ANY hopes Watsonians might have harboured of avoiding a relegation dog-fight in their first year back in the BT Premiership since 2010-11 were ruthlessly killed off by last weekend’s 55-17 mauling by Boroughmuir. That result has left them fourth from bottom of the table and, significantly, just four points clear of the basement slot currently occupied by Hawick.
After a flying start to the campaign, the league’s new boys have faltered badly in the three matches played since their impressive victory over Ayr back in October, but captain Martin Christie says that belief within the squad has remained resolute despite shipping 144 points in consecutive losses to Heriot’s, Hawick and, of course, Boroughmuir.
“Last week, the opposition wanted it more, it’s as simple as that. They were the better side on the day and thoroughly deserved their win. Looking back at it, our first-up tackles were poor, our set-piece didn’t function, and it is frustrating because we are capable of far better,” he says.
“If you look at how we started the season – we got four wins out of five games – so we set a high standard, and we want to live up to that. Up until the seventh or eighth game our defence was one of the best in the league, but then you look at the last three games and it just isn’t good enough. We are determined to address that. It is easier to take a defeat when you’ve played well and it has just not been your day, but to get beaten like that and play so poorly is unacceptable.”
Few teams will go through an entire season without some sort of dip in form, but the fact that the two most recent losses were against two sides which have been deeply embroiled in the relegation battle since round one suggests that the problem might be more fundamental than just a few off days.
“The league is a very high standard and it is a big step up from last year. Some of the guys in the squad have played Premiership before but a lot of them haven’t. Because it is a more physical league, we’ve had more injuries – and I know you should look at that as a challenge rather than an excuse – but it has been really tough because we’re learning as we go at this level,” says Christie
“Our scrum was really dominant then we lost Shaun Ruwers, our starting tight-head, so that’s had an impact. We’ve been without Rory Drummond in the back-row, who gives us good go-forward ball, and Euan Scott, who directs operations at ten – fortunately, they both made their comebacks last week and I’m sure they’ll be back close to their best this weekend.”
Centre Scott McLeod is unavailable this week because he is attending a stag party in Barbados (which is far from ideal but at least it is not as bad as the situation at Hawick, who have eight players away on the same trip).
Suspensions have also been a factor in recent weeks.
The highly experienced Euan Dods, who has been running the line-out this season, is serving a two week ban at the moment, after an incident at a ruck during the Hawick game and his absence was undoubtedly a factor in the problems Watsonians encountered competing at the touchline last week.
Head coach Marcus Di Rollo is also having to watch the game from the stands at the moment after an altercation with a touch-judge during the Heriot’s defeat, but Christie says that this should not be a factor in how the team performs.
“At the end of the day, the coaches can provide you with direction but it is down to the boys on the pitch – it wasn’t the coaches who were missing tackles,” he reasons.
With Glasgow Hawks providing the opposition at Myreside this weekend, Watsonians know that a huge improvement in standards is required if they are to get anything out of the game. Bonus points could be crucial in the final reckoning.
“We’re looking at last week as a wake-up call. In this league there are no easy games and your preparation has to be absolutely spot-on every time you go onto the pitch. So we’ll learn from what happened and try to come back stronger,” Christie reasons.
“Hawks are a good team who play a great brand of attacking rugby, but we’ve taken the view that it is entirely in our hands to bounce back by improving on the things that went wrong last week. It is really just about getting back to the high standards we set ourselves at the start of the season. We had a reaction at training this week so we’re ready for it.”
This is the Christie’s fifth year at Watsonians after being at the vanguard of what became a mass migration of players from Gala to Myreside last summer. The loosehead prop knows that there has been some grumbling about the club’s recruitment activity, but reckons that the ends justify the means.
“This is a good club. It’s got the infrastructure to be a big club and the first step towards that was getting back into the Premiership, and now it is about staying there. We didn’t really think about the fact these guys who joined during the summer were from Gala, we brought them in because they are good, experienced Premiership players, and they were looking for a new challenge,” says the 30-year-old, who is a self-employed personal trainer based at Edinburgh University’s Pleasance Gym.
“We have good schoolboys coming through every year, but because we couldn’t offer them top flight rugby we were losing them to places like Currie and Melrose. Now that we are back in the Premiership we’ve already seen that it is easier to get those lads involved. This year has had more schoolboys step up than at any other time during my years at the club. There’s about ten of them playing in the 2nd XV and some of them are getting game time with the 1st XV – for example, Callum Eastwood, who is at tighthead prop on Saturday.”
“So, that’s the future, but the priority for players like me has to be the here and now.”
HOW IT STANDS –
THE LOWDOWN –
HERIOT’S v BOROUGHMUIR
VENUE: Goldenacre @ 2pm
Heriot’s: J Semple©; C Simpson, L Steele, R Mulveena, G Parker; A Hagart, T Wilson; M Bouab, M Liness, S Cessford, C Marshall, C Smith, M Maltman, J McLean, S Dewar. Subs: S Mustard, G Cameron, M Hughes, A Ball, R Kay.
Boroughmuir: R Cairns; J Edmunds, R Kerr, M Hare, G McConnell; C Laidlaw©, B Mills; D Robertson, T King, T Gracie, J Ure, C Atkinson, A Mncube, M Walker, C Keddie. Subs: S Clark, M Henry, M Tweddle, D Steele, G Cannie
TEAM NEWS –
Heriot’s: Russell Nimmo and Andrew Simmers drop out due to personal commitments, giving Clarke Smith and Tom Wilson a chance to stake their claim. John Rae is injured so John Semple moves to full-back and Robbie Mulvena starts at inside centre.
Boroughmuir: Only one change tom the side which put Watsonians to the sword last weekend, with Tom Gracie taking over at tight-head prop for the injured Dan Winning, while Greg Cannie returns to the squad on the bench.
KEY BATTLE: Callum Marshall versus Callum Atkinson
WHAT THE COACHES SAY –
“Despite not getting the result we desired last week we recognised that going to Hawick is always challenging and some of the younger lads have learned that all fixtures in this league are going to be competitive, so taking our chances when they are on offer is key. We now focus on a resurgent Boroughmuir team who have obviously had a great result [against Watsonians last week] to roll them into this visit to Goldenacre …” – Phil Smith (Heriot’s)
“A great result and performance last week but doesn’t mean much if we can’t back it up this week. Never an easy game at Goldenacre but players and coaching staff looking forward to it …” – Peter Wright (Boroughmuir)
VERDICT: Momentum is a fabulous thing for Boroughmuir
MELROSE v GALA
VENUE: The Greenyards @ 2pm
Melrose: F Thomson; A Lockington, N Godsmark, G Taylor, R McCann; C Jackson, S Hutchison; J Bhatti, R Anderson, N Beavon, J Head, R Knott, N Irvine-Hess, G Runciman©, I Moody. Subs: C McKay, D Elkington, A Grieve, M McAndrew, S Pecqueur.
Gala: G Speirs©; R Combe, S Tofilau, P Hendry, C Robertson; G Hunter, C Adams; C Keen, M Carryer, T Skeet, R Louw, C Weir, H Borthwick, F Hunter, S Cairns. Subs: C Reynolds, D Reynolds, A Emond, R Jeffrey, L Berg.
TEAM NEWS –
Melrose: Only one change to last weekend’s starting team against Currie, with youngster Struan Hutchison, who played most of the game after replacing the injured Jason Baggott at scrum-half, being handed a chance to start in the number nine jersey. Murdo McAndrew makes a timely return from injury and provides cover at half-back from the bench; where he will perch alongside prop Dan Elkington, who impressed for Melrose Storm last Saturday.
Gala: It is all change on the wings, with Craig Robertson returning to the starting team after impressing from the bench last Saturday, and fit again Ross Combe returns on the other side of the park in place of Edinburgh pro Alex Northam. Sasa Tofilau, another Edinburgh player, switches to outside centre, and Paul Hendry reverts to his favoured position inside centre position. The only change in the pack sees Terry Skeet start at tight-head prop, for Gary Robertson, who is away to Yorkshire Carnegie on a two week loan.
KEY BATTLE: Nyle Godsmark versus Sasa Tofilau
WHAT THE COACHES SAY –
“Melrose versus Gala games are always fiercely contested and with a huge crowd expected this will be no different. Gala will be desperate to get a win and although they did not get the result against Ayr [last weekend], they will have taken a lot of confidence from their performance in the last 60 minutes. These are the games all players want to be a part of …” – Rob Chrystie (Melrose)
“Last Saturday’s game [against Ayr] was almost away from us before we could take breath, but the squad showed plenty resilience to fight their way back into the match and produced some good rugby as the game progressed. They know they need to get out the blocks this weekend as they take on the league leaders. Melrose have, arguably, the strongest squad in the league with proven performers right across the field and only our best for 80 minutes will give us any chance of gaining the much needed points …” – Chris Dalgliesh (Gala)
VERDICT: Melrose march on
AYR v HAWICK
VENUE: Millbrae @ 3pm
Ayr: G Anderson; D McCluskey, A Russell, R Curle, C Gossman; F Climo, H Warr; G Hunter, J Malcolm, S Longwell, R McKenzie, B MacPherson, D Young, W Bordill, P McCallum©. Subs: A Prentice, D Sears-Duru, C Stevenson, R Dalgleish, S McDowall.
Hawick: K Ford; D Graham, G Huggan, K Brunton, W Hamilton; M Douglas, B Campbell; S Muir, F Renwick, C Mackintosh, D Lowrie, K McNeil, R Gibson, S Graham, B McNeil©. Subs: M Landels, D Johnstone, S Fairbairn, T Corless, S Bandeen.
TEAM NEWS –
Ayr: In the pack, Robert McAlpine misses out through injury, so Blair Macpherson moves up to the second-row and David Young, ordinarily a hooker, starts at blindside flanker. Pat MacArthur is not released but he is replaced in the number two jersey by another Glasgow Warriors professional in James Malcolm. In the backline, David Armstrong is injured so Harry Warr is at scrum-half, and Danny McCluskey starts on the wing.
Hawick: Eight players are away on number eight Keith Davies’ weeklong stag party in Barbados. Two are really pushing the boat out and staying on for a second week, but the other six are returning home next Friday, just in time to be fighting fit and fully prepared for their club’s crucial battle against fellow strugglers Boroughmuir at Meggetland the following day.
KEY BATTLE: Frazier Climo versus Matty Douglas
WHAT THE COACHES SAY –
“The players are looking forward to playing back at Millbrae this weekend in what should be a busy day at the club with the Christmas party after the game …” – Callum Forrester (Ayr)
“After very positive back to back Premiership performances against Watsonians and Heriot’s, we feel we are definitely beginning to turn the corner and understand what it will take to stay in this league. Ayr is always a tough place to go as they are one of the big four in the league and are a team that has been performing extremely well this season yet again. Certain players’ prior arrangements has obviously made this week extremely tough, but in a way that has taken the pressure off everyone with knowing we have nothing to lose by going to Ayr and giving it all we have. The young squad have shown so much energy and enthusiasm in preparation for this weekend and are very much up for the challenge ahead. …” – Nikki Walker (Hawick)
VERDICT: At least the weather forecast is good for Barbados
STIRLING COUNTY v CURRIE
VENUE: Bidgehaugh @ 3pm
Stirling: J Hope; B Sorbie, C Pringle, A Black, L Trotter; R Jones, M Donaldson; C Hutton R Kennedy, A Nicol, H Burr, A Sinclair, A Taylor, L Wynne, L Haupeakui. Subs: M Emmison, F Bradbury, R Leishman, S MacDonald, L Bonar
Currie: H Elms; R Tagive, R Nelson, C Hutchison, C Gray; J Forbes, C Shiel; J Cox, F Scott, G Carson, H Bain, M Vernel, L Crosbie, S Ainslie, R Weston©. Subs: A McWilliam, R Patterson, R Davies, R Smith, R Snedden.
TEAM NEWS –
Stirling: Bruce Sorbie takes over from Matt Lamb on the right wing, while the back-row are bolstered by some serious firepower if the two players coming in live up to their billing. Lewis Wynne will make his first appearance of the season at open-side flanker after some highly promising performances as emergency injury cover for Glasgow Warriors, while the explosive but untested USA international Langilani Haupeakui has also been released by the pro team to start at number eight.
Currie: John Cox and Hamish Bain come back into the starting side, having recovered from illness, and Mike Vernel is rewarded with his first start after impressing off the bench versus Melrose, so both Stephen Ainslie and Luke Crosbie shift from the boiler-house to the back-row, and Scott McGinley is the unlucky player who drops out of the squad. One change to the starting backline sees Ben Robbins come in for the inured Cameron Gray, while Ruaraidh Smith returns to the squad after long-term injury.
KEY BATTLE: Langilani Haupeakui versus Ross Weston
WHAT THE COACHES SAY –
“Following last week’s result [at Glasgow Hawks] – when we once again snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, and where we felt we were the better team for large parts of the game – we look forward to being back at home for only the third time in eleven weeks against a Currie side who have been putting in some strong performances of late, and whom we lost to narrowly earlier in the season. With both sides attempting to put a run of victories together to continue their pursuit of a top four finish, it will hopefully be an entertaining game, and one that everyone at the club hopes will be a fitting tribute to club stalwart Al Munn, who passed away recently, and who would have relished this type of fixture …” – David Adamson (Stirling)
“Last week’s result was very disappointing however we were happy with large aspects of our play. Melrose are at the top of the league for a reason and we can take huge confidence in the way we went toe-to-toe with them. Stirling away, however, is an altogether different and most difficult prospect. They will be keen to get the win to close the gap on ourselves and the top five of the table as they stake a claim for a play-off spot. Finally, Currie RFC were saddened to hear of the passing of Alastair Munn the Stirling club stalwart who we know will be sorely missed. We pass on our condolences to his family and friends and lend our support as part of the wider rugby family …” – Ben Cairns (Currie)
VERDICT: Currie edge it
WATSONIANS v GLASGOW HAWKS
VENUE: Myreside @ 3pm
Watsonians: A Chalmers; M Bertram, S McKean, D Innes, K Young; E Scott, R Cullen; M Christie©, S Crombie, C Eastwood, M Poole, C Borthwick, V Fihaki, A Duckett, R Drummond. Subs: D Miller, K Whyte, K Beattie, E McKirdy, J Ferguson.
Hawks: H Schulte; J Bulumakau, B McGroarty, J Steele, K Gossman; J Henderson, G Hart; S Findlay, C Fenton, G Strain, K McDonald, A Kirkland, R Miller, M Fagerson, T Spinks©. Subs: J Spence, C Barnes, B Flockhart, M New, P Boyer.
TEAM NEWS –
Watsonians: Scott McLeod is away with his friends from Hawick in Barbados, so Scott McKean shifts from the wing to centre and Mark Bertram takes on the number 14 jersey. Reiss Cullen swaps in at scrum-half with Euan McKirdy. In the pack, teenager Callum Eastwood starts at tighthead prop, Matt Poole comes in to the second-row, and Viliami Fihaki has been released by Edinburgh to play blindside flanker.
Hawks: The same starting pack as last week with one change on the bench where Johnny Spence will be hoping to make his debut after being called up in place of the injured Paul Cairncross. Behind the scrum, Brendan McGroarty and Kerr Gossman return from playing Sevens in Dubai to replace the unavailable David Milne and Erland Oag, while New Zealander Hagen Schulte – who is on a partnership contract with Glasgow Warriors – is at full-back.
KEY BATTLE: Viliami Fihaki versus Ross Miller
WHAT THE COACHES SAY –
“We know that last week was not good enough and the boys are determined to bounce back …” – Marcus Di Rollo (Watsonians)
“After a disappointing display last week against a tough Stirling team we hope that we have managed to get rid of any rustiness that was there after the break. We were extremely lucky to come away with a bonus point win and know we won’t be that lucky again. Watsonians will be looking for a reaction after a tough result last week and will be a very physical challenge at Myreside. They have an experienced and gnarly pack who will look to pressure our scrum and lineout …” – Finlay Gillies (Hawks)
VERDICT: Hawks flair edges it