to come to fruition, with the biggest issue being the need to find an adequate and suitable fixture list.
When Melrose made the decision not to support last night’s match, club president Trevor Jackson cited “the heavy load placed on the players and the timing of this fixture” by way of explanation. The Greenyards club were well within their rights, especially when the international break gives them an opportunity to rest key players after 11 gruelling weeks battling it out at the top of the Premiership – but it has exacerbated a rift between the region’s most successful team in recent years and the rest.
So, we have something of an impasse. Melrose may see the South as a distraction, but the rest of the Borders clubs believe it as an ideal step-up for their best and most ambitious players, who may be looking at a way of bridging the gap between the amateur and professional game. You could argue that the club game may stagnate if an elite semi-professional league isn’t created, but maybe there is more than one way to skin a cat.
Can we really expect clubs such as Hawick and Gala to sit on their hands while their rivals push for an elite league which they do not believe in, and not look for an alternative outlet for their best players to test themselves at a higher level, without having to leave their home clubs?
Ultimately, are we giving enough thought to the players themselves? It would be interesting to privately ask the Melrose squad whether they would want to pull on the South jersey in the future, and whether they felt they missed out on something exciting last night. One thing that stuck out after the full-time whistle was the smiles on the players’ faces and their obvious sense of pride; and when speaking to older players it was heart-warming to see their joy when reciting old stories of their days playing for the South.’
Amateur rugby or professional rugby, there is no denying the history surrounding the South – and without our history we are nothing. Isn’t it something worth keeping alive, even if it is only for one game a year?
South: L Young; G Spiers, G Young, L Armstrong, C Robertson; G Hunter (c), S Goodfellow; S Muir, M Carrier, C Keen, G Law, A Renwick, R Louw, S Graham, B McNeil. Subs: C MacKintosh, C Hogg, C Reynolds, Ian Wallace, C Weir, A Tait, R Nixon, R Shirra-Gibb
Caledonia: G Clow; A Rennie, E Oag, D Innes, J Webster; L Brims, P Jericevich; J Cox, D Russell, A Brown, C MacFarlane, J Pow, G Ryan (c), C Jollands, J Eaglesham. Subs: L Skinner, A Cook, N Fraser, T Turpie, G Arnott, S Lathangie, S Knudson, J Adamson.
Referee: Ben O’Keefe
South: Tries: Armstrong, L Young, McNeil, G Young, Nixon. Cons: Hunter (4).
Caledonia: Try: Brown Con: Brims.
Scoring Sequence (South first): 0-5, 0-7, 5-7, 7-7, 12-7, 17-7, 19-7 (h-t) 26-7, 31-7, 33-7.
Yellow Cards –
Caledonia: Jake Eaglesham
Image courtesy: Alwyn Johnston