TO get a sense of just how abysmal Currie’s luck has been this year in terms of injuries, you only need to look at the plight of poor Graeme Clow when they played down in Melrose at the start of the month. After successfully converting his team’s third try, the stand-off was knocked out when referee Mike Adamson raised his arm to acknowledge the score, and has been off with concussion ever since.
Less than five months ago, the Malleny Park men hosted Heriot’s in a BT Premiership play-off semi-final after the two sides finished the regular season placed second and third (respectively) in the league ladder. The visitors edged that tense encounter courtesy of a nerveless drop-goal from stand-off Gregor McNeish in injury time.
The same two teams clash again this weekend in very different circumstances, having both got off to rather disappointing starts to the 2016-17 campaign when compared to the high standards they have set themselves in recent seasons.
Heriot’s ended last year as league and cup double winners but have struggled so far to recover that happy knack of edging tight encounters, with several of the characters who provided that indomitable spirit now having left the club, including McNeish, captain Jack Turley and talismanic back-rower Jason Hill.
They have managed only two wins from five outings so far, but by picking up a single try bonus point and two losing bonus points they have managed to sneak into the top half of the table on points difference and, with Michael Maltman back to provide extra steel in the back-row, they will view this game against the league’s bottom placed team as an ideal opportunity to kick-start their quest to secure another play-off place.
Phil Smith and his team, however, will be acutely aware that this afternoon’s trip to leafy Balerno will be no walk in the park. Currie may be propping up the table, but it is desperately tight at the bottom and they have shown in flashes that they have more than enough potential to scrabble their way out of the relegation zone.
In theory, a bonus point victory for the home team today could see them leapfrog five teams (including Heriot’s) into fifth position in the league – although that would require a remarkable 110 point turnaround in points differential. A more graduated ascent of the league ladder seems likelier, with Hawick, Gala and Boroughmuir well within striking distance this week if results go Currie’s way.
With six members of their squad in the BT Sport Scottish Rugby Academy set-up, and the likes of Stephen Ainslie, Matt McGrandles and Cammy Gray graduates of Scotland’s successful Junior [under-20] World Cup campaign during the summer, there is plenty of reasons for optimism about the future at Malleny Park.
“We pride ourselves on bringing young guys through and because of injuries and the new visa guidelines for overseas players, the has been a real onus on these youngsters to step forward and take a leadership role this season whereas ordinarily they might have had a little bit more time and space to find their feet,” says head coach Ben Cairns.
“It has been a steep learning curve and I am really impressed with how they have taken the challenge on. It has been tough but I think we will see a massive difference in these players now that they have a few more experienced heads coming back to support them, and I think we will really feel the benefit during the second half of the season in terms of having more players better equipped to play at this level, which will push everyone on through competition for places.”
“We are starting to see a few guys coming back from injury and that is already making a difference in boosting the standard at training and breeding confidence throughout the squad.”
Currie were prepared for the loss of most of their overseas players through the change in visa guidelines over the summer, but had not anticipated New Zealander James Semple falling into the ineligible category until very close to the start of season.
“That one caught us out because I think he has been one of the best players in the league in recent years. Jamie Forbes has arrived back from Australia and taken over at stand-off, he’s doing a good job and improving each week, but he is predominantly a full-back so he is playing out of position,” says Cairns.
“Injuries mean we have been missing guys like Alastair Hamilton (tighthead prop), Mike Vernel (second-row) and Luke Crosbie (flanker), but we are going to start see these guys coming back into contention.”
“Cammy Hutchison is back this week and we are really excited about that. He is only 18 but is already a stage three Academy player. You look at what has happened with Matt Fagerson over at Glasgow Hawks and how he has come through, and is now sitting on the bench for the Warriors … well … there is no reason why something similar won’t happen with Cammy.”
“Ruaridh Smith and Ruairdh Young missed the end of last season with injury and we had hoped to have them back for the start of this season, but it has taken them a bit longer than expected – so that’s two out of what you would probably have expected to be our starting back three missing,” the coach adds.
Cairns points out that his team had a particularly tricky start to the season, with expeditions to Ayr and Melrose inside the first three weekends. He is not happy that Currie shipped 50 points in both games but the team can at least now draw a line under the experience, while most of their rivals still have those daunting challenges still to come.
“It’s the defeats to Gala and Watsonians that really upset me because we should have been good enough to win those games,” says Cairns.
“Against Watsonians last week we played really well in the first half to go in just a point behind, but then we played 40 minutes with a blowing gale at our backs and ended up losing by eight points. So, our game management is not where it needs to be, but we know there is a lot of talent and a great attitude in the squad so we will learn and we will get there.”
HOW IT STANDS –
THE LOWDOWN –
BOROUGHMUIR v AYR
VENUE: Meggetland @ 3pm
Boroughmuir: D Steele; G McConnell, R Kerr, M Hare, J Edmunds; C Laidlaw, S Johnson; R Dunbar, J Bett, D Winning, J Scott, J Ure, J Ritchie, M Walker, C Keddie©. Subs; S Clark, D Robertson, A Mncube, A Rose, A Cox.
Ayr: G Anderson©; C Taylor, D McCluskey, A Russell, C Gossman; F Climo, D Armstrong; G Hunter, J Malcolm, A Prentice, C Stevenson, S Sutherland, W Bordill, G Henry, B Macpherson. Subs: D Young, S Longwell, R McAlpine, G Hunter, R Dalgliesh.
TEAM NEWS –
Boroughmuir: An unchanged back division from last week. In the pack, Jamie Ritchie is a late addition after being released by Edinburgh, coming in at blindside flanker, with Aubrey Mncube dropping to the bench. Dan Winning takes over from Dale Robertson at tight-head. Influential Andy Rose is back from injury and will look to make an impact as a replacement.
Ayr: Glasgow pro James Malcolm starts at hooker after being a late withdrawal last week, and he is joined in the front-row by Adam Prentice. Second-row Robert McAlpine has been selected on the bench for Glasgow Warriors this week and as a result Craig Stevenson is promoted to the starting XV. The backline is unchanged after last week’s victory over Melrose.
KEY BATTLE: Jamie Ritchie versus Will Bordill
WHAT THE COACHES SAY –
“It can’t get much harder than playing the league leaders but the players and coaches are really looking forward to the game …” – Peter Wright (Boroughmuir)
“Boroughmuir will be looking to bounce back after some narrow losses in recent weeks despite playing some good rugby. Last week was our most complete performance of the season so far and we will be looking to improve on what was a mature and disciplined display …” – Calum Forrester (Ayr)
VERDICT: Pack power allows the Ayr bandwagon to roll on.
MELROSE v STIRLING COUNTY
VENUE: Greenyards @ 3pm
Melrose: A Lockington; N Godsmark, 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, R McLeod, A Grieve, S Hutchinson, G Wood.
Stirling: J Hope©; C Pringle, N Grigg, S Johnson, 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, M Donaldson, J Cresswell.
TEAM NEWS –
Melrose: The same starting team as finished last week’s narrow defeat at Ayr with Nyal Godsmark on the wing and Austin Lockington at full-back in the absence of Fraser Thomson, who pulled his hamstring early in last week’s match.
Stirling: Glasgow Warriors duo Sam Johnson and Nick Grigg take over the two centre berths, in place of fellow pro Fraser Lyle and Jake Cresswell, who drops to the bench. Otherwise it is an unchanged team from the side which started last week’s victory against Gala.
KEY BATTLE: Neil Irvine-Hess versus Ruaridh Leishman
WHAT THE COACHES SAY –
“After two weeks on the road and picking up six points the squad are in good spirits and excited to get back to the Greenyards. Stirling seem to be gaining momentum after recruiting strongly over the summer. It is clear their pack is a strength, especially their scrum and lineout drive …” – Rob Chrystie (Melrose)
“To close out the win against Gala, from a similar position to where we lost from against Boroughmuir and Currie was extremely pleasing and testament to the positivity and hard work of the team. We are confident that if we build on our performance from our game against Gala, and make our attacking phases stick, we will be in with a shout …” – David Adamson (Stirling)
VERDICT: Melrose return to winning ways.
GLASGOW HAWKS v HAWICK
VENUE: Old Anniesland @ 3pm
Hawks: S Lamont; J Bulumakau, R Beattie, D Milne, K Gossman; J Henderson, G Horne; S Findlay, S Rodgers, G Strain, A Linton, A Kirkland, A Redmayne, G Stewart, T Spinks©. Subs: P Cairncross, B Cullinane, B Cullinane, F Hastie, J Steele, B McGroarty.
Hawick: N Renwick; N McColm, G Johnstone, G Huggan, W Hamilton; L Armstrong, B Campbell; S Muir, C Mackintosh, M Landels, M Robertson, D Harlen, , R Gibson, S Graham, B McNeil©. Subs: F Renwick, T Skeet, B Robertson, K Brunton, A Weir.
TEAM NEWS –
Hawks: Scotland cap centurion Sean Lamont has been released by Glasgow Warriors to start at full-back, in an exciting back three alongside fellow Junior Bulumakau and Kerr Gossman. Josh Henderson is fit again and returns at fly-half, with George Horne swapping the number ten for the number nine jersey. Sam Thomson and Matt Fagerson have gone the other way on Warriors duty, so hooker Grant Stewart is redeployed in the depleted back-row, and Scott Rodgers makes his first start of the season in the middle of the front-row having made a number of impressive cameos off the bench.
Hawick: The pack has been bulked up with Calum Mackintosh moving from tighthead prop to hooker and veteran Matt Landels taking over the number three jersey. South African Dylan Harlen comes into the second-row, with captain Bruce McNeil moving to number eight in place of Keith Davies. Neil McColm is back on the team on the wing.
KEY BATTLE: Tommy Spinks versus Bruce McNeil
WHAT THE COACHES SAY –
“Hawick, like ourselves, are an ambitious team and like to play an open brand of rugby with excellent off-loaders and support runners littered throughout their squad. They are the improving team in the league and have put in two excellent performances against Ayr and Boroughmuir in recent weeks …” – Finlay Gillies (Hawks)
“After finally getting our first win last weekend we have taken a lot of confidence and belief that we can gain some momentum and begin to climb the table. We are certainly heading in the right direction with our intent to play an expansive game of rugby, having scored eight tries in the last two matches. We realise that if we can tighten up our defence then we will be a very hard team to beat …” – Nikki Walker (Hawick)
VERDICT: Back down to earth with a bump for the visitors.
GALA v WATSONIANS
VENUE: Netherdale @ 3pm
Gala: G Speirs©; A Northam, L Berg, P Hendry, C Robertson; G Hunter, C Adams; C Keen, M Carryer, D Brooker, R Louw, C Weir, G Adams, J Irvine, S Cairns. Subs: C Reynolds, G Robertson, TBC, A Emond, C Dods.
Watsonians: R Steele; M Bertram, D Innes, J Helps, M McFarland; A Chalmers, E McKirdy; M Christie©, S Crombie, S Ruwers, F Morrison, C Borthwick, V Fihaki, D Dee, E Dods. Subs: D Miller, N Borel, A Duckett, R Cullen, K Young.
TEAM NEWS –
Gala: Australian speed-merchant Alex Northam is released by Edinburgh and starts on the wing with Paul Hendry reverting to centre. Connor Adams makes his Premiership debut at scrum-half, and Stevie Cairns has recovered from the knock which kept him out last week to start play number eight, with Rob Louw moving into the second-row in place of Opeta Palepoi. Dean Brooker rotateswith Gary Robertson at tighthead prop.
Watsonians: Max McFarland makes a debut on the wing, Joe Helps moves to centre in place of the injured Scott McLeod and Edinburgh pro Viliami Fihaki is back at blindside flanker.
KEY BATTLE: Stevie Cairns versus Euan Dods.
WHAT THE COACHES SAY –
“After probably our poorest performance of the season last week the players have trained well and are looking forward to the weekend where they will have to opportunity to put things back on track. They were very honest with each other and know that their ball retention and basic skills need to be much better …” – Chris Dalgliesh (Gala)
“Netherdale is a tough place to go, but the guys have trained well this week and we have quite a settled side so we are looking forward to it …” – Marcus Di Rollow (Watsonians)
VERDICT: A triumphant homecoming for Gala’s lost sons.
CURRIE v HERIOT’S
VENUE: Malleny Park @ 3pm
Currie: H Elms; L Jones, C Hutchison, R Nelson, C Gray; J Forbes, R Snedden; J Cox, F Scott, G Carson, H Bain, S Ainslie, R Davies, T Gordon, R Weston©. Subs: P Mundell, A McWilliam, G Temple, J Bywater, C Shiel.
Heriots: J Semple; H Boisseau, L Steele, R Carmichael©, J Laird; A Hagart, A Simmers; M McCallum, M Liness, S Cessford, R Nimmo, C Smith, S Dewar, J McLean, C Marshall. Subs: S Mustard, M Bouab, M Maltman, G Parker, J Webster.
TEAM NEWS –
Currie: Lee Jones has been released by Glasgow Warriors to play on the wing and Cameron Hutchison returns from injury to start at centre, with Matt Hooks and Chris Davies making way. Veteran Richard Snedden also gets the nod over young-gun Charlie Shiel at scrum-half. Hamish Bain returns from injury in the second-row with Gary Temple moving to the bench.
Heriot’s: John Semple at full-back and Murray McCallum at loosehead prop are the only changes to the starting XV, while former Scotland Sevens star Michael Maltman has returned to the club and is on the bench.
KEY BATTLE: Cammy Hutchison versus Liam Steele
WHAT THE COACHES SAY –
“A very disappointing second half with the wind at our backs undid all the good work the boys had produced in the first half versus Watsonians [last week]. A key focus this week has therefore been implementing our game plan for the full 80 minutes. Although our matches have been very close in the last couple of seasons, Heriots have always had the edge and this is a trend we are determined to stop on Saturday …” – Ben Cairns (Currie)
“Another frustrating weekend of rugby saw us eventually lose out to a good Hawks side last weekend. However, we are proving, to ourselves at least, that things are taking shape and this young side have exciting times ahead. Both squads are much different to those who played in last season’s play-off cracker, however I am sure there will be no less passion …” – Phil Smith (Heriot’s)
VERDICT: Things finally click for Currie.