MELROSE and Ayr shared the major honours last season, and the pair are widely expected to be fighting it out at the top this time round too. But Melrose head coach Robert Chrystie is sure the Premiership will have a lot more strength in depth this campaign, and therefore thinks it would be misguided for him and his players to focus their attention on that rivalry with the men from Millbrae.
Chrystie’s squad will go into their first league match with morale at a high thanks to their 44-31 BT Charity Shield win over Ayr last weekend. But the 39-year-old is well aware of the need to be consistently competitive throughout the season, not just look good at the start, and, when asked what had most pleased him about his club in 2016-17, highlighted the character they displayed in that season’s closing weeks.
With their own sevens tournament to prepare for as well as the league play-offs and the BT Cup semi-finals, Melrose had five big games in as many weeks. It was a schedule that would tax the mental as well as physical powers of many professional teams, but the Borders club rose to the occasion, showing particular resilience by bouncing back from a home defeat by Ayr in the Premiership final to defeat the same opponents in the cup final a week later at Murrayfield.
“That week leading up to the cup final at Murrayfield was really challenging,” Chrystie said. “The amount of work they’d put in throughout the whole season, to lose on their home ground, just like Ayr did the year before – it’s a tough pill to swallow.
“So to come out the other end of it and get the result in the cup final was really pleasing. I don’t think we played that well in both finals, but they showed a lot of character.
“They get a taste for it. It’s like anything – you want to do it again. As long as they remember what they had to put into it to get there eventually – that’s the key to that. The easy bit is walking up the stairs and picking up the trophy. It’s what you put in before that.
“What was most satisfying last season was the way we played and the way the players gelled together. They’re a really tight group, which is brilliant.
“You can look at an individual result and base your season on that, but there’s no point. We finished top of the league at the end of the year, we only lost two games in the league, and we won the cup and the Border League. We blooded a lot of young guys as well.
“It was pretty satisfying. If you can go through the season only losing three games, and only losing each one by four points . . . The boys have done bloody well, to be fair.”
Having said that, Chrystie is well aware that there is no time in this business for standing back and admiring your handiwork. The squad that did so well last season is largely intact, but he is sure the improvement will need to continue if they are to have genuine ambitions of being as successful again.
“We need to get better, because I think the league will be stronger. Ourselves and Ayr were pretty dominant in the actual league season last year. I think Watsonians, who we play first, will be strong – they’ve recruited very strongly and have had a turnover of coach there. Stevie Lawrie will have his own twist to how Watsonians play. That’s our focus to start with – we need to try and make sure we get that right to start with and build from there.
“The goal is to get into that top four as quick as you can. And from there it’s how far up that top four can you go? Or are you sneaking in?
“Then there are loads of permutations, through injuries and things. We were very fortunate last year – we were probably in top three most settled squads in the league. Gala were up there, and Ayr.
“That played a big part in it. We were pretty settled. But it took a lot of time – we’d put the squad together over three years and put a lot of work into it. We saw the benefits of that last year.
“We’ve not had a massive amount of turnover. Jamie Bhatti has signed for Glasgow, so he’ll be a big miss, but in comes Grant Shields. Nick Beavon has been to Edinburgh and now comes back. The group’s looking strong.”
As well as the general expectation that Melrose will again be one of the top two teams domestically, there has been a widespread presumption from the outside that they – and Ayr – will put themselves forward for Super Six franchises. At present Scottish Rugby plans to implement the new format in two years’ time, for the 2019-20 season, and there is no doubt that the prospect of taking part in it will weigh heavily on a lot of club officials’ minds this season. Chrystie explained however, that as things stand Melrose have not decided on whether to apply, for the simple reason that they have yet to be told precisely what they would be applying for and what it would imply for their own club and for the game in general.
“We need more detail on it, and once you get the detail you can make an informed decision on what’s going to be right for the club. I think every club will do what’s right for them – it’s as simple as that. Some clubs might think that amalgamating with other clubs is the right decision – but again, you need to look at the detail to make a proper decision. We’ll look at it as a club and make a decision: is it right, is it not right?”
Click here to read BT Premiership preview part one: Ayr
Click here to read BT Premiership preview part two: Boroughmuir
Click here to read BT Premiership preview part three: Currie Chieftains
Click here to read BT Premiership preview part four: Glasgow Hawks
Click here to read BT Premiership preview part five: Heriot’s
Click here to read BT Premiership preview part seven: Stirling County