MELROSE were the early pace-setters in this season’s BT Premiership campaign, racking up four impressive bonus-point victories during the opening month against Boroughmuir [51-24], Glasgow Hawks [17-37], Currie [52-22] and Gala [27-43]. They seemed to be scoring tries for fun, and were already being talked about in some quarters as champions-elect before we had made it halfway through September.
Then came a trip to Millbrae to take on an Ayr side which was also unbeaten at that stage but had failed to set the heather alight during their early season skirmishes. Melrose went into the game as overwhelming favourites, especially when the home team’s influential centre pairing of Ross Curle and Archie Russell were late withdrawals through injury – but on a wet and windy afternoon on the west coast, Ayr’s battling quality shone through. They played the conditions better and squeezed out a well-deserved 11-7 victory.
Melrose’s air of invincibility was shattered, and although they have recently returned to winning ways against Stirling County [25-17] and Watsonians [7-25], their mojo has not fully recovered. Injuries to key men and conditions slightly less conducive to the top-of-the-ground rugby has undoubtedly contributed to this, and their head coach Rob Chrystie insists that his players have learned from that Millbrae set-back to become a better all-round team, but you can’t help feeling that there was a small but significant change that day in the way Melrose look at themselves … and in the way other teams look at them. It was never going to be as easy for them again.
It is a cautionary tale that Glasgow Hawks will have taken on board this week as they prepared for their trip down to wet and wild Ayrshire.
The Anniesland outfit have been on scintillating form of late. The only real blot on their copy book in a campaign which has seen them surge to the top of the BT Premiership table (scoring an impressive 46 tries in seven matches – 13 more than any other team) was that reversal at home to Melrose in round two.
Head coach Gillies said afterwards that his major frustration was that his players had abandoned their belief in the way they wanted to play after being ruthlessly punished by Melrose for a couple of careless errors when trying to move the ball from deep in the first half. He watched his team claw back a couple of tries after the break by keeping it tight, but it was not enough and he would have liked to see what would have happened if they had stuck to their attacking instincts. The message was clear: that defeat was an aberration which occurred because his team had moved away from what they are good at.
His players certainly seemed to take that lesson on board. Hawks have gone from strength-to-strength since that set-back, with five free-wheeling victories over Stirling County [8-38], Watsonians [48-20], Heriot’s [19-30], Hawick [78-13] and Boroughmuir [28-48] on the bounce. They are playing with the sort of swagger which Melrose exhibited at the start of the campaign – which makes this weekend’s appointment against the Millbrae bogeymen a fascinating proposition. Will they fall to the same fate?
It would be grossly unfair to their opposition to suggest that Hawks have had it all their own way during the last month, but they have had enough control upfront to play the attacking brand of rugby Gillies champions. The visitors are unlikely to enjoy as much front foot ball today as they have been used to in recent weeks, but Gillies says that won’t alter his team’s mind-set.
“The one thing we learned from the Melrose game is that we’ve got to play the game that we have set out this season to play,” he said.
“There is no obvious weakness in the Ayr team. They have the most physical pack in the league, the strongest scrum, and I don’t think their backline gets the credit it deserves. Guys like Ross Curle, Archie Russell and Grant Anderson are class acts, and if you give them an inch they will punish you. So we are fully aware of the challenge we face, but we have to stick to our principles. We just have to make sure that we are as accurate as we possibly can be in terms of decision making and execution,” he added.
“It looks like the weather is not going to be great, so that’s something else we are ready for having not been in that situation before this season, but we have confidence in our ability to execute our game in any conditions. At the end of the day, it is 15 against 15 and everything else is just background noise.”
“I think Ayr play a similar style of rugby to us – although they have a little bit more emphasis on physicality and the set-piece which we have tried to move away from – so it should be a really exciting match.”
A bonus for Hawks is the unavailability of influential stand-off Frazier Climo, but Gillies reasons that Ayr have enough strength in depth to shrug off that piece of bad news.
“Ross Curle has moved from inside centre to stand-off as cover and he has been one of the best players in the league for a long time so it’s not exactly like they are struggling there,” he pointed out.
“Ayr are a really professional outfit. Along with Melrose they have set the standard that the rest of us aspire to, so this is a really exciting opportunity for us to measure ourselves against that. We’ve got to the top of the pile and we want to stay there, and the only way to do that is by getting out there and winning the big games. Our boys are really looking forward to it.”
THE LOWDOWN –
AYR v GLASGOW HAWKS
VENUE: Millbrae @ 3pm
Ayr: G Anderson©; R Dalgliesh, A Russell, S McDowall, C Gossman; R Curle, D Armstrong; D Sears-Duru, D Young, S Longwell, R McAlipine, S Sutherland, G Hunter, W Bordill, B Macpherson. Subs: R Smith, C Stevenson, R Mackenzie, P Dewhirst, J Bova.
Hawks: P Murchie; J Bulumakau, R Beattie, B McGroarty, K Gossman; G Horne, G Hart; S Findlay, S Rodgers, G Strain, A Linton, A Kirkland, A Redmayne, G Stewart, T Spinks©. Subs: P Cairncross, B Cullinane, S Thompson, J Steele, D Milne.
TEAM NEWS –
Ayr: Injuries to Frazier Climo and Danny McCluskey prompt a midfield reshuffle, with Curle moving inwards to take over the number ten jersey and Archie Russell returning to outside centre alongside Stafford McDowell. In the pack, Darcy Rae is not released by Glasgow but Canadian international Djustice Sears-Duru is so starts at loosehead with Steven Longwell shifting over to tighthead. Robert McAlpine returns to the second row after appearing for the Warriors last weekend. Number eight Ruaridh MacKenzie, the New Zealand-raised 21-year-old son of Gregor MacKenzie – who was capped once for Scotland at prop against Australia in 1984 – will make his debut off the bench after joining the club on a partnership contract with Glasgow Warriors.
Hawks: Junior Bulumakau continues on the right wing and is joined in an exciting back-line by fellow Glasgow professional Peter Murchie at full-back and Grayson Hart at scrum-half. An unchanged pack is led by the talismanic Tommy Spinks at number eight.
KEY BATTLE: David Armstrong versus Grayson Hart
WHAT THE COACHES SAY –
“Hawks have played some outstanding rugby so far this season and will come to Millbrae full of confidence following recent results. Last week was the reaction that we were looking for following our defeat at Boroughmuir and now we will need to raise our game again…” – Calum Forrester (Ayr)
“Ayr boast excellent players throughout their team and don’t appear to offer much weakness in their game play. With the outstanding scrum in the league we know that this could be a telling factor in the game. Ayr pose a physical challenge like no other team in the league so we hope to match them here and provide some ball to our exciting backline …” – Finlay Gillies (Hawks)
VERDICT: Ayr will do what they need to do.
STIRLING COUNTY v WATSONIANS
VENUE: Bridgehaugh @ 3pm
Stirling: J Hope; C Pringle, J Cresswell, F Lyle, R Elliston; R Jones, N Kenatale; M MacDonald, R Kennedy, A Nicol, H Burr, C Hunter-Hill©, R Leishman, H Henderson. Subs: M Emmison, C Hutton, S MacDonald, C Turnbull, M Lamb.
Watsonians: A Chalmers; M McFarland, D Innes, T Hart, K Young; E Scotts, R Cullen; M Christie©, S Crombie, N Borel, M Poole, C Borthwick, D Dee, A Duckett, E Dods. Subs: D Miller, C Eastwood, F Morrison, E McKirdy, M Bertram.
TEAM NEWS –
Stirling: Ryan Elliston replaces Matt Lamb on the right wing in the only change in the backline, while the pack is bolstered by the return of tighthead prop Adam Nicol (who was away on a university field trip last weekend), loosehead prop Mike MacDonald and second-row captain Callum Hunter-Hill (who was in the Glasgow Warriors squad last weekend). Ruairidh Leishman returns to the back row, where he teams up with Harry Henderson, who starts at number eight.
Watsonians: DJ Innes come in at outside centre for Scott Macleod, and Ewan Scott returns to the starting fifteen at stand-off, with Andrew Chalmers reverting to full-back. Matt Poole starts in the second-row, and Diarmaid Dee returns at blindside flanker.
KEY BATTLE: Callum Hunter-Hill versus Craig Borthwick
WHAT THE COACHES SAY –
“Despite having a weakened side last week, we played some good rugby, but couldn’t compete with the power of Ayr’s pack which resulted in us conceding a few soft scores due to the amount of pressure we were put under – so, we are pleased to have the majority of those that missed last week’s game back to. We’re hoping that we can combine the enterprise we should in attack against Ayr, with the power that our pack has shown in previous games …” – David Adamson (Stirling)
“We know that County have a strong pack so we will need to work hard to get the desired result at Bridgehaugh …” – Marcus Di Rollo (Watsonians)
VERDICT: Home pack edges it.
CURRIE v BOROUGHMUIR
VENUE: Malleny Park @ 3pm
Currie: H Elms; B Robbins, R Nelson, C Hutchison, C Gray; J Forbes, R Snedden; J Cox, F Scott, G Carson, H Bain, S Ainslie, R Davies, T Gordon, R Weston©. Subs: A McWilliam, J Firth, L Crosbie, M McPhillips, C Shiel.
Boroughmuir: D Steele; J Edmunds, A Cox, G Cannie, G McConnell,; C Laidlaw, S Johnson; R Dunbar, S Clark, D Winning, J Scott, J Ure, A Rose, M Walker, C Keddie©. Subs; TBC, D Robertson, M Tweddle, R Kerr, M Hare.
TEAM NEWS –
Currie: Half-back is the only area of change after last week’s defeat at Hawick. Richard Snedden returns at scrum-half having been a late call off for that game, and Jamie Forbes is back at stand-off in place of James Bywater. Matt McPhillips returns from injury to take a spot on the bench.
Boroughmuir: Jamie Ritchie is not released by Edinburgh this week but a highly experienced replacement takes his place in the shape of Zimbabwean internationalist Andy Rose. Sam Johnson is back at scrum-half, which allows Dougie Steel to move back to his preferred position of full-back, with Greg Cannie coming in to the centre for Ronan Kerr.
KEY BATTLE: Harvey Elms versus Dougie Steele
WHAT THE COACHES SAY –
“Last weekend Hawick made us pay for not capitalising on the chances we created in the first half. Our decision making post break was poor last week and this is something we have worked hard on in training. Another home derby match sees Boroughmuir come to Malleny with both teams desperate to take the spoils and keep their sights firmly on a top four place. Both teams are packed full of emerging talent so it should be a great showcase for some of Scotland’s future stars …” – Ben Cairns (Currie)
“The players put a lot of effort into last week’s game and were bitterly disappointed not to get anything out of it, but no time to wallow in self-pity with a crucial game for both teams on Saturday …” – Peter Wright (Boroughmuir)
VERDICT: Boroughmuir hold their nerve.
MELROSE v HERIOT’S
VENUE: The Greenyards @ 3pm
Melrose: C Jackson; N Godsmark, G Taylor, R Taylor, R McCann; J Baggott, M McAndrew; J Bhatti, R Anderson, N Beavon, J Head, R Knott, N Irvine-Hess, G Runciman©, I Moody. Subs: R Ferguson, R McLeod, A Grieve, D Colvine, G Wood.
Heriots: G Parker; H Boisseau, C Simpson, J Rae, C Simpson; A Hagart, A Simmers; M Bouab, M Liness, S Cessford, C Marshall, C Smith, M Maltman, J McLean, S Dewar. Subs: G Turner, R Mitchell, R Nimmo, A Ball, D Crawford.
TEAM NEWS –
Melrose: Nick Beavon returns to the starting line-up after bizarrely being farmed out by Edinburgh to sit on the bench for London Scottish last week. Grant Runciman is fit again to lead the team from the openside flanker position, with Ruaridh Knott reverting to the second-row in place of Lewis Camrichael, who is Romania on Edinburgh duty.
Heriot’s: The starting pack is unchanged but the bench is strengthened by the return of Edinburgh professional hooker George Turner and second-row Russell Nimmo. Rory Carmichael is unavailable but Alex Hagart is ft again to take over the number ten jersey, while Josh Laird drops out after pikcing up a knock so Charlie Simpson moves to centre and John Rae comes in on the wing.
KEY BATTLE: Russell Anderson versus Michael Liness
WHAT THE COACHES SAY –
“Phil Smith’s squad has a few changes from last years all conquering squad, however he has strengthened lately and there is quality throughout. After last weeks’ excellent win against Gala they will be looking to get into the top four as soon as possible …” – Rob Chrystie (Melrose)
“After putting in a more Heriot’s like performance last weekend the boys are relishing the challenge ahead. As ever against Melrose, the set piece will be key, and parity in this area should lead to an open game – while anything less will probably see one team edge it …” – Phil Smith (Heriot’s)
VERDICT: Melrose edge it.
Image: George McMillan