LIFE as a Super6 club hardly began smoothly for Heriot’s, with their initial choice as head coach moving on long before the tournament started and the second unable to take up his post until this first season is all but over. Yet so far at least, those difficult circumstances have not had an adverse effect on the team – thanks in large part to Phil Smith.
The long-serving head coach of Heriot’s in the Premiership, Smith was due to play a reduced role this season as coach of the Blues, the club side who compete in National One. But then Ciaran Beattie was appointed Scotland Sevens coach in July in a move that deprived the new franchise of their first head coach just a couple of months after his appointment. And when it was learned that Beattie’s successor, Andrew Kelly, would have to see out his contract in Hong Kong before returning to Scotland in the spring, Smith was the obvious choice to steady the ship.
In fact, while some of the participants have sought to emphasise the novelty of Super6 and highlight its points of difference from the Premiership, Heriot’s have built on similarities – not only by sticking with Smith, but also by building on the squad that has done so well in both league and cup in recent seasons. That continuity and cohesion certainly played a part in Sunday’s round-one win over Ayrshire Bulls, as the defeated team’s head coach Peter Murchie acknowledged after their 25-13 loss at Millbrae.
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Smith was understandably delighted with his side’s performance, the key factor in which was the pack’s dominant maul, but he was also somewhat relieved by the result, having been uncertain – as all the coaches must have been on the opening weekend – as to how things would pan out. “We’ve been a bit under the radar, because we’ve not managed to get a full-time coach, we’ve not managed to be at every event that’s happened, and I think every other club is doing many more hours than we are,” he explained. “But we trusted that we’ve got a good coaching team and we’ve been able to get a good group of players.
“So I didn’t doubt it, but it [Sunday’s performance] was probably a little bit more than I expected. That was probably a bit more comfortable than I would have thought.
“I was always worried about the cohesiveness because of our time together and the new players. Not that we’re not putting time in, but we’re not affording the amount of time that I hear other clubs are doing. We’re always trying to push a real club culture, and it looks like we’ve done quite well so far, but that was only game one.”
It has to be said that Smith, who in his day job is director of sport at the High School of Glasgow, never looks particularly worried by anything, instead projecting an air of calm that helps settle any nerves his players may have. He has already given every one of those players a significant vote of confidence by selecting his first three starting XVs to ensure they all get an early chance to play – although, as he admitted, that strategy has its downside.
“It’s hilarious, because Cammy Hutchison had an outstanding performance against Ayr and he’s not playing against Watsonians,” Smith said of the centre, who was named man-of-the-match on Sunday by Chris Paterson. “But it’s because we want to say to all 35, ‘Here’s your three-match window’. And probably after that I’ll tend to go towards what is the strongest team. We’ve got a strong enough squad to be able to do that, I hope.
“We saw Cammy in full flow in attack on Sunday, and we felt defensively he and Bobby Kay were superb. I put them together in midfield, because they knew each other from school. It was a nice partnership.
“I tried to get Cammy to Heriot’s before and he went to Currie, despite having gone to Heriot’s school. So that was a frustration at the time. And I was keen to get him in for our Super 6 squad: Ciaran did most of the squad selection before he left, and I pushed him in the Cammy Hutchison direction.”
Old school values
Hutchison and Kay certainly impressed against the Bulls, but the back-row of Iain Wilson, Jack McClean and Jason Hill were at least as influential. Wilson, the captain and blindside flanker, drew particular praise from Smith, not just for his play at Millbrae but because of his commitment in general.
“He’s just phenomenal. He came to the club three or four years ago from Howe of Fife, in his late 20s, not really sure . . . . And he’s ahead of the game. He just doesn’t stop running or moving. He just doesn’t stop. There was a moment in the first half against Ayr when he was at the bottom of a ruck, and it was our possession and he was shouting at the boys what to do next. He’s just brilliant.
“He’s kind of old-fashioned. Likes a beer after the game . . . . You’d call him old school, but he goes into the gym and stuff – he buys into it, and I know for 80 minutes he’s going to be non-stop and outstanding.”
Another name to watch in the Heriot’s squad is Dan Gamble, who came on at tighthead for the last half-hour and acquitted himself with some aplomb. “Dan Gamble has now played two and a half games of adult rugby,” Smith pointed out. “To come in against Ayr and scrum against a World Cup prop [Gordon Reid] was just phenomenal.”
If such young players continue to rise to the occasion, the future will be bright for Heriot’s, who have their first home game on Sunday against old rivals Watsonians. The future for Smith, he insists, will involve going back to the Blues, and leaving the Super6 side to the incoming Kelly, with assistant coach Fin Gillies providing the continuity to enable the new man to settle in as quickly as possible.
“I’m doing as much as I can to make it work,” Smith concluded. “Fin Gillies has got lots of experience as well – I’m actually his boss at work as well, so we spend a lot of time together.
“It was tough because the pre-season was so long, but now it’s started I think it will get easier. Andrew will come in round about the play-off time. I’ll probably see it through, then when we start the Welsh process I would imagine Andrew will be fully involved then.”