EDINBURGH ACCIES took a step into the unknown on Saturday and discovered that they might just have what it takes to survive – and maybe even flourish – amongst the big beasts of the Tennent’s Premiership this season.
Ayr, one of the dominant clubs in the country in recent years, provided the opposition as the Raeburn Place men returned to the top flight for the first time since 2015, and with just over half an hour played it looked like a massacre might be on the cards – with the visitors running in three tries to rack up an 0-18 lead.
Accies captain Jamie Sole admits that he was concerned about the way the scoreboard seemed to be running away from his team but he was also encouraged that the points differential did not accurately reflect the overall pattern of the game.
“For a lot of the younger guys, you could feel that apprehension during the first 20 minutes, and after that you could feel the realisation dawning on them that this isn’t actually as big and scary as we – collectively – thought it was going to be,” says the 29-year-old flanker, who was one of only a handful of players in the home squad with previous Premiership experience.
“We were doing some really good stuff, causing them problems in attack, beating them one-on-one. So, I was standing under the posts after that third try thinking: They haven’t really caused us that many problems – they’ve scored a good breakaway try, took two opportunities from our mistakes, but they haven’t blown us off the park.
“Then, towards the end of the first half we started to really hit our stride and that try just before the break swung the momentum of the game. The message during half-time was pretty simple: We’re not that far away, if we keep doing what we are doing then the scores will come. And they did. Coming into the second half we were firing.”
The one that got away
Accies pulled it back to a one-point game with about 15 minutes to go and momentum was on their side, but a couple of soft penalties allowed Ayr to escape their 22 and establish the field position for Kyle Rowe to run in a virtuoso score. A fifth Ayr try with just two minutes left seemed to kill the game off, but Accies rallied bravely again and after a furious onslaught they couldn’t make the final pass stick with an overlap on the right in the last play of the match, when a try would have secured two well-deserved bonus points.
“The game was there to be won, and we lost it,” reflects Sole. “Everyone would have been surprised if we had got a win but coming off the field we definitely felt as a team that it had been ours for the taking.
“I think that was the biggest learning for us: it is not the case that they are miles better, but they are really clinical. Every time they got an opportunity they scored.
“You get away with a lot more in National One. We now know how dangerous it is to switch off for just a couple of seconds.”
Edinburgh Academicals are a club with a huge history to live up to, and their captain also has a name which resonates wherever he goes in the Scottish game – which can be both a blessing and a curse in terms of attracting either wanted or unwanted attention. At least the family is so deeply embedded at Raeburn Place that the fact the old man led the nation to its most famous rugby victory some 28 years ago does not tend to be a constant reason for nudging and pointing.
A family affair
David is now honorary president of the rugby club he served as a player from 1987 to 1992, and then briefly as a coach after hanging up his boots. Meanwhile, sister Gemma is co-founder and co-president of Edinburgh Accies netball club, which aims to become the first club to provide a performance environment for ambitious players in Scotland, with mum Jane also heavily involved. Brothers Chis and Tom play county cricket down in England with Hampshire and Northants respectively.
“I was brought down [to Raeburn Place] to watch my dad play until he retired when I was two or three years old, then I played mini-rugby down here with my dad coaching the side, so I’ve been coming here all my life,” explains the eldest of Sole siblings. “I don’t think there is anywhere else I’d want to play rugby.
“I had a year [2012-13] in the Newcastle Falcons academy but I spent most of the time out with a shoulder and then a knee injury. I was supposed to get a contract offer but nothing came through and I had to make a decision about either continuing to chase the dream or getting a job and joining the real world, so I handed my CV in for a job as a farm feed rep and they offered me a position. Looking back, I am really glad I made that decision because I could have gone on until 30 being a Championship rugby player in England struggling to make ends meet and then found myself trying to join the job market with all my contemporaries ten years in front of me.
“I’m not really interested in being a Super 6 player next season,” he replies, when asked about the elephant in the room for any top club player in the country at the moment. “I might have considered it if Accies had got a franchise, but the thought of training every morning, all these extra sessions, having to travel all the way down to play games in Wales, it doesn’t really appeal.
“I enjoy training with the boys at Raeburn on Tuesdays and Thursdays, going to the gym Mondays and Wednesdays, and going out and playing with my mates at the weekend. There is a good culture at the club, a really good bunch of boys, and until that changes I have no plans to go anywhere else.”
With no relegation this season, the pressure is off Accies, and head coach Derek O’Riordan has already made it clear that the focus is on building towards being top dogs in the domestic game when the dust finally starts to settle after the Super 6 split.
So, does that mean it doesn’t really matter what happens during the remainder of this campaign?
“We’re certainly not here to fail,” snorts Sole. “It’s the last year of the Premiership – we want to give it our best shot. We’re all competitive guys, we’re not here to get beaten every weekend and just coast through. You can tell from the way training goes – with boys really getting stuck in – that there is a real desire here to be the best team we possibly can be.
“It just means that we’ve got nothing to fear. The biggest thing, as far as I’m concerned, is to keep enjoying our rugby. When we are having fun, we are at our best. The guys hopefully realise now what the level is, so if we can push on from there and keep improving then we might surprise a few teams this season.
“We’re realistic, we know that there is going to be some pretty tough afternoons, that we might struggle with the depth of our squad, that the heavier pitches in the middle of winter won’t suit us. But, ultimately, our goal is to build a squad which we can hold onto and really have shot at the Championship with the following year.”
Before that is the small matter of Stirling County away this Saturday. The Bridgehaugh outfit lost narrowly to Watsonians in their Premiership opener, so will desperate to get their campaign up and running.
“They are fairly similar to us in terms of being quite a young squad who like to throw the ball around, so I’m looking forward to it. Ayr was a bit of a free pass, but this weekend will give us a real idea of where we stand in terms of physicality and ability to be competitive for the full 80 minutes,” concludes Sole.