THE last time Watsonians won the title, exactly 20 seasons ago, it was the culmination of years of systematic strengthening of the side. It is far too early to predict that Stevie Lawrie will deliver the same degree of success to Myreside, but there are undeniable similarities between the rebuilding work done then and the task that the new head coach has now embarked on.
Back in the mid-1990s Watsonians, with a back division that included the Hastings brothers and Duncan Hodge, could always be guaranteed to entertain. But those backs at times had to live off scraps from a pack which was too often on the back foot, and it was only when forwards of the calibre of Cameron Mather and Stuart Grimes were integrated into the team that they became consistently competitive against major rivals such as Melrose and went on to be crowned champions in 1997-98.
In recent seasons, too, the Edinburgh club’s performances have frequently been flamboyant, but too often flimsy as well. They showed a lot of character to stay up in the top division on their first season back, but they also displayed a lot of inconsistency, ending up on the losing side in too many close contests.
Having played nearly 100 times for Watsonians, including winning the Scottish Cup with them, Lawrie is well aware of their proud tradition for playing open, attractive rugby. He has no intention of jettisoning that tradition, but is sure that everyone at Myreside will be prouder still if they can become an all-round stronger team and start to challenge for honours again.
“If you want to be a campaign team you need to be consistent,” the 33-year-old explains. “We’ve got a strong heritage at sevens and we want to play fast, we want to play at tempo, but equally we have to ensure that we have a dominant pack.
“That’s what we’re looking to do. Can we play at pace, but equally can we be robust enough to play smart, in a way that facilitates us winning tight games?
“I was in the 2006 team that won the cup under Cammy Mather. That was our last major silverware. Good people, top effort. That’s what we’re looking at.”
Having retired prematurely from playing due to injury, the former hooker has served an impressive apprenticeship as assistant coach, notably at Heriot’s under Phil Smith. He has been waiting for some time for the right opportunity to take charge of a club, and is delighted it has come up back with his old team.
“This is the one I’ve always wanted, to be honest with you, and I’ve been quite clear about that. When I came up from Doncaster [where he played for two seasons], this was the club that I wanted to coach at; it just wasn’t the right time.
“I have nothing but good words to say about Heriot’s in terms of their committee and the opportunity they gave me. And equally with Phil: he gave me a lot of rope to hang myself, and I duly did it at times. That was a big part of my learning and Phil was great, and that’s something I learned – you’ve got to trust people if you believe they’re good.
“I’ve always wanted to be a head coach. It was the right time to do it. My background is teaching – I teach at Watson’s now. When I left school, Stewart’s-Melville, I did a PE degree. I was always watching my coaches and critiquing them – you got a feel for the ones you thought were good and bad.
“I took a lot of inspiration from [former Edinburgh and Scotland coach] Andy Robinson – I thought he was a really good coach. And I’ve tried to carry that through, making sure you’ve got a purpose to your training.
“Watsonians is a club I played 96 games for, and it’s a club that I love. I really want guys to feel that this is a club, without being too wishy washy, that they’re in love with.”
Appointed in February, Lawrie crossed the city from Goldenacre with a reputation as a fierce competitor who demands and invariably gets committed performances from his players. But perhaps more importantly, at least in these early days, he is also a supportive coach; one who will praise his players for the virtues they have shown, while also reminding them that there remains a lot of room for improvement.
“A big driver for us has been the perception of last season,” he says of a campaign which ended with Watsonians in sixth place after a couple of late wins finally dispelled the threat of relegation. “They started well and dropped away. It was their first season back up.
“I was very honest with them: I said, look, you’ve done really well to consolidate your position – that’s not been done for a while. We need to push on now. And the players have warmed to it.
“The first thing I did was speak to every single player that I could: I wanted to get a feel for what their aspirations for the club were. I also spoke to people who used to play for the club, and to a lot of patrons and guys on the committee.
“I just wanted to get a feel for it. I was five years at Heriot’s, and what Phil and I did there, and worked to a certain degree, maybe isn’t for this club.
“I think there’s always going to be a bit of reform – you want to put your own stamp on things – but equally it’s about respecting what you can get out of the guys. And that’s been a big thing as well. It doesn’t need revolutionised. I just believe that if you get good people that want to work hard, and you can all commit to a common goal, then you’ll be fine.
“The players have been first-class thus far. The current crop and the people we’re bringing in are buying into it. We’ve got Melrose first up and there’s no tougher test to see where we’re at. It’s not going to happen overnight, but we’re excited, and I believe we’ve got good people at this club. I’m really chuffed with the squad I’ve got, to be honest.”
It goes without saying that Lawrie will be even more chuffed if, in time, that squad brings some new silverware to the Myreside trophy room. This season may be too early for that, and a place in the play-offs would probably be deemed a successful start to the new reign, although the coach will not commit himself to a precise prediction or target.
“We’ve kept our outcome goals quite close to our chest,” he adds. “I don’t believe in broadcasting that. We want to be seen as a strong side, whatever that may be – I’m not too interested in putting numbers on it.”
That may be the case for the time being, and perhaps will always remain so for public consumption. But no doubt before too long, Lawrie’s primary interest will be in ensuring that his team end up, as their predecessors of 1997-98 did, as No 1.