THE trip to County Durham eleven days ago to take on Darlington Mowden Park in a pre-season friendly was not a resounding success for Heriot’s. A skeletal side, ravaged by niggly injuries and badly timed holidays, struggled to cope with the pace and physicality of their semi-professional opponents and ended up on the wrong end of a 68-7 mauling.
But rugby boys will be rugby boys and sitting silently in a sad stupor was never really an option on the long coach trip back to Edinburgh. Before long the call was going out for any newbies to favour the company with a song, and focus quickly centred on the recently appointed assistant coach.
“I think I took a few of them by surprise when I pointed out that I actually sang my song 20 years ago,” smiles Bruce Douglas, who joined the club straight out of school in 1997 and had four enjoyable seasons at Goldenacre, including back-to-back league championships in 1999 and 2000, before moving into the professional game and picking up 43 caps for Scotland at tight-head prop between November 2002 and June 2006.
After spells with Harlequins, Border Reivers, Scarlets, Montpellier, Worcester Warriors and Bristol, his playing career wound up at Newport Gwent Dragons three years ago, at which point he had to start thinking about engaging again in real life.
“I had two years working with the Dragons as a scrum coach one day a week, sometimes one and a half days if they needed me more, whilst also working in recruitment. I was a player-coach for Cardiff RFC in the Principality Premiership for the first of those years. Then, when Lyn Jones moved on and Kingsley Jones took over as director of rugby at the Dragons, he decided he wanted a full-time forwards coach rather than a one-day a week scrum coach, so he brought in a local guy called Ceri Jones so last year I had a break altogether from rugby.”
Off the field, Douglas completed a masters in organisational psychology and picked up various other relevant qualifications required to set-up his own company carrying out ‘management-team due-diligence for mid-market private equity firms’.
“Basically, before a company invests in a business they will hire accountants to check the finances, but they’ll also hire an independent consultant such as myself to look at the management team, which involves psycho-metric testing, extensive referencing and structured interviews. Then I tie it all together in reports looking at team dynamics, individual skill gaps and development opportunities,” he explains.
Douglas had kept a house in Edinburgh and earlier this year decided to move home. He was lured back into the rugby scene through informal coaching roles with Murrayfield Wanderers and Portobello, but had no real ambition to immerse himself more deeply than that, until the Heriot’s job came up.
“I had been down to Goldenacre a few times – after the Currie game I had a really good night in the clubhouse with a few old friends – so when I heard that Stevie Lawrie was leaving [to take up the head coach role at Watsonans] I recognised that it was a great opportunity. I don’t think I would have given up the time for any other club,” he explains.
“I sent an email to the club to see what the situation was, they said that they would be keen to have me but I had to go through an interview process because they quite rightly wanted to do it officially, so I did that and they decided I was the best man for the job.”
“I played with [head coach] Phil Smith and we have now come full circle,” Douglas continues. “He’s obviously got a good coaching record at Heriot’s, he took over when the club was in a bit of disarray and he’s built them back up and won a few trophies. He’s got an excellent rapport with the players and he knows the club game inside out. He’s also coached a lot at school and age-group level, and professionally, so he knows Scottish rugby in general extremely well.”
“It is good that we come from different backgrounds – mine is almost all professional rugby while his is really varied – which gives us a pretty broad experience-set to draw on when we are talking about things and coming up with solutions to problems.”
“We split things up pretty evenly, Phil takes quite a bit of contact work himself, I do bits of defence and all the forwards work, and although Phil is in charge we work together to share ideas the best we can.
“Jamie Parker supports the first team sessions and he also has a specialist role in helping develop the guys who are looking to make the step from the 2nd XV into the 1st XV with extra skills, S&C and position-specific work.”
It has not been all plain sailing. Douglas speaks highly of the squad in general terms but there is a degree of frustration that pre-season has been interrupted by several players having other priorities in their diaries.
“I would say the athletes in general are better in the Principality Premiership – the players are generally bigger and more powerful. And the commitment is a bit higher as well – people don’t take holidays during pre-season games – which makes a difference,” he says.
“A greater percentage of players in that league have some experience of professional rugby, which is a combination of there being four pro teams in Wales and the semi-pro league being seen as a genuine stepping-stone back into the real world – I suppose that is what the Super Six will be in a few years’ time.”
“Hopefully it will work in our favour that we’ve had a pretty disjointed pre-season because it means we are going to be working extra hard over the next five or six weeks and we might sneak up on a few teams come the end of the season. Our target is to make the play-offs.”
Given their success in winning back-to-back titles in the previous two campaigns, a fifth place finish last year felt like a bit of a flop for Heriot’s. In fairness, several important players did move on before the start of that campaign, and the good news for the Goldenacre men is that the most influential of the lot in Jack Turley is now back after a sabbatical in Fylde.
“You can tell that the boys warm to him and are pleased when he is around. He speaks up at training, helps out the coaches and is good with the younger players, so he’s a good guy to have in the squad,” says Douglas.
Adam Sinclair from Stirling County will also add bulk to the pack if he can stay focussed; while former Wales Under-20 and Sevens cap Ross Jones, also from County, and winger Craig Robertson from Gala, will provide added guile and pace (respectively) to the back-line.
“My aim is to bring a bit more organisation to us defensively. One thing I’ve noticed we are not great at as a team is our plus-one defender work and contesting the breakdown, so hopefully I can bring a bit of technique and experience to that. Set-piece wise, it is obviously about making sure we can deliver quality ball,” says Douglas.
“The way I will coach and conduct myself and deliver sessions and feedback will be the way I am used to working in a professional environment – and the guys want that level of guidance and accountability.”