Head coach: Rob Chrystie
Current league position: 1st
The story so far –
With ten bonus point wins from ten league outings, Melrose have been pretty close to untouchable in the BT Premiership so far this season, combining power at the pit-face with serious pace right across the park to devastating effect.
They have scored 64 tries, which is 21 more than second best Heriot’s. Full-back Fraser Thomson tops the individual try list with 13 scores, while wingers Sam Pecqueur [with ten tries] and Ross McCann [with nine] are pretty close in his slip-stream – reflecting the team’s desire to use the full width of the park. Craig Jackson has kicked 96 points to lead the golden boot race.
They have had 12 pro player releases, which is the third most in the league – but it is worth noting that nine of those releases have been for first year Edinburgh pro Ally Miller, who is yet to play a competitive game for Edinburgh.
With a 16-point lead at the top of the table, and only 40 league points up for grabs in the eight remaining games, it would be astonishing if Melrose failed to secure home advantage in the play-offs – but they know from bitter experience that nothing is guaranteed until the final whistle of the final game of the campaign.
After finishing top of the heap at the end of the regular season last time out, they were pipped at the post by Ayr in the play-off Grand Final at the Greenyards. They lost in the play-off semi-final to Ayr in 2016, and experienced a heart-breaking last gasp defeat to Heriot’s in the first ever Grand Final in 2015. So, the big challenge for Rob Chrystie and his team is making sure that they can maintain their momentum right through to the moment the ribbons are tied onto the silverware.
Coach’s comments –
Rate your team’s season so far:
There is always room for improvement, but I’m obviously delighted with our results and our league position.
There is a sense of relief. That first block of games is so important. We found a couple of years ago that we were chasing our tail a little bit at this point, and it does become difficult when you’ve got boys away with the Under-20s, the Club XV and the Scotland 7s set-up during the second half of the campaign. So we’re pretty pleased that we’ve given ourselves some breathing space and we can look at any call-ups which come along as an exciting opportunity to give other boys a chance to play.
We have been reasonably lucky with injuries so far, but we did have quite a few boys out at the start of the season. George Taylor is back now; Austin Lockington should hopefully be back in the next couple of weeks, having taken a bit longer than we anticipated; James Head missed the start of the season but is now just getting better and better for us; plus Craig Jackson – who has done really well – didn’t do a lot of pre-season because he had a double-break in his shoulder. We’ve managed to rotate boys in and out at the right times, which has helped us keep guys fresh but not lose that continuity you need.
We’ve got three players who look like they are hopefully going to be involved in the Scotland 7s squad for the World Series which is great for them and a massive success from the club’s point of view. A lot of the reason why boys come to Melrose is that they see it as an opportunity to push on and maybe get the chance to test themselves in the professional game.
We are pretty fortunate that guys are buying into what we are trying to do. You hear of other situations where clubs are losing players because they are not getting 1st XV games but we’ve found that as long as you are honest, and as long as players believe they will get opportunities to stake a claim at the right time, then you can manage that.
Rate your coaching so far:
You have to look at it as a team effort. I’ve got loads of support and it is not just from a coaching perspective. There is so much work goes on around the club to make sure that the players know they are in a position to be the best they possibly can be – that’s from the work that goes on out on the training field, to strength and conditioning in the gym, to physio and medical, to match analysis, to making sure that all the equipment is in the right place at the right time. It all contributes to how the team performs.
I’ve definitely learned a lot about that side of things since taking over from John Dalziel [at the start of last season]. You don’t realise how much work goes into it until you have to do it yourself, especially when you’ve got a full-time job and a young family – so the time management is massive.
Stuart Johnston is doing a dual role this year where he is involved with coaching the 1st XV but is also leading the Storm. [2nd XV], which is important because the boys can see there is an even stronger link between the two teams.
Most important player:
I don’t think I can answer that. If you’ve not got your tight-head prop then you’ve not got your scrum. If you’ve not got Iain Moody and Neil Irvine-Hess then you don’t get the ball at the line-out. If you’ve not got your nine and ten ticking together then you are not going to get the ball moving in attack. If you’ve not got Fraser Thomson at the back to finish off those tries then you’re also snookered.
We’ve got a senior player group who are driving a lot of this and they are massively important to what we’ve got at Melrose just now. That, for me, is one of the biggest differences we have hopefully developed over the last couple of years: that there is more ownership from the senior players. If anything, I would say that’s the most important thing for us.
Most improved player:
Angus Runciman has been outstanding. He just gets out there and goes about his business. He came back from travelling last year as a completely different player and different person.
We got a great demonstration of the kind of person he is on Friday night against Watsonians which we had built up as a key match. Angus had started every game this year up until that point and although I wouldn’t say he was dropped – I’d say that it was more of a rotation thing – I know it could easily have felt like that to him. But his impact off the bench for us was excellent – he put some massive hits in.
He worked bloody hard when James Head was out at the start of the season, and he’s a key member of the 1st XV squad in his own right.
He’s not the kind of guy who is going to spend hours in the gym, but he has that raw farmer strength from working the fields. He just grafts very hard – an old-fashioned lock who is happy to run around and do the spade work which allows the guys around him shine.
Best performance by your team:
The first 40 minutes against Watsonians was bang on the money. I suppose the challenge for us is making it last a little bit longer, but there’s always going to be a drop-off in a game – especially when you play the way we did in that first half.
It was just a complete performance. Defensively, we were really good; then, when we got our opportunities in attack, we took them. There was just an air about the group on Friday night which was really exciting to watch.
It would be pretty disrespectful for me to say after any bonus point win that we were disappointed by our performance as a team. But there’s been some boys, individually, disappointed with the way they have played. We are pretty hard on ourselves.
When we do our reviews, we don’t just blow smoke up each other’s backsides, because the key thing is to be pushing each other harder and harder to get better and better.
We don’t look too much at other people, we look at what we’ve got, and we believe in what we are capable of, which means being honest with ourselves and each other when we feel something has dropped below the standard we expect.
I thought Watsonians were very good. That game was pretty intense. They kept the ball well at the start and we really had to defend hard. They have good rugby players so they are going to get better and better.
Ayr will come good because they always do. They also have good players, and once they have that pack firing on all cylinders, plus Stafford McDowall and Robbie Nairn getting a run of games, you just know that they will be a bloody good rugby team.
Heriot’s could come good as well; while Currie Chieftains at Malleny Park is always tough – and we go there in January.
Realistic aim for the second half of the season:
Keep pushing on, make the top four, get a home semi-final and then prepare for the play-offs.