THERE have been easier homecomings. In the autumn, when Andrew Kelly agreed to become Heriot’s head coach, he planned to see out his contract in Hong Kong, join the existing coaching team in time for the Super6 play-offs, and then take charge at Goldenacre from the start of the cross-border competition. The first two things duly came to pass – and in fact the former Edinburgh hooker arrived in time for the last couple of matches of the regular season – but then world events intervened.
Those play-offs, which had been due to begin last weekend, have yet to go ahead. The cross-border tournament, in which the Super6 teams were due to play against leading Welsh clubs, has been scrapped. And of course rugby as a whole has been put on hold, as this nation and others fight to contain the effects of the coronavirus.
Kelly, like everyone else, could not have foreseen such circumstances six months ago. Now they have arisen, his main task is to ensure that the Heriot’s squad is in the best possible state to hit the ground running as soon as sport resumes. Some aspects of the players’ training programme have had to be modified as restrictions on socialising have increased, but the primary aim remains: to have them as rugby-ready as possible.
“We’ve thought about how to get the best buy-in, so we came up with a bit of a competition,” the 37-year-old explained. “We’re going to put out three or four weekly challenges for them to complete. We’re trying to think of ways to get them off the couch and keep ticking over.
“For example, we’ve got a 1k run – so something you can do outside in your local park. How many press-ups can you do in two minutes? Stuff that you don’t need a gym for, basically.
“If we do get back sooner rather than later, then the guys are fit and ready to go. That’s the main thing, just to keep the players ticking over, so that whether it’s two weeks or two months off, we’ll be ready for it. We think it might be a bit longer than shorter, but we’ll see. The bigger theme is trying to be supportive of everyone and keeping everyone safe – that’s the biggy, obviously.”
While staying close to peak fitness will be a challenge for some players, Kelly is convinced his squad are in a good place on and off the field. Under acting head coach Phil Smith and his assistant Finlay Gillies, Heriot’s finished the regular season second behind Edinburgh rivals Watsonians, and had been looking forward to a home semi-final against Ayrshire Bulls. That match and a subsequent final may now not take place, but the club are already well advanced with their plans for next season, whatever shape it takes, whenever it begins.
“We’ve got them contracted for the season, and that’s April to November,” Kelly explained. “Then there’s a planned break over December and January. At the moment we’re sticking to that. Obviously with the coronavirus and the disruption, the SRU may come out with a different approach – I guess we’ve all got to just stick on our toes and react to what happens, really.
“I think we’ve got a fairly settled squad. A few guys are leaving us and we’ll look to recruit a few more guys, but our main squad is pretty much sorted.”
Creating strength in depth
The squad was also pretty much sorted from the early weeks of the current campaign, thanks in large part, Kelly believes, to Smith’s decision to use each and every one of his players at some point in the first three games. If there was a temptation to deviate from that policy when Heriot’s won their opening game at Millbrae, it was one Smith resisted.
“I think that paid off, actually,” Kelly continued. “It gave everyone a shot at a starting position, gave guys a bit of a run, so the squad’s really gelled and they’re working well together.
“I think that was really important. We’ve got 35 guys in our squad, and as coaches it’s important to have a look at everyone and give everyone an equal shot at it. Obviously from there you pick your strongest 23 – and I guess that’s what we were doing as we got to the business end of the season.”
Having agreed to look after the Super6 squad while Kelly saw out his Hong Kong contract, Smith is due to take charge of the Heriot’s Blues club side next season, although Kelly will still be able to call on his considerable experience. “Until we all stopped, Phil was very much taking a lead. I was actually enjoying getting involved with the players and doing a bit of coaching – almost assistant coaching – with Phil and Fin. And I was getting to know the players and all the rest of it, but Phil was definitely leading us.
“The plan now is for Phil to be sort of a mentor to me, and be a resource for me to go and speak to, because he’s had a wealth of experience. I think that will be invaluable for myself and for the club. So he’ll definitely still be around – he’ll be coaching the Blues and helping me out.
“Fin will stay with me and help me out. It’s good for me to have another former hooker to do the scrums and lineouts, as it allows me to focus on the other stuff.”
Despite not being able to focus on such practical details at present, Kelly remains satisfied that he has made the right decision in coming back to Scotland. He saw out his playing career with Valley in Hong Kong then coached them for the last three seasons, and now hopes to put that experience to good use.
“Hong Kong was great for myself and my wife. Specially for me, I was exposed to some great coaching experience – there are some great coaches in the Hong Kong set-up. It was a really great opportunity and I’m glad we did it.
“I actually moved over to Hong Kong doing a bit of rugby coaching and looking for a job at the same time. I worked a job in Hong Kong, and I think that made me realise that coaching was my passion, and I decided to go along that line. I was working for a financial research company – which was great, I also learned a lot there. It was good being in an office environment and gaining new skills, but it definitely made me realise I was looking to be a coach.”