DESPITE Melrose coach Rob Chrystie’s protestations to the contrary, his side go into this weekend’s top of the table clash against Ayr at Millbrae as favourites, courtesy of a rip-roaring start to the season which has seen them pick up four bonus point victories on the bounce, with no team managing to finish a match within two converted tries of the Borderers.
The flip side of this impressive winning streak, however, is the possibility that they might be slightly undercooked when it comes to toughing it out against a team capable matching both their power in the pack and their élan behind the scrum. Ayr have not set the heather alight in the same way as Melrose, but they are still four wins from four, and if anyone is going to halt the black and gold juggernaut it is the men from the west.
As coach Calum Forrester points out, his team have had to answer some tough questions already this season, while Melrose have not been truly tested yet.
“We played really well on the opening weekend of the season and scored a lot of points but I would expect Currie to be a different beast when we play them the second time round, then in the second game against Heriot’s we looked like a team which had won by 50 points the week before and were a bit slow to get going – and we could have lost that one against a team who have shown in recent years that they know how to finish games off, so it says a lot that we got back in there at the end,” he says.
“Then we had another tight game against Gala. That was a tough one because they had been written off by almost everyone and arrived here with nothing to lose and a point to prove. We didn’t play well and shipped more points than we would have liked, but we got there in the end, and the boys were more pissed off than anyone at the end of that game because in terms of their own performance they were disappointed and they had not found it an enjoyable game to be part of.”
“So, that was an important moment in terms of the players setting their own standards and knowing what they need to do in order to perform as well as they feel they should, and I think that will be important for us going forward.”
“We clicked a bit more last Saturday against Hawick, but we’re probably still leaking a few too many points for our liking, so that is going to have to be better this week. Melrose are scoring a lot as well but they are also leaking a few, so it could make for a pretty exciting game if that carries on.”
Ayr were the dominant side in the BT Premiership during the last regular season and blew Melrose away with an impressive demonstration of power and accuracy in the play-off semi-final. It is highly unlikely that we will see as one-sided a scoreline this weekend, with Melrose having loosened up their game-plan under Chrystie to create an environment where opponents must be very wary about playing too much rugby too soon for fear of being punished by the devastating counter-attacking skills of the ageless Fraser Thomson, new recruit Ross McCann and fit again Austin Lockington.
Ayr will feel that they should have won the Grand Final last year as well, after roaring into a nine point lead with less than 20 minutes to go, but they allowed Heriot’s back into it and you sense that the pain of that defeat is a he driving force in their approach to this year.
The Millbrae men have also expanded their game-plan under Calum Forrester (with former Scotland Sevens star Scott Forrest, who looks after the backs, a key figure in that), but perhaps they briefly lost sight of the importance of controlling the game at source and paid a heavy price against Heriot’s. It is a delicate balancing act, but there is confidence within the camp that the right balance has been struck.
“At the moment, we have the physicality in the forwards and the skillset in the backs to do both, so when things aren’t going so well we can stick it up the jumper for the next ten to fifteen minutes until we get back into the game,” says Forrester.
“I think there are a lot of similarities between the teams,” he continues. “We both have big, powerful packs and a number of exciting backs, so there should be a number of great match-ups across the park this weekend. This will certainly be the biggest challenge either side has faced so far this season.”
HOW IT STANDS –
THE LOWDOWN –
AYR v MELROSE
VENUE: Millbrae @ 3pm
Ayr: G Anderson©; D McCluskey, A Russell, R Curle, C Gossman; F Climo, D Armstrong; G Hunter, J Malcolm, S Longwell, R McAlpine, S Sutherland, W Bordill, G Henry, B Macpherson. Subs: D Young, D Sears-Duru, C Stevenson, C Taylor, J Bova.
Melrose: F Thomson; A Lockington, R Taylor, C Jackson, R McCann; J Baggott, M McAndrew; J Bhatti, R Anderson, N Beavon, J Head, R Knott, N Irvine-Hess, G Runciman©, I Moody. Subs: C McKay, D Elkington, A Grieve, S Hutchinson, N Godsmark.
TEAM NEWS –
Ayr: Frazier Climo returns to the starting line-up after making way for Finn Russell last weekend. James Malcolm is released by the Warriors to take over from David Young at hooker, while fellow Warriors pro Djuctice Sears-Duru (prop) will be hoping to get some much needed game time off the bench. Winger Jamie Bova, who has been pretty quiet since scoring a hat-trick on the opening weekend of the season, is also waiting in the wings.
Melrose: Talisman Lewis Carmichael is on the bench for Edinburgh this weekend so Ruaridh Knott starts in the engine room. Craig Jackson is fit again and replaces George Taylor in the centre. Nyle Godmark is involved for the first time this season as a replacement after recovering from injury and performing well for the back-up team last weekend.
KEY BATTLE: Frazier Climo versus Jason Baggott
WHAT THE COACHES SAY –
“Ayr and Melrose have enjoyed a number of fierce encounters in recent years and we look forward to this challenge. Rob (Chrystie) has got his team playing well this season with Melrose scoring points for fun and posing threats right across the team. Likewise, our performances have been improving over the past few weeks and with both teams looking to preserve their unbeaten start to the season it is set to be a great match…” – Calum Forrester (Ayr)
“Calum has rotated his squad over the last couple of games in preparation for our visit and I’m sure he will have his players fired up. We go into the game under no illusions, understanding only an excellent performance will allow us to compete for victory. Ayr are clearly the favorites being the home team but we will be focussed on our own game and looking forward to playing one of the best sides in the competition. Games such as this are what makes the Premiership an excellent product, both teams are playing with some ambition…” – Rob Chrystie (Melrose)
VERDICT: Melrose will have to dig deep to show they have the steel to come out on top when things aren’t going all their own way.
STIRLING COUNTY v GALA
VENUE: Bridgehaugh @ 3pm
Stirling: J Hope©; C Pringle, J Cresswell, F Lyle, B Sorbie; R Jones, N Kenatale; M MacDonald, R Kennedy, A Nicol, H Burr, A Sinclair, R Leishman, S Robertson, A Taylor. Subs: M Emmison, C Hutton, S McDonald, C Turnbull, R Elliston.
Gala: G Speirs©; P Hendry, L Berg, R Jeffrey, C Robertson; G Hunter, G Lott; C Keen, M Carryer, G Robertson, O Palepoi, C Weir, D Adams, J Irvine, R Louw. Subs: C Reynolds, D Brooker, A Emond, G Mein, R Tod, A Emond, C Dods.
TEAM NEWS –
Stirling: Glasgow pros Fraser Lyle and Nemia Kenatale are released again so line up at inside centre and scrum-half respectively. Mike MacDonald returns to the starting line-up at loosehead prop, and Struan Robertson gets his first start of the season at openside following a strong showing off the bench last week.
Gala: Graham Speirs reverts to his preferred position of fullback after turning out on the wing to accommodate Edinburgh pro Rory Scholes last weekend. Ross Combe is at a wedding so Paul Hendry moves out from centre to cover the wing. Lewis Berg will make his Premiership debut in the number 13 jersey with Rex Jeffrey by his side, after both showed up well for the 2nd XV last week. In the pack, tighthead prop Gary Robertson’s return to fitness allows Chris Keen to move across the scrum to his preferred position on the loosehead, and Matt Carryer starts at hooker. Stevie Cairns picked up a knock last weekend so Gary Adams comes into the backrow.
KEY BATTLE: Nemia Kentale versus George Lott
WHAT THE COACHES SAY –
“How we managed to lose last week’s game from 24-8 up with 15 minutes to go is still a great source of frustration and bemusement. However, it hasn’t really been spoken about at training, and no one is feeling too sorry for themselves. As coaches and players, if we can’t learn lessons from a game like that, then we’re all in the wrong job…” – David Adamson (Stirling)
“Stirling did the double over of us last year so we know exactly how tough this game is going to be and how well we need to perform if we want to get the right result. This group is having to learn quickly and we hope that the back-to-back games against the two frontrunners in the league [during the last fortnight] will stand us in good stead going into this crucial period of our season…” – Chris Dalgliesh (Gala)
VERDICT: Creditworthy losses against the top two in recent weeks will give the visitors a hard-edge which will make the difference.
HAWICK v BOROUGHMUIR
VENUE: Mansfield Park @ 3pm
Hawick: K Ford; N Renwick, G Johnstone, G Huggan, W Hamilton; L Armstrong, B Campbell; S Muir, F Renwick, C Mackintosh, M Robertson, B McNeill©, R Gibson, S Graham, K Davies. Subs: M Landels, T Skeet, D Harlen, K Brunton, S Bandeen.
Boroughmuir: D Steele; G McConnell, R Kerr, M Hare, J Edmunds; C Laidlaw, S Johnson; R Dunbar, J Bett, D Robertson, J Ure, R Woodland, C Keddie©, M Walker, A Mncube. Subs; S Clark, D Winning, TBC, M Johnstone, A Cox.
TEAM NEWS –
Hawick: Prop Shaun Muir, flanker Ross Gibson and fullback Kirk Ford all return to the starting fifteen after showing up well in training, meaning that Dylan Harlen and Matt Landels have been tasked with making a big impact off the bench, while the effervescent Darcy Graham is unavailable because he is getting his tonsils out.
Boroughmuir: Chris Laidlaw is back from holiday and slots straight back in at stand-off, Rory Woodland replaces the injured Matt Tweddle in the second-row, and Matt Walker comes in for Dougie Hearn who has to work.
KEY BATTLE: Keith Davies versus Aubrey Mncube
WHAT THE COACHES SAY –
“After a brilliant match and a very good performance last week against a very good Ayr side we need to now increase our performance levels again in order to gain our first win. There was a lot of confidence taken from scoring four tries but also plenty to work on in training that everyone has bought into and fully understands what we need to do this weekend. Boroughmuir have put in some very strong performances this season already and work extremely hard for each other so we know that we will have to be at our best to get what are valuable points to stay in touch with the teams above …” – Nikki Walker (Hawick)
“After a couple of close defeats, things don’t get any easier travelling to Mansfield Park to play against a Hawick team looking for their first win. Looking at some of the tries they scored against Ayr I think this could be an open and exciting encounter…” – Peter Wright (Boroughmuir)
VERDICT: Recent form points to an away win but the hosts desperately need this and that makes them dangerous.
HERIOT’S v GLASGOW HAWKS
VENUE: Goldenacre @ 3pm
Heriots: G Parker; H Boisseau, L Steele, R Carmichael©, J Laird; A Hagart, A Simmers; M Bouab, G Turner, S Cessford, R Nimmo, C Smith, S Dewar, J McLean, C Marshall. Subs: M Liness, M McCallum, E Jackson, J Semple, J Webster.
Hawks: J Steele; J Bulumakau, R Beattie, B McGroarty, K Gossman; G Horne, G Hart; S Findlay, C Flynn, G Strain, A Linton, A Kirkland, A Hill, G Stewart, T Spinks©. Subs: P Cairncross, B Cullinane, S Thompson, S Yacoubian, D Milne.
TEAM NEWS –
Heriot’s: Harry Boisseau takes over from Andy McLean on the wing, skipper Rory Carmichael is fit again and take over from John Semple at centre, and number eight Callum Marshall is also back which prompts a reshuffle in the pack which includes Edinburgh pro George Turner reverting from hooker to his primary position of hooker and Michael Liness drop to the bench. Martin Bouab gets the nod ahead of Murray McCallum at loosehead.
Hawks: Last week’s hat-trick hero Junior Bulumakau has been released by Glasgow Warriors for the third week on the trot so continues on the wing. Grayson Hart has also been made available and will look to carry on from where he left off a fortnight ago against Stirling with another all-action performance. His half-back partner will be George Horne, who once again shows his versatility by covering for the injured Josh Henderson at stand-off. Former All Black Corey Flynn is at hooker, having been put up for grabs by any willing club in the west after Stirling County were unable to use him due to the pro draft differential ruling, which dictates that no club can have in excess of two professional players more than their opposition. Grant Stewart switches to openside flanker to accommodate the New Zealander.
KEY BATTLE: Andrew Simmers versus Grayson Hart
WHAT THE COACHES SAY –
“We are slowly getting into the season and showing signs of a squad that is beginning to gel in most areas of the game. However, Hawks are beginning to fulfil the potential of a club who have the draw of the biggest rugby population in Scotland. Add to this the pro releases they have had and they are looking like a very dangerous outfit who must be in a position to challenge for silverware this season …” – Phil Smith (Heriot’s)
“Heriots have an outstanding forward pack who will constantly challenge us with their powerful maul and scrum. Ex-Glasgow Hawks man Andrew Simmers is getting the backline moving forward with tremendous service to Alex Hagart. They also have the best defensive record in the league this year so we know that we won’t be given many scoring opportunities and need to be far more clinical than the past few weeks …” – Finlay Gillies (Hawks)
VERDICT: The visitors have the firepower to win this but they can’t afford to waste as many bullets as last week.
WATSONIANS v CURRIE
VENUE: Myreside @ 3pm
Watsonians: R Steele; M Bertram, S McLeod, D Innes, J Helps; A Chalmers, E McKirdy; M Christie©, S Crombie, S Ruwers, F Morrison, C Borthwick, V Fihaki, A Duckett, E Dods. Subs: D Miller, N Borel, d Dee, R Cullen, A Davidson.
Currie: H Elms; C Davies, M Hooks, R Nelson, C Gray; J Forbes, C Shiel; J Cox, F Scott, G Carson, G Temple, S Ainslie, R Davies, T Gordon, R Weston©. Subs: P Mundell, A McWilliam, D Marek, C Smith, R Snedden.
TEAM NEWS –
Watsonians: Edinburgh pro Neil Cochrane has not been released this week but his club mate Viliami Fihaki has, so the big Tongan takes over the number six jersey with Sean Crombie shifting forward to his principal position of hooker. Euan McKirdy starts at scrum-half and Reiss Cullen drops to the bench.
Currie: Matt Hooks returns at outside centre in place of Richie Vernon, Gary Temple comes into the second-row for the injured Hamish Bain, Graeme Carson starts for the unreleased Jarrod Firth at tighthead, and John Cox gets the nod over AP McWilliam at loosehead.
KEY BATTLE: Sean Crombie versus Fergus Scott
WHAT THE COACHES SAY –
“We put a lot into last week’s loss at Hawks, but in the end it got away from us as we tried to force things. We are pleased with three wins from four so far and are looking forward to another home match …” – Marcus Di Rollo (Watsonians)
“Last week was all about getting the win. This week is about using the confidence gained to put in an 80 minute performance and get some momentum. Watsonians have had an excellent start to the season and I am sure will be determined to show that last weekend’s result was just a blip. There is a good rivalry between the two clubs and I would expect this to be a full-on derby match …” – Ben Cairns (Currie)
VERDICT: With the monkey off their back, a young and talented Currie side are ready to kick-on.
Image courtesy Scottish Rugby/SNS Group