MELROSE have set the early pace in this season’s BT Premiership title race with three bonus point victories on the bounce, scoring 140 points [37 more than any other team] along the way, thanks to a fearless and free-wheeling brand of rugby.
Their back three have been on fire, grabbing seven of the 19 tries the team have accumulated thus far in the campaign, and playing a crucial role in the creation of several other scores. Full-back Fraser Thomson and right wing Austin Lockington have been key men for the Borders club for a good few years now, and are well known to friend and foe alike in the league as players with the ambition and ability to carve wide open the tightest of defences. Meanwhile, the third musketeer in this swashbuckling triumvirate might be a new face at the Greenyards this season, but Ross McCann has quickly slipped into the groove with four tries from three league outings so far.
“I’m just finishing off where I can and reaping the benefits of a lot of hard work from the other guys. I’m scoring because someone else has done really well to put me in space,” the former Stew-Mel winger self-consciously shrugs.
The 18-year-old is doing himself an injustice here, with his try against Currie last week being a classic case in point. Lockington might have got the move going by snaffling possession and darting down the right touch-line, and Ruaridh Knott may have carried on that momentum with his powerful surge and well-timed pass in the middle of the park, but McCann still had to show plenty of pace and no little power to brush off at least three tacklers on his way to the whitewash.
“I’m obviously not the biggest guy in the world … I dunno … I just keep driving to try and get through. It’s more just desire to get out the other side, I suppose. I don’t really know how to describe it – I just end up popping out the other side sometimes,” he explains, almost apologetically, when it is pointed out to him that his explosive bursts in heavy traffic this season have been just as effective as his pace in wide-open spaces.
“I get bored just standing out on the wing. I was a bit hyperactive at school – I couldn’t sit still – and it’s the same on the rugby pitch. Sometimes you’ll come off your wing and there’s a turnover and you have to sprint back at full pace, but you just have to be careful and minimise the risk by picking the right times do it,” he adds.
It would, of course, be wrong to praise McCann without recognising the contribution being made by his team-mates. The real problem for opponents so far in this campaign has been that there are so many danger men within Melrose ranks queuing up for a chance to do some damage with the ball in hand.
“You know that if you do attack then someone else is coming through with you, and if you put them through holes then they are going to run in 60 metre tries,” agrees McCann.
“George Taylor scored two really important tries against Hawks a fortnight ago, so that shows how dangerous he can be; Jamie Bhatti is training with Glasgow and is a class act; our captain Bruce Colvine has broken his ankle now but Murdo McAndrew has a lot of experience at scrum-half even though he is still pretty young; Austin’s footwork is really good and he is always a threat; and Fraser gives you loads of confidence to play your own game and know that he is always going to be there to cover you in defence and support you in attack.”
For a player who clearly has big ambitions in the game, McCann is admirably understated. He is undoubtedly playing with a lot of confidence at the moment after spending the summer on the Macphail Scholarship in New Zealand (training with the Canterbury High Performance Unit and playing club rugby in the uncompromising local Metro league), but is not about to get carried away by any of the hype which might get attached to his recent performances.
Having spent his first year out of school playing for Stew-Mel in National One, he freely admits that New Zealand was a massive culture shock – but he made sure that he embraced the challenges he faced over there and as a result it proved to be an invaluable experience in terms of his rugby education.
“In some games you felt completely out of your depth, some of the guys you came up against were on a whole different level and you could tell that from the first minute, but as long as you try to do your best against them then you’ll learn something,” he reflects.
“Occasionally you would get stepped or miss a tackle, and you would feel crap – but then you would think about it and learn from it, and it would feel great when you got it right the next time you were in that situation.”
“One of my first games over there was against a club called Sydenham when I got torn apart by their winger – he had played for Canterbury the year before and he was lightening quick, had great feet, and he went round me twice. But I spoke to him after the game a bit and he was training with Canterbury so I saw him a couple of times there, and he was a really nice guy. He watched some of the video with me and pointed out a few things I could do differently.”
“Over there I got beat up a bit when I tried to carry so I had to develop other parts of my game, particularly my passing and offloading – and coming back from New Zealand, I feel a lot more confident in my ability. A lot of it is tiny little details, technical stuff, so instead of thinking: I can’t make that pass. I’ll just carry it into contact and set up a ruck; I now throw the pass and if it doesn’t work I think: Why did I mess that up? How do I make sure I get it right next time?”
McCann was in New Zealand with centre Paddy Kelly, who started this season as a Glasgow Hawks player but packed his bags this week and set-off for six weeks playing at London Scottish, as part of a state sponsored scheme to expose the next generation of talent to the joys of the Greene King IPA Championship (with the expectation that this will provide them with the best standard of rugby to continue their rugby development).
There has been no chat yet about McCann following that increasingly well-trodden path south to the Athletic Ground. He says he would jump at the chance if it was presented to him, but that is unlikely to be an option until he has completed his Stage Three year in the BT Sport Scottish Rugby Academy. In the meantime he is quite content continuing to make a name for himself with Melrose, and hopefully pushing his way into the Scotland under-20s team for this year’s age-grade Six Nations Championship and next summer’s Junior World Cup in Georgia.
“I was in the extended under-20s squad as injury cover for the last Six Nations which was really frustrating because I desperately wanted to be playing at that level – but I knew I wasn’t quite there yet. I feel like I’m getting there now but there are a lot of things I know I still need to work on,” he says.
If he carries on in the same rich vein of form as he started this season then he will certainly be in the mix.
Image: Craig Watson