THE BORDER LEAGUE season launched last Thursday, back in its traditional format, with a bumper crowd witnessing an entertaining see-saw match which finished with Kelso beating Peebles 29-17 at Poynder Park.
Entry was free with Kelso officials keen to use the game as an opportunity to stimulate interest in the competition and to also gauge the levels of enthusiasm after years of trying to fit the Border League into a pool format, with games often being left unplayed.
Club President Neil Hastie declared himself delighted to see over 500 people in attendance, and the reaction from supporters and players reassured him that the Borders clubs’ decision to refocus on the Border League and restore the Border Junior League (reserve league), at the expense of Scottish Cup and national reserve league competitions, will prove to be a good move.
“We’ve been looking for the last couple of years to get the Border League up and running again in its full capacity, but there was also a reluctance to remove ourselves from national competitions,” he explained.
“The great thing has been getting all the region’s clubs together, speaking positively about the future, and with the national leagues going to 10-teams, that gave us an opportunity. Everyone was in agreement that we had to try and make the Border League better and more meaningful. It lost its way a bit in the way it has been run, but this game I think gave an indication of the competitiveness and excitement that will come with it going back to a league format.
“Having local teams playing against each other, we believe, will bring crowds back in to club rugby again, and that will have a knock-on financial impact on our clubs. It’s critical in the current economic times that the clubs work harder and smarter to sustain our future. It really has been very tough for clubs in the last few years. We’ve been lucky at Kelso in the past year or so with a good youth set-up and club ethos building, and winning promotion, but it’s still really tough for clubs with the increasing costs of energy, maintenance, materials to improve club facilities and other bills which have been going up and up and up.
“We’ve always believed in the Borders that the success of our game relies on strong, competitive, attractive rugby, and when you look back at the history of these local clubs in small towns with small populations they grew on the back of a competitive Border League started in 1901. Sometimes, it’s a good idea to go back to what works.”Error, group does not exist! Check your syntax! (ID: 60)
The controversial aspect of the move is the Borders clubs’ decision to withdraw from the Scottish Cup to allow them the breathing space in the calendar to fit in Border League matches. Hawick, as cup holders, will remain involved this season, and will also double-up Premiership matches against Jed-Forest, Selkirk and newly-promoted Kelso as Border League fixtures. Gala and Melrose will do the same in National One, and play the others in midweek and Friday nights, while Peebles have to find six extra dates to fit on top of their National Two commitments.
However, Peebles RFC President Allan Beveridge was similarly enthusiastic, stating: “Personally, myself and the club are really pleased to be part of a proper Border League.
“Yes, it will be tough because we’re the only Borders club in our league, so we can’t have double-headers, but our fixture secretary already has dates pencilled in for the Border League fixtures, so we just now need to work with clubs and get them in. Hopefully, of course it will help us improve and we’ll be up with more of them in future seasons.
“I’ve always wanted to play against Hawick, Gala, Kelso etc because it’s good quality rugby, and the players nowadays want that as well. Our game against Kelso was a really good game to watch and the boys said it was a great game to play in, in front of a big crowd, and so while I hate getting beat I can take that because we got a lot out of it. If we have a similar standard through the season, with that kind of interest from fans, it will be great because ultimately you only get better if you play against better opposition.
“And the same applies to the Border Junior League,” he added. “People have to realise that players, not just in the Borders but all over Scotland, don’t want to travel long distances and be away all day anymore. We had a lot of games last season cancelled by clubs that wouldn’t even travel to Peebles from Edinburgh to play against our second team, and if boys don’t have games for a few weeks on the trot they lose interest and walk away from the sport. So, we’re very happy that the Border Junior League is back.”
An obvious criticism from outside has been that the Borders clubs are being parochial, turning in on themselves, potentially to the detriment of Scottish rugby as a whole. There are few in the Scottish game that have been around more blocks, or heard more criticism and ‘debate’ than Hawick RFC secretary John Thorburn, and he said: “I don’t actually understand why our other regions in Scotland haven’t created their own versions of the Border League, and it’s still unique to the Borders. I think a North league, Caledonia league, Glasgow league, Edinburgh league would be great for the game.
“At Hawick, we will stay in the Scottish Cup this season because our players wanted to defend it, naturally, and we support that, but with no sponsor – why we can’t get a sponsor for the national rugby cup competition is beyond me – it will cost us to compete, in tough times.
“It has been suggested before that we could play the first rounds regionalised, with good local derbies stoking up interest and generating income for clubs, and the winners in the regions coming together for national semi-finals. But because ideas like that don’t happen the Borders clubs have had to act themselves to find ways to be sustainable in the modern era, which means less travel, more local derbies and more weekly interest for players and supporters.”Error, group does not exist! Check your syntax! (ID: 60)
The return of the South of Scotland team as a representative club side drew a crowd of more than 1,500 on a Tuesday night in May, and the Border Junior League (featuring seven Borders clubs’ reserve sides) will re-launch on Saturday 2nd September, with Gala hosting Peebles, Melrose away to Hawick and Jed-Forest welcoming long-time local rivals Kelso to Riverside Park. The question is: will interest be sustained over a season?
Hastie replied: “We don’t know the answer to that, but there is an appetite to find out. For all the deep rivalries we have, there is also a strength of Border clubs when it comes to promoting the game of rugby, and we’re trying to use that.
“We value being part of Scottish rugby, and we love travelling to different places and not just across Scotland but on tours to Wales and elsewhere. But you have to recognise that some things have helped club rugby and some things haven’t, so it’s about how we get back a competitive edge, raise the standard, encourage supporters and bring communities together again, because that’s how our sport thrives.
“The Border Junior League competition might be even more important to be honest in terms of revitalising the game. Yes, it will take time to build the player numbers back up and there will be challenges in getting reserve teams out every week, because lots of players have drifted away.
“But I have to say the group of representatives from each Borders club have put a heck of a lot of work into studying how to grow player bases again, how to attract supporters, sponsorship and income, and been really objective about the challenges and how they can be overcome. They have built in flexibility for this season to help teams missing players, which will need compromise and clubs working together, but that’s what really pleases me: the backing from all the Border clubs for that
“The travelling has been difficult for clubs, in costs but also getting players to go. Giving up a whole Saturday is not as easy these days and we have to listen to players, and move and adapt with the times, the demands on young men and women and families, so rather than this being about parochial Borderers trying to turn the clock back it’s actually about looking to the future and how we support rugby clubs and help them to be sustainable for years to come.”
And judging by the launch on Thursday, Hastie is encouraged.
“We had over 300 packed into our stand and another couple of hundred or so around the ground, and they made their voices heard, which is the kind of atmosphere the players love.
“And it was a good game, no quarter asked in the forwards and lots of running and handling rugby, which made for an entertaining game. It’s a good start – now we have to build on that.”