THE long wait is over. BT Premiership action returns this weekend after a hiatus for the Autumn international window: kicking off a run of three games on the trot leading up to Christmas which will be absolutely crucial to determining who will be in contention for a play-off spot in the New Year, and who will be scrabbling to escape the drop.
Only three pro players are involved this week, so a real test of the native strength of each squad is on the cards.
A few teams will feel they have a point to prove in these return games after being upset earlier in the season – not least Ayr, who travel to Lochinch (Old Anniesland is still out of action) looking to exorcise the demon of their 18-28 loss at home against Glasgow Hawks in early September.
Heriot’s also came a cropper in round two, at Marr, and having dropped out of the Cup after a defeat to National League side Edinburgh Academicals in their last outing, they will be acutely aware of the need to re-generate some of the momentum they felt was buiding during October, before it is too late.
Perhaps the most intriguing encounter of the weekend is at Myreside, where Watsonians host their old friends and rivals Currie Chieftains. Ben Cairns’ team came out on top when the two sides met at Malleny earlier in the campaign, but this week’s hosts have made clear progress during the last two and a half months – and will fancy their chances of evening the score in this re-match.
Boroughmuir know they will be up against it when Melrose come calling at Meggetland, but the flip side of that equation is that they have absolutely nothing to lose.
HOW IT STANDS –
THE LOWDOWN –
WATSONIANS v CURRIE CHIEFTAINS
VENUE: Myreside @ 3pm
Watsonians: A Chalmers; M Bertram, R Hutton, D Innes, M Allen; E Fox (YCx1), A Harris; N Fraser, R Graham, K Whyte (YCx2), E Dods, C Borthwick©, G Nelson, J Miller, M Fedo. Subs: S Crombie, F Hobbis, K Watt, W Thomson (YCx1), J Harrison.
Currie Chieftains: B Robbins (YCx1); R Smith, M Hooks, R Nelson©, C Gray; J Forbes, M O’Neil; K Burney, C Mackintosh, A McWilliam, V Wright (YCx1), M Vernel (YCx1), S Ainslie, T Gordon, R Davies. Subs: G Carson, J Cox, D Ferguson, S McGinley, C Smith.
TEAM NEWS –
Watsonians: Jamie Harrison drops out of the pack through injury so Euan Dods shuffles forward to the second-row and Michael Fedo takes over at number eight. Rory Drummond is still suspended. Jack Harrison replaces Keith Young on the bench in an otherwise settled squad.
Currie Chieftains: Kris Burney gets an opportunity to start at loose-head prop with John Cox moving to the bench; Vince Wright is back from international duty with Holland, so Stephen Ainslie moves to the back row and Scott McGinley drops to the bench.
KEY BATTLE: Craig Borthwick versus Vince Wright
WHAT THE COACHES SAY –
“The Autumn break has allowed us to consolidate work in a few key areas and set out our goals for the next part of the season. That starts with an extremely tough challenge against Currie Chieftains who are a good team and have found many ways to win already this season. We will require a high level of focus, accuracy and effort in all we do in order to obtain the performance we desire. With the pre-match lunch filling up nicely, we hope for a large crowd at what should be an entertaining derby …” – Steve Lawrie (Watsonians)
“The boys are looking forward to getting back into league action this weekend after a very disappointing result versus Ayr in the Cup, having been in the lead for large parts of the match. Watsonians are clearly in better form since our last meeting, having won three of their last four matches, so we know we face another stern test. I think it’s safe to say the conditions will be better at the weekend than they were at Millbrae a couple of weeks ago. Myreside is always in good condition so its set up to be a cracking game of rugby …” – Ben Cairns (Currie Chieftains)
VERDICT: Big corporate day at Myreside – and a very attractive game in the offing.
Watsonians had a tough time against Melrose last time out and will be well aware that the Chieftains pose a similar threat if they can establish some sort of platform.
The suspended Ross Drummond is a big loss to the home team – and the return of ‘Dutch cap’ Vince Wright will boost Chieftains.
On their day, Watsonians can be a very good side – but ‘tempo and resilience’ are likely to win through for Chieftains.
BOROUGHMUIR v MELROSE
VENUE: Meggetland @ 3pm
Boroughmuir: C Whyte (YCx1); G McConnell, R Kerr, G Cannie (YCx1), J Edmunds; C Laidlaw©, J Adams; D Robertson, A Nethery, T Gracie, F Field, C Atkinson, A Erskine, T Drennan, C Keddie. Subs: M Walker, P Richards, A Mcnube (YCx1), E McKirdy, M Hare (YCx1).
Melrose: A Lockington; P Anderson, G Taylor, C Jackson, G Wood; J Baggott, B Colvine (YCx1); G Shiels, R Anderson (YCx1), N Beavon, A Runciman (YCx1), J Head, N Irvine-Hess, G Runciman© (YCx1), I Moody. Subs: R Ferguson, R McLeod (YCx2), R Knott, R Darge, S Hutchison.
TEAM NEWS –
Boroughmuir: A vastly changed team from their first game against Melrose with 10 different players from the side which started the encounter back in September. A big boost in return of captain Chris Laidlaw at stand-off after a couple of months out with a hamstring injury, but no Johnny Matthews, who is providing hooker cover for Edinburgh in South Africa. Dale Robertson and Thomas Gracie start at prop, instead of Ross Dunbar and Dan Winning
Melrose: Ross McCann and Sam Pecqueur are away representing Scotland 7s in Dubai and South Africa on the IRB World Series circuit, and with Fraser Thomson also missing, it is a new look back three with Austin Lockington recovering from injury to start at 15, Scotland Under 20s player Patrick Anderson on one wing and Gavin Wood on the other. Lyle Godsmark is still out with a leg injury, which means last year’s BT Premiership player-of-the-season gets another start, having recovered from the injury which sidelined him for the first three months of the season. Rory Darge will make his Premiership debut off the bench after continually impressing with the Storm.
KEY BATTLE: Craig Keddie versus Iain Moody
WHAT THE COACHES SAY –
“The players and coaches are really looking forward to the challenge this weekend. A tough game against a tough side. We believe that if we can play with consistency and accuracy then we can put pressure on Melrose …” – Peter Wright (Boroughmuir)
“Boroughmuir at Meggetland is always a challenging fixture and they will be confident after their convincing win against Gala in the BT Cup. They have got some really talented runners and it is clear we will need to defend well. After the three-week break we are excited to get back into league action and know we will need to perform extremely well against a team that will be looking to continue their push up the league table …” – Rob Chrystie (Melrose)
VERDICT: Chris Laidlaw makes a welcome return for Boroughmuir – but they might find it hard going in the front row.
Melrose are missing their four front-line strike runners – and there is no Ally Miller – but such is their strength in depth that these absences do not feel like a major issue.
Boroughmuir need to start winning – but they are very unlikely to do so this week.
GLASGOW HAWKS v AYR
VENUE: Lochinch @ 2pm
Glasgow Hawks: B Beattie (YCx1); K Rowe, B McGroarty©, P Kelly, J Couper; R Thompson, P Boyer; S Findlay, P Cairncross, L Skinner, A Kirkland, F Hastie (YCX1), S Leckey (YCx1), C Kerr, J Eaglesham (YCx1). Subs: J Spence, G Strain, A Linton (YCx1), S Yawayawa, L Brims.
Ayr: G Anderson (YCx1); S Lyle, D McCluskey, P Dewhirst, C Gossman; B Thomson, L Young; R Hislop (YCx1), R Smith, S Longwell, B Macpherson (YCx1), R McAlpine, T Spinks, G Stokes, P McCallum© (YCx1). Subs: L Anderson, R Sayce, J Agnew (YCX1), J Bova, S Graham.
TEAM NEWS –
Glasgow Hawks: Brendan McGroarty has recovered from a broken nose and has made himself available, while Bobbie Beattie and Paddy Kelly are back from Glasgow Warriors. Lewis Skinner earns a start at tight-head ahead of Gary Strain after some impressive training performances and huge impacts from the bench. James Couper also earns a start on the wing with Sam Yawayawa moving to the bench.
Ayr: Robbie Smith starts at hooker having made a full recovery from injury with Lewis Anderson moving to the bench. In the backline, Lewis Young earns a start at scrum-half after impressing against Currie Chieftains in the Cup a fortnight ago. Brandon Thomson is released from the Warriors and starts at stand-off with Scott Lyle switching to the wing.
KEY BATTLE: Lewis Skinner versus Robin Hislop
WHAT THE COACHES SAY –
“With our nomadic season continuing, we travel to Lochinch this weekend to play against a really strong Ayr outfit littered with quality players and lots of experience. We managed to play the best rugby of the season the last time we met at Millbrae and we know that we will have to try to recapture that form to get another result this weekend …” – Fin Gillies (Glasgow Hawks)
“The players showed a lot of character to come back and get the win against Currie in our last outing. Hawks will be disappointed with their recent results but I’m sure they will reflect on their performance at Millbrae earlier this season going into this game. It is set to be an entertaining west coast derby on the fast 3G surface at Lochinch …” – Calum Forrester (Ayr)
VERDICT: Scotstoun, Balgray, New Anniesland, Burnbrae and now Lochinch – still not a semblance of home advantage for Glasgow Hawks – which can hardly help Fin Gillies in his efforts to instil some consistency in their game. And the absence this week of Grant Stewart will not help.
The Ayr back division has an emaciated look about it – but they are probably too strong up front for Hawks to mount a plausible challenge – though that was exactly the thinking at Millbrae back in September.
HERIOT’S v MARR
VENUE: Goldenacre @ 2pm
Heriot’s: R Jones; C Robertson, R Mulveena, R Kay, J Rae; R Carmichael©, T Wilson; M Bouab (YCx1), M Liness, S Cessford (YCx2), C Marshall, J Turley, M Maltman, J McLean, S Dewar. Subs: S Mustard, M Bouab, N Campbell, A Sinclair, S Edwards (YCx1), L Steele.
Marr: D Steele; T Buchanan, R Dalgleish, G Paxton, T Steven; C Kolarik (YCx2), K Barreto; W Farquhar, O Rossi, F Watt, E Bulger (YCx1), K Hetherall (RCx1), M Pearce (YCx1), A Johnston (YCx2), R Miller. Subs used: S Adair, G Jackson, R Jackson, M Freydell, A Mill.
TEAM NEWS –
Heriot’s: A well-known face makes his return in the shape of Struan Dewar at number eight, Robbie Mulveena is back from a hamstring injury at outside centre, and Adam Sinclair is also fit again to take a slot on the bench.
KEY BATTLE: Tom Wilson versus Kaleem Barretto
WHAT THE COACH SAYS –
“The boys are delighted to get back to league rugby at Goldenacre. They are keen to use this three-week block of fixtures to try to secure some end of season action. Marr have had a great season so far and I am sure will see this fixture as another potential win, having beaten us in round two. However, we will be keen to back up the Currie and Stirling performances as we seek to continue to put a winning run of games together …” – Phil Smith (Heriot’s)
VERDICT: Heriot’s are very close to full strength. They played well at Currie and at Stirling – they were on the ‘right track’ – and then blew it big style against Edinburgh Accies in the Cup – which was maybe symptomatic of their whole season.
This is a game that they cannot afford to lose – though it is eminently possible – if they don’t front up.
HAWICK v STIRLING COUNTY
VENUE: Mansfield Park @ 3pm
Hawick: A Weir; G Munro, K Davies, D Buckley (YCx1), L Ferguson (YCx1); L Armstrong, G Cottrell; S Muir, M Carryer, D Johnstone, D Redpath, C Hamilton, G Graham (YCx2), S Graham (YCx2), B McNeil (YCx1). Subs: F Renwick, M Landels, A Baillie, R Combe, G Johnstone.
Stirling County: C Robertson; E MacGarvie, R Curle, G Hughes, D Gilmour; J Hope©, R Swan; R Chies (YCx1), M Emmison, A Nicol, J Beech, J Pow, S MacDonald, C Fusaro, R Leishman (YCx1). Subs: R Kennedy, G Holborn (YCx1), S Yarrow, H Henderson, L Bonar.
Team news –
Stirling County: Missing a bit of strike power out wide with Kerr Gossman (in Dubai playing sevens for Project Waterboys) and Logan Trotter (injured) both absent, and a bit of control and experience from player-coach Peter Jericevich (also in Dubai) at half-back – although captain Jonny Hope at stand-off, outside centre Ross Curle and stand-in winger Danny Gilmour certainly know their ways around the paddock. Adam Nicol brings serious power at tighthead prop, but there is no Hamilton Burr of Callum Hunter-Hill – who have been on pro duty with Glasgow Warriors and Edinburgh, respectively, in recent week. Chris Fusaro is released by the Warriors to play open-side.
KEY BATTLE: Stuart Graham versus Chris Fusaro
WHAT THE COACH SAYS –
“We have three big games during December – away to Hawick, at home to Watsonians and away to Boroughmuir – so we have to target getting 15 points out of that, which will put us in a good position to push on to the end of the season …” – Peter Jericevich (Stirling County)
VERDICT: Getting stuffed at home by Heriots was but the latest chapter in Stirling’s topsy-turvy season – meaning that they need to win at Mansfield to keep their play-off aspirations intact – but it will not be easy. Their suspect defence will be tested to the full. Chris Fusaro might very well be the difference between the two sides.