WHAT better way to blow away the Christmas cobwebs than a schedule of potentially season-defining league matches on the first weekend in January?
With the spectre of Super 6 hanging over the BT Premiership this season, it is too easy to become preoccupied with committee room manoeuvrings at the expense of enjoying the drama playing out on the field of play in Scottish rugby’s top domestic league. That’s a shame because there is plenty to keep the bona fide sports fan entertained and intrigued. It might be a bit rough round the edges at times, but scratch the surface and there are a lot of good things about this competition which are being far too easily dismissed at the moment.
At the Greenyards – one of the most picturesque and iconic rugby grounds in the world – Ayr will be the latest challengers to Melrose’s unblemished record this season; and with the influential duo of David Armstrong and Frazier Climo back from injury to pull the strings at scrum-half and stand-off respectively, they will fancy their chances of repeating the upset they achieved the last time the two sides met at this venue, in last season’s play-off Grand Final.
This match was originally scheduled for December and Ayr made the long trip across country only to decide that the pitch was unplayable. There was a bit of a spat between the two clubs about whether the game should have gone ahead – or, indeed, whether it should have been called off before Ayr set-off – which is certain to add an extra dash of spice to this encounter (as if any was needed).
Two clubs which have led the drive towards raising standards in this league in recent seasons battling it out tooth and nail – it should be a cracker and we must assume that Murrayfield is paying close attention.
But it is not the only match to whet the appetite this weekend. Currie Chieftains are flying high off the back of an excellent victory over Ayr just before Christmas but will know they have a battle on their hands when Peter Wright’s talented, but often naïve, Boroughmuir team come calling. The visitors are in desperate need of some league points in the battle to escape the relegation zone and with the likes of Jordan Edmunds, Grant McConnell, Ciaran Whyte, Greg Canny and Chris Laidlaw populating their back-line, they are capable of getting a result – so long as they don’t have too many kamikaze moments.
Watsonians have been building up a fairly impressive head of steam and will be keen to keep that going at home against Marr, and they will be mindful of what happened the last time the two sides met; while second placed Heriot’s make the long trip down to Hawick, who are still bottom of the league but have won their last two games.
HOW IT STANDS –
THE LOWDOWN –
MELROSE v AYR
VENUE: Greenyards @ 2pm
Melrose: F Thomson; R McCann, N Godsmark, C Jackson, G Taylor; J Baggott, B Colvine (YCx1); D Elkington, R Anderson (YCx1), N Beavon, A Runciman (YCx1), I Moody, N Irvine-Hess, G Runciman© (YCx1), A Miller. Subs: R Ferguson, R McLeod (YCx2), R Knott, J Head, G Wood.
Ayr: G Anderson (YCx1); P Dewhirst, S Lyle, S McDowall, C Gossman; F Climo (YCx1), D Armstrong; R Hislop (YCx1), R Smith, S Longwell (YCx1), B Macpherson (YCx1), R McAlpine, T Spinks, G Stokes, P McCallum© (YCx1). Subs: R Sayce, G Hunter (YCx1), J Agnew (YCx1), H Warr, M Davidson.
TEAM NEWS –
Melrose: Ali Miller is once again released from Edinburgh Rugby to play at No 8. Dan Elkington gets a start at loose-head, and James Head returns to the squad after recovering from injury.
Ayr: A familiar looking pack with George Hunter returning from injury and ready to make an impact off the bench. Behind the scrum, David Armstrong and Frazier Climo both return from injury to form what could be a highly influential half-back hinge, if they can hit the ground running after fairly lengthy lay-offs. Scott Sutherland and Lewis Anderson are missing through illness and a pre-arranged holiday respectively.
KEY BATTLE: Bruce Colvine versus David Armstrong
WHAT THE COACHES SAY –
“Ayr by their own high standards have had a tough season so far but are still well placed in the top four and with key players likely to be back from injury are sure to come down to Melrose in buoyant mood. After another short break in the league we are looking forward to playing against last year’s league champions at the Greenyards …” – Rob Chrystie (Melrose)
“Melrose have been the outstanding side in the Premiership this season and they have maintained that form over the festive break with the games that they have played. The players were hurting after our last result against Currie and are looking forward to the challenge at the Greenyards this weekend …” – Calum Forrester (Ayr)
VERDICT: A big game for Ayr! Poor discipline, a high error count and lack of direction cost them dear last time out against Currie – but they look a much better side with Frazier Climo and David Armstrong reunited at half back – assuming that they are both match fit.
A big ask – but not preposterously so – if they play at their rumbustious best – take their chances – and stay totally focused for the full 80 minutes.
The smart money will, of course, still be very much on Melrose – tellingly described by Finlay Gillies after they had put his Hawks team through the mangle a fortnight ago as ‘metronomes of discipline and consistency’ – and they can play a bit as well!
CURRIE CHIEFTAINS v BOROUGHMUIR
VENUE: Malleny Park @ 2.30pm
Currie Chieftains: B Robbins (YCx1); M McFarland, R Vernon, R Nelson, C Gray; J Forbes, C Shiel; G Carson, C Mackintosh, A McWilliam, H Bain, M Vernel (YCx1), V Wright (YCx1), T Gordon, L Crosbie (YCx1). Subs: K Burney, D Ferguson, R Davies, M O’Neil. M Hooks.
Boroughmuir: C Whyte (YCx1); G McConnell, R Kerr, G Cannie (YCx1), J Edmunds; C Laidlaw©, E McKirdy; P Richards, J Matthews (YCx4), T Gracie, S Corrigall, A Erskine (YCx1), A Mcnube (YCx1), T Drennan, C Keddie. Subs: D Marek, M Henry, J Ure, J Adams, M Hare (YCx1).
TEAM NEWS –
Currie Chieftains: Graeme Carson shifts from hooker to loose-head prop, Callum Mackinstosh takes over the number two jersey and Kris Burney returns from injury to replace John Cox as prop cover on the bench. Hamish Bain starts in the second-row and Luke Crosbie is released by Edinburgh to play number eight. Behind the scrum, Jamie Forbes reverts to stand-off, Richie Vernon switches from the back-row to outside-centre in light of the on-going absence through injury of Harvey Elms, and Max McFarland is also released by Glasgow Warriors to make his debut for the club on the right wing.
Boroughmuir: Euan McKirdy replaces Jonny Adams at scrum-half. In the pack, Johnny Matthews returns at hooker, Paul Richards replaces the injured Dale Robertson at prop, and Sean Corrigall gets his first start in the second-row.
Dan Marek and Jamie Ure both return from injury.
KEY BATTLE: Luke Crosbie versus Craig Keddie
WHAT THE COACHES SAY –
“Our first win at Millbrae in six years meant we went into the Christmas break on a bit of a high. Boroughmuir will be desperate for the league points in order to start pulling themselves clear of the relegation battle and it’s important we match this desperation if we are to maintain our push for a play-off spot. Both sides like to throw the ball about and play with a bit of width and the weather forecast looks okay so let’s hope we can get the game on and both sides are able to play the exciting brand of rugby they are both capable of …” – Ben Cairns (Currie Chieftains)
“Good to get back to league action after the forced weather break and the festive period. Currie having been going well this season so we have not underestimated the task that lies ahead of us …” – Peter Wright (Boroughmuir)
VERDICT: A great result for Chieftains at Ayr. No Adam Hastings this week – but the draft has been kind with three good pros – and Charlie Shiel thrown in for good measure.
It has been a tough old season for Boroughmuir – with not a lot of luck. Messed up by the weather, they have not played for five weeks – and will hopefully come back reinvigorated. It is, however, difficult to see them frustrating Chieftains at Malleny – much though they need the points.
WATSONIANS v MARR
VENUE: Myreside @ 3.00pm
Watsonians: G Bryce; M Bertram, M Allen, D Innes, J Harries; R Hutton, A Harris; F Hobbis, R Graham (YCx1), N Borel, J Hodgson (YCx1), C Borthwick©, M Fedo, G Nelson, E Dods. Subs: D Miller, M Christie, J Miller, M Scott, A Chalmers.
Marr: R McGee; S Bickerstaff, R Dalgleish, C Bickerstaff, T Steven; C Kolarik, K Baretto; G Jackson, O Rossi, W Farquhar, E Bulger, R Miller, R Jackson, M Pearce, B Johnston. Subs: S Adair, F Ferguson, K Hatherell, G Paxton, D Steele.
TEAM NEWS –
Watsonians: Nathan Borel starts at loose-head with former captain Martin Christie returning from a spell with his native Gala to occupy the bench. Jason Harries and Glenn Bryce are released by Edinburgh Rugby to start at full-back and on the wing, respectively.
KEY BATTLE: Ross Graham versus Ollie Rossi
WHAT THE COACH SAYS –
“Marr represent a massive challenge. We are only too aware that in our last encounter they convincingly won the second half through a robust display of forward dominance. We therefore need to play for the full 80 minutes in order to get the performance required. We are hoping for a large crowd this weekend as rugby returns to Myreside following the festive period …” – Stevie Lawrie (Watsonians)
VERDICT: A game Watsonians simply cannot afford to lose. Marr gave them a fright back in September – but they are a much harder nosed outfit now – and they have finally moved Rory Hutton to stand-off.
HAWICK v HERIOT’S
VENUE: Mansfield Park @ 3.00pm
Hawick: D Graham; R Combe, K Davies, D Buckley (YCx1), G Munro; L Armstrong, G Cotterill; S Muir, M Carryer, N Little, D Redpath, C Hamilton, G Graham (YCx2), S Graham (YCx2), B McNeil© (YCx1). Subs: F Renwick, M Landels, A Bailey, A Weir, C McLelland.
Heriot’s: L Steele; J Rae, R Jones, R Carmichael, C Robertson; S Edwards (YCx1), T Wilson; M Bouab (YCx1), M Liness, S Cessford (YCx2), A Sinclair, C Marshall, M Maltman, I Wilson, J Turley. Subs: S Mustard, N Campbell, J McLean (YCx1), M Hughes, D Martin.
TEAM NEWS –
Heriot’s: A number of players are unavailable due to pre-booked holidays and the early re-start to the season – seemingly oblivious to the fact that this was always a standby date and is pretty unusual to get through a Scottish December without some weather disruption– so Charlie Simpson, Robbie Mulveena, Robert Kay and Struan Dewar drop out. Reinforcements bring plenty experience in Liam Steele at full-back, Craig Robertson on the wing, club captain Rory Carmichael in the centre and Adam Sinclair in the second-row.
KEY BATTLE: Bruce McNeil versus Jack Turley
WHAT THE COACH SAYS – “The timing of this fixture means that we are going to have to get into our stride as quickly as possible, after a couple of weeks of disjointed training. Our match on Tuesday versus the Co-optimists was great for getting the lads back into some form of rugby order, and with a few tweaks during the rest of the week we are hoping to go to Mansfield ready for what will undoubtedly be a tough shift. With four games now in January, which will very much determine the outcome of the league standings, the players are aware there is no time to waste and no excuses accepted for not performing …” – Phil Smith (Heriot’s)
VERDICT: ‘When the going gets tough, the Nails go skiing’ – and their confreres might very well pay the penalty on a bleak afternoon at hostile Mansfield against a semi-resurgent Hawick.