CURRIE have been there or thereabouts in recent years, qualifying for the play-offs in each of the last three seasons. Now rebranded as Currie Chieftains, they are looking for a more precise destination this time round.
As he prepares for his fourth season as the club’s head coach, Ben Cairns believes that in those previous campaigns he and his players may have placed undue emphasis on simply getting into the top four, when the whole point of being in the play-offs is to emerge triumphant from them. He makes no apology, therefore, for saying that the club’s target this season is to finish top of the heap.
“That’s our ambition,” he said. “That’s our aim for the season. The first step towards that is getting into the play-offs, but I think we’ve been guilty in the past of talking about the play-offs and forgetting what the point of getting into the play-offs is – and that’s to win the league.
“We’ve got the squad capable of doing it. It’s now about putting it together.
“This will be my fourth season as head coach, and we’ve been in the play-offs for the last three. We’ve never been past that point, so that’s a hurdle for us to get over this season.
“I think overall last season was a successful one for us. We lost quite a few players going into that season, so to consolidate a top-four place again was pleasing, although it was disappointing, obviously, not to put up more of a fight at Melrose in the semis of the play-offs down there.
“As for the cup game, it was partly luck of the draw getting Melrose down there as well. That was a close game. We had a horrible first 20 minutes, but we were actually the better side for the rest of the game.
“So as I said it was a successful season, but disappointing how we played in some of the big games – the knockout games, really. That’s an area we need to get better at.”
Cairns has lost a couple of key men this summer as well, with scrum-half Richard Snedden moving into coaching with Watsonians and No 8 Ross Weston having retired. But the Chieftains coach is happy with the relative continuity in the squad, and expects his group of promising age-group internationals to make an enhanced contribution this season.
“The squad has not changed massively. We want to have stability in our squad and develop year on year. We’ve lost a few of our senior players through retirement, but we’ve made a few recruits. In the front row we’ve got Kris Burney from Falkirk and Duncan Ferguson who’s a South African and was in the Stellenbosch academy – he’s been brought across on a stage three contract with the BT Edinburgh Academy. And we’ve got a second-row/back-row player, Vincent Wright, who has been playing for Holland the last couple of years.
“In the backs we’ve pretty much stayed consistent. We’d like to bring in probably one more, but as it stands the only player we’ve really brought in is Glen Faulds, who hopefully will push on for [Scotland] Under-20s selection this year. He can play 10, 12, 13, 15, so he’ll be a utility back for us.
“We had six guys who were all involved in the Scotland Under-20s last season. They’re all still with us, which is huge for us, and we expect them all to be better this season – a year older, a year wiser, and we should hopefully reap the benefit of that this season.”
Cairns and the club’s officials also hope to reap the benefit from the name change, albeit perhaps in a less tangible and immediate way. The new Currie Chieftains handle does not guarantee any extra wins, of course, but the coach is convinced it will give his team some extra appeal.
“The biggest part for me was to drive new energy into the club and push on from where we already are,” he said when asked the reasoning behind the change. “There was a working party behind the rebranding process and we consulted everyone at the club as we went along. There’s potential there to create a stronger identity, so it’s exciting times. It’s a good sign with any club, to be open to change.”
Whatever success the Chieftains do achieve this season and in the years to come will have to be done without a man who was almost synonymous with the club for decades. Graham Hogg, who died suddenly this summer, was not only a key figure in Currie’s rise through the leagues; as a former head coach himself and then latterly as director of rugby, he played a vital role in Cairns’s own education in coaching.
“He was a real mentor to me. I played three years at Currie before I went professional, and he and Ally Donaldson were the coaches.
“Something that’s apparent in all the players who have been coached by Greco is that real grit and determination – or the new buzz word is resilience. I think he was brilliant in creating that attitude in his players.
“Yes, technical and tactical aspects of the game are really important, but he was all too aware that the team that turns up and is most motivated generally wins rugby games. He was the best I’ve ever come across in getting players to put their bodies on the line for the team.
“When I took over as head coach, he became director of rugby. I’ve worked really closely with him for the last three years and he helped me massively. I spoke to him probably two or three times a day. He’ll be a massive miss, not only for myself but for the club as well.”
These days it seems unlikely that anyone as gifted as Hogg should stay at the one club for anything like as long, and Cairns is candid enough to admit that, should all go according to plan, he would like in time to move on to a higher level of the game. Yet, still only 31, he has time on his side, and by the same token is in no rush to move on from Malleny Park.
“I’m doing my Level Four at the moment. I’ve done my first year of it. My ambition is the same as the ambition I have for my players: I want to coach at the highest level possible, and I want my players to play at the highest level possible.
“I’m keen to kick on as a coach, and if the opportunities allow me to go to the next level, I’ll snap them up. But I’m really enjoying my role at Currie, and I’m also conscious that I don’t want to make the jump before I’m ready: I want to make sure I’ve laid good foundations.”