THEY were dropping like flies at Goldenacre on Tuesday evening, with a conveyer belt of bashed up rugby players making their way back to the sanctuary of the changing rooms, as those still out on the training paddock were urged to continue cranking up the intensity of a full-blown contact session.
After a bumpy start to the season, Heriot’s have reached the midpoint of this BT Premiership campaign back up amongst the big boys in the league, vying for a favourable draw in the end of season play-offs – but head coach Phil Smith and his assistants Stevie Lawrie and Jamie Parker were clearly in no mood to relax and enjoy their team’s recent upturn in fortunes.
“Our open play stuff isn’t as good as it should be and its really frustrating me so I decided to play live for half an hour tonight and see if we can get a bit of flow going – which we did. It meant a few guys picked up knocks, but what do you do? We’ve got to get it right. We did a couple of things tonight which were brilliant and if we reproduce that on Saturday we will get a lot out of it,” he explained after the session.
“It’s just timing: understanding what each other is thinking and how they are going to react to what is in front of them,” he continued. “These boys know how to pass and catch and all that stuff – but they don’t have that instinctive understanding of each other. How quick is he? What is his expectation on that particular call? How will he react if I do something different?”
The loss during the summer of several players who were instrumental to the success Heriot’s have enjoyed in recent seasons – including inspirational skipper Jack Turley, back-row dynamo Jason Hill and playmaker Gregor McNeish – was always going to take some getting used to, but Smith insists that he has never doubted that his current charges have the potential to eventually emulate their double-winning predecessors.
“Only seven of the players involved in our play-off final last year were in the squad for the game against Stirling last Saturday. Admittedly, we’ve brought in guys like Michael Maltman, Andrew Simmers and Callum Marshall – who has been a revelation to me, I can’t believe there is a better line-out forward in the league – so it doesn’t feel like we are missing-out there, but it is a massive change of personnel,” he said.
“Alan Lynn, who is my tutor [for the UKCC Level 4 Rugby coaching course] came down for the weeks of both the league and cup finals last year and in those four sessions the boys dropped the ball twice. That’s how tight and controlled a unit they were. He mentioned that a few weeks ago when he came back along to training on the week of the Melrose game. I said to him: Well, it will be more than that this time!”
“We got to the stage last few season where we had all the ingredients, we’d made the cake, and it was just a case of chucking the icing on for every semi-final and final. This year, I think we have the ingredients, but it was always going to take a while to make the cake.”
Alex Hagart has taken over at stand-off, having returned to his native Edinburgh after four years playing for Aberdeen Grammar whilst studying in the Granite City, and Smith reckons that the 23-year-old’s experiences so far this season are typical of the process the team is going through.
“He is like Gregor McNeish was in his first year at the club in that he has come from a lower division and I think he is still finding his feet in terms of some aspects of his game – his kicking is usually very good but I think he is now only beginning to realise how tough it is in terms of the speed and physicality of the game, and we saw that progress on Saturday with his understanding that his opportunities to have a go are far more limited than he has been used to so he has to get it right,” said the coach.
Heriot’s are currently fourth in the table and with frontrunners Melrose, Ayr and Glasgow Hawks all having suffered fairly significant wobbles in recent weeks they have their sights set on continuing to climb the ladder in order to secure home advantage in the play-offs. With three wins on the bounce to their name now, Smith says he can sense a return of the confidence which was lost during four losses in their first six league outings.
“It sometimes just takes a small change to have a huge effect,” he explained. “Against Gala I limited their options, so that they couldn’t do A, B, C and D – they could only do E and F. We basically took all the flowery stuff out and that gave them a simple structure to not panic over. They were able to get into the game, get a bit of go-forward, and we ran in a few tries. You could see them begin to relax and feel comfortable about expressing themselves – because they are good players and they just needed to understand that they are capable of playing the way they want to play with all this other stuff going on around them.”
“So we hit that strap against Gala, then we went to Melrose and got a result that nobody expected with a really gutsy rather than a startling performance, and against Stirling last week it really started looking like we were back in the groove again, at least during the first half.”
The second half of that game was a bit of a horror show as far as Smith is concerned, with Heriot’s going to sleep and conceding two unanswered tries. It was just as well that their 29-5 half-time lead was a sufficient cushion to see his team home.
“That really bugged me. What I said to the players afterwards is that it shows a lack of respect: You think you can do what you want – but you can’t. In that position they should want to kick on and really show off a wee bit, but they didn’t. We need to understand that there is no room to relax in this week. Hopefully it is a lesson learned,” he said.
This coming Saturday brings another home game, against a Watsonians outfit who came out on top when the two sides met at Myreside at the start of the season, and who recovered from a minor dip in form to beat high-flying Ayr last weekend.
“I’ll make no bones about it: I didn’t think they would be able to do that. They’ve probably done better than they thought they would do after being promoted into the Premiership this year, and even the games they have lost they’ve hardly been beaten – so they are in the mix,” said Smith.
“This is not just a club match, this is our biggest rivals and we haven’t got to play them in a competitive match at Goldenacre for a few years. The pre-match lunch is a sell-out, the Bear [former Scotland prop Iain Milne, who is now the marketing and advertising guru at the club] has got all sorts of entertainment planned, and we are getting tickets out to all the schools – so we are really trying to get people through the gate. Hopefully we get the crowd that the fixture deserves because I think it will be a cracking ding-dong battle. It is the biggest game of the year for us as a club.”
Images courtesy: Roy Smith and SNS Group