IT has been a fairly rocky start to the season for Stirling County and head coach David Adamson has not minced his words when venting his frustration at some of his team’s performances.
Following an agonising 25-17 defeat at Melrose a fortnight ago (at the end of which key forward Adam Sinclair punched opposition stand-off Jason Baggott as the rest of the players shook hands and landed himself a six week ban as a consequence), Adamson warned his squad that they “need to learn that penalties cost games and ill-discipline can no longer be accepted”.
“This week needs to see a change in mind-set from the players, and an understanding of the consequence that their actions bring,” he added.
Adamson’s exasperation was palpable, but his belief that better days lie ahead has been unwavering, and he has continued to insist that a top four finish in the Premiership is an entirely achievable target. A degree of validation for this bold assertion arrived last weekend when his heavily depleted side lost 46-22 at Ayr, but gave the Millbrae men a fright early on with some breathtakingly adventurous rugby.
“Six members of the pack which started against Melrose were unavailable for one reason or another, we had three opensides in the back-row, and we knew that Ayr would be pretty strong and dominant, so we just took the view that we had nothing to lose. We went out there and attacked from pretty much everywhere,” says Adamson.
“We scored two very well worked tries in quick succession to go 14-8 up after 35 minutes, but then Ayr just did what they had to do. George Hunter [former Glasgow Warriors prop who was cameoing in the back-row] was really dominant, they had Darcy Rae and Steven Longwell in the front-row, and it was really just a case of wearing us down until we ended up making a few defensive errors and paid the price.”
“It was disappointing to lose but I think we were all encouraged by the way we stepped up to a huge challenge.”
The campaign got off to a promising enough start with Stirling charging past Hawick at Bridgehaugh on the opening weekend of the season, only to be immediately brought back down to earth with a bump when being outmanoeuvred by Peter Wright’s lively Boroughmuir outfit the following week.
Adamson admits that Wright’s post match comments about Stirling’s lack of ambition hit a nerve, and he says that the whole experience was an important moment in the evolution of his new look team.
“Stirling has traditionally had a strong pack, and while I wouldn’t call it a lack of ambition I think there has been mind-set that they want to focus on the set-piece and the more physical aspects of the game. As well as being head coach I also oversee attack and I am quite keen to develop that side of things,” he says.
“So I was really disappointed at Boroughmuir. I watched the game over a few times and just couldn’t stop thinking that this is not what we have set out to achieve. I realised after that game that if we wanted to change the way we play then we really had to put an emphasis on it. Not just talk about it, but really make it one of our key drivers. And I think that is beginning to come through.”
“We do have good backs. We’ve had Nemia Kenatale, the Fijian scrum-half who is at Glasgow, for the last four weeks and we have given him a free reign because he has 40 odd caps and we don’t want to over coach him; our stand-off Ross Jones, who played four years with the Ospreys and has also played for the Welsh Sevens team, is beginning to find his feet in the team and you can see that in his attack; and we’ve seen quite a lot of [Warriors centre] Fraser Lyle, who has been an excellent focal point of our attack.”
“Although we lost against Ayr, the tries we scored show that we can be a threat from anywhere – which is really positive.”
Stirling are one of a number of clubs to have recruited aggressively over the summer, which has raised a few eyebrows in certain quarters given the much heralded strength of the youth programme at Bridgehaugh. Adamson is unrepentant about the approach the club has taken because he believes it is a necessary short-term strategy in the push towards on-going sustainability.
“There is a lot of talk at the moment about the Premiership being reduced to eight teams and going semi-pro and we would definitely want to be a part of that. So that’s why the club has invested money into the gym and other facilities. We’ve got a good games hall which hosts a lot of functions and weddings, so we have a pretty pro-active business model, and we need to make sure we are matching that on the pitch,” he says.
“It’s not a long term thing because the academy set up we have now is doing really well under Stewart Milne, we have a full-time strength and conditioning coach, and we’re working hard to build our links with Stirling University and Dollar Academy – but it will take four or five years to bear fruit so we have identified what we need to do to be competitive for the time being.”
“Last season our starting team was decent, but at times we had guys who were ordinarily 2nd XV or 3rd XV players on the bench or even starting against the likes of Ayr. We also had a few overseas boys, but with the visa regulation situation they had to move on. So we identified that we had to get a bigger and better squad, and at the end of last season I was given a playing budget by the committee and we went out and identified guys that we wanted to bring in.”
“We wanted to recruit Caley boys because we are the only Premiership club in the region and we felt it was important to be representative of that – so we approached players like Hamilton Burr from Aberdeen Grammar, Matt Emmison from Aberdeenshire, plus Bruce Sorbie who was at GHA but initially came from Caley. Mike MacDonald came back to us after playing for Stew-Mel whilst studying in Edinburgh.”
Stirling also looked outside Scotland. Sinclair was tempted home after a couple of seasons playing in France and briefly England; Jones was signed from Rotherham Titans in the English Championship; while centre Jake Cresswell and number eight Alex Taylor arrived from New Zealand.
All in, there were 12 new recruits in the 1st XV squad at the start of the season, but Adamson insists that the identity of the club has not been compromised.
“I was born in Stirling. My dad and my uncle played here, so I have a pretty strong grounding in what the club is about,” he says.
“The team we put out against Melrose had eight or nine guys from the youth section so there is still this core of Stirling players, and the coaching team is made up of people from the club, such as Alan Blair, Eddie Pollock and Graham Young [plus Chris Fusaro and Grant Gilchrist, who are helping with the breakdown and the line-out this year]. We’ve got Ian Jardine working with the 2nd XV and Matt McGrandles taking the under-18s.”
“We have done a lot of stuff about what the club means to people,” he adds. “I know it sounds a bit new age, but we believe that our identity is crucial so we have spoken about the history of the club – coming up from the seventh division when the leagues were established until 1995 when we won the old Division One title with a core of Stirling players. And we’ve highlighted how important the youth section is. We wanted the players coming in to understand what we are about, and that seems to have worked quite well.”
For all the positives Stirling can take out of that match against Ayr, there is no escaping that it was a heavy loss – their fifth defeat in seven matches this season. Getting a result at home to fourth placed Watsonians this weekend would be a real sign that things are moving in the right direction.
“We are definitely targeting that game. We’ve got Adam Nicol, who will probably be the Scotland under-20s tighthead prop this year, back after he was away on a university field trip last weekend; Callum Hunter-Hill, who played last week for Glasgow Warriors, is available for the first time in over a month; and we’ve got a few other big players back in the pack – so we are confident that we will do alright,” says Adamson.
“Then we’ve got Heriot’s at Goldenacre which we are really looking forward to because it is a great place to play rugby. If we win both those games then all of a sudden our season has a completely different complexion. Any team in this league can get a run of wins and be right up there.”
All images: Craig Watson – www.craigwatson.co.uk