It’s a MAD world for Melrose midfielder Craig Jackson

The playmaker discusses his role in the Melrose Athlete Development programme

Image: Craig Watson - www.craigwatson.co.uk

THE pain of last season’s BT Premiership play-off Grand Final defeat to Ayr is still raw enough to ensure that nobody at The Greenyards is reading too much into Melrose’s early season form, which has seen them pick up four bonus point wins from four league outings so far, scoring 25 tries in total along the way.

This natural caution shouldn’t, however, be mistaken for a lack of self-belief within the squad, or as a reluctance to set ambitious targets going forward.

“Our aim this year is to look at ourselves and focus on improving what we do every week. Obviously we prepare for the opposition, but if we keep on developing what we are doing then we are entitled to think that it will be very difficult for our opponents to match us,” states centre Craig Jackson, who has been a key piston in the Melrose machine since returning to his hometown club from a professional deal with London Scottish at the start of last season.

“Does that sound arrogant? I don’t know. It is confident but I think we’ve earned the right to believe in ourselves,” he adds.

Cost: £100 per ticket with a 10% discount for two or more tables (of ten). The profits will be split between the The Doddie Weir’5 Discretionary Trust, the My Name’5 Doddie Foundation and the Melrose RFC Legacy Project.

If you look at our squad – and not just the 20 boys we put out at the weekend but the boys playing in the Storm [2nd XV] as well – it is really impressive. It is inevitable that we pick up injuries but we’ve got boys who can come in and do a very good job.

“We’ve still got Austin Lockington and George Taylor – who got Premiership player-of-the-year last season – to come back. George had a clean-up operation in his knee during the summer and is going to be back in the next four weeks, while Austen is due back probably just before that. Then we’ve got youngsters like Paddy Anderson, Gav Wood and Ben Chalmers all desperate for game time.”

“In the forwards, Ruaridh Knott is not starting every week and he’s a machine when he gets going. Grant Runciman drops out with injury this week so we bring Neil Irvine-Hess straight back in after illness.

“Aaron Welsh came into the team as injury cover last year and picked up about three man-of-the-match awards, but now he is stuck in the Storm because Angus Runciman has come through the system into the team and is thriving.”

“It is great to see the boys in the background are champing at the bit to have a go, so the challenge is keeping everyone ticking over and ready to take their opportunity when it comes.”

“This Tuesday we had 35 genuine 1st XV contenders training – so you can do 15 on 15 and work through game scenarios. Having that quality of training makes a huge difference, which I think we showed with the way we have been able to hit the ground running this season.”

Melrose did, of course, also start last season in scintillating style but came unstuck away to Ayr in round five and again at home to Heriot’s three weeks later. This term they have already leaped over the Millbrae hurdle with barely a break in stride, but Jackson knows that Currie Chieftains will conduct a serious examination of the team’s resolve at The Greenyards this weekend.

“They had a little blip at the weekend, but we won’t read too much into that. If you look into their attack, it is really strong: Harvey Elms is very dangerous, as is Ben Robbins and Jamie Forbes is a great wee rugby player – I played with him at age-group stuff and he’s a class act,” says the 25-year-old playmaker.

“Last year, we were on a good roll at home before Heriot’s came down to The Greenyards and got a result against us, which was a bit of a bummer, but it feels to me like we are a lot more mature this year,” he continues.

“Hawks were really good against us in the first half last weekend. We threw everything we had at them and they soaked it all up, so we were saying to each other: ‘What’s going on? We normally score here!’ But the senior boys and Bobby [head coach Rob Chrystie] spoke at half-time and the message was basically that we were just not quite on it, if we just turn it up two per cent we’ll get there, don’t panic because hopping off script is the worst thing you can do. So, we stuck to our game-plan and we got there in the end.”

 

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Jackson’s father Norman and uncle Gregor both played on the wing for Melrose back in the day, while their younger brother Trevor was a prop and is current chairman of the board at The Greenyards.  “My auntie Diane played until last year, beating all of them for most years played,” reveals the proud nephew.

Gregor’s son is Ruaridh, the Scotland and Glasgow Warriors player, and cousin Craig looked set on a similar path towards the professional game when he was inducted into the SRU’s academy set-up as a teenager. He was a member of the Scotland Under-20 squad which played in the 2011 Junior World Cup in Italy but struggled for game time.

“Duncan Weir was at 10 and Danny Gilmour was at 12 soI was back-up to both of them. I don’t think they saw me as either a stand-off or a centre, but something in between, unfortunately,” he reflects.

After dropping out the Scottish pathway programme, Jackson took a call from Hartpury College offering him a full scholarship which would allow him to, not only finish the sports science degree he had already started at Napier University in Edinburgh, but also continue his development as a player at one of England’s most prestigious rugby nurseries.

After finishing his degree, Jackson spent a couple more years as a sessional lecturer at the college and working in the gym whilst playing for Hartpury’s Saturday team [then playing in English National One but now promoted to the second tier Championship], before being offered a full-time contract with London Scottish ahead of the 2015-16 season.

‘It started off well. I played a few games – about 10 – but then got injured in January and wasn’t going to be fit until October, so they didn’t sign me on again. That was about the same time as the SRU were getting involved at the club and there was a lot of uncertainty,” he says.

“I looked at other things but I wasn’t offered what I was hoping for and I had to start thinking about life after rugby. It had really hit home that if you get injured when you are on a year long contract at a Championship club then you are on your own. I was lucky that I could move back home with my family so didn’t have to pay rent and so on, but it got me thinking about if it happens again. Luckily I had a degree behind me but I knew that the longer I went without using that the less relevant it would become.”

“Melrose offered me a good standard of rugby. I do a bit of marketing for them on a part-time basis, work at Edinburgh College as a part-time lecturer, and I also help run the MAD [Melrose Athlete Development] programme which we’ve set up through the college.”

Cost: £100 per ticket with a 10% discount for two or more tables (of ten). The profits will be split between the The Doddie Weir’5 Discretionary Trust, the My Name’5 Doddie Foundation and the Melrose RFC Legacy Project.

 

The MAD initiative started in January of this year with around a dozen participants and now has a roll of 24. Jackson helps deliver three sessions per week to promising athletes in the area, working alongside Chrystie [who combines head coach duties at Melrose RFC with being the director of the rugby performance course at Edinburgh College].

“Every Monday and Wednesday lunchtime I go to Earlston High School and work with these young athletes who have been nominated by their coaches on things they won’t get anywhere else – like speed, functional movement, reaction skills, hand-eye co-ordination, flexibility and general movement patterns – which really helps their development,” explains Jackson.

“Its not about flogging them – it’s about educating them. We’ve given them diaries to record what they are eating and got nutritionists in to discuss that side of things. It is about doing anything we can to help them realise their potential.”

“We’ve got hockey players, girls and boys footballers, mountain-bikers, judoists, cricketers … we’ve only actually got three rugby players on the course. It’s run and funded by Edinburgh College but we use the gym facilities at The Greenyards on a Friday and the club is very keen to support it as part of our 1883 Legacy Project.”

“We want to be an open-doors club with people from all walks of life using the gym, and when we get the 3G pitch up and running we can have hockey, football and any other sport which might be interested using it seven days a week. We want The Greenyards to be a hub for all of the Melrose community, and not just the rugby club. It is all about building towards that and demonstrating to other sports that we genuinely want to work with them and support them in any way we can.”

It has taken several years to assemble the current playing squad at Melrose but there is clearly an appreciation within the club that the future is about much more than the 1st XV, and a genuine desire to embrace the ever-changing landscape of Scottish sport with open arms.

About David Barnes 4026 Articles
David has worked as a freelance rugby journalist since 2004 covering every level of the game in Scotland for publications including The Herald/Sunday Herald, The Sunday Times, The Telegraph, The Scotsman/Scotland on Sunday/Evening News, The Daily Record, The Daily Mail/Mail on Sunday and The Sun.