MUSSELBURGH may have been viewed from the outside as an accidental Premiership side at the start of the season having been promoted from mid-table in National One due to the restructuring caused by Super6 – but anyone doubting that they would add value to the division will surely have re-assessed their view in light of their resilience and unyielding commitment to positive rugby regardless of the calibre of the opposition they are up against.
“We look at your predictions and we pin them on the wall sometimes,” jibes head coach Graeme Paterson, in response to the suggestion that his side have exceeded expectations this year. “The pleasing thing was the end of October when we started to turn the corner. There was a Cup game against Edinburgh Accies which we lost but were a lot smarter and more cohesive than we had been, then we lost to Hawick by a point down at Mansfield, then we drew with Accies and beat Glasgow Hawks, which gave us that boost and belief that if we play well enough then we deserve to be here.
“It’s been enjoyable for the club, back in the Premiership for the first time in 30-odd years, and for most of the guys it is a new experience,” he continues. “We know it is different because Super6 has taken a huge number of players away, but it is still a big achievement, and we’re making the most of it – we’re still in there and we believe our destiny is in our own hands.
“There are basically five teams all within a win of each other, so it is going to go down to the wire, and it will be about who holds their nerve. In terms of the run-in, we’re looking at other teams around us who have some pretty tough games and hopefully our games are a bit more winnable.”
It hasn’t been all plain sailing, and fairly lengthy injury lay-offs to captain and flanker Michael Maltman, experienced prop Craig Owenson and recently recruited (from Stew-Mel) stand-off Freddie Roddick has stretched the squad at times – but Paterson and Musselburgh are clearly of the opinion that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
“That’s three guys who were going to be influential in terms of how we wanted to play the game so it did have an effect because we’ve not got a huge squad – but it put the focus on some other players to step up and take on a more prominent role than they were maybe expecting to have at the start of the season.
“We’ve had a few colts coming up and doing really well, such as Euan Bonthron, who has generally held his own which is very pleasing for an 18-year-old playing in the front-row at Premiership level. Also, Matthew Crain is one to watch out for in the future as an out-and-out seven, a real poacher who goes after the ball and is not afraid to put his body where it hurts – when he fills out he will get better and better.
“So, it is great that these young guys are coming through and getting experience, but we did miss the older heads with experience of playing at this level at key moments in key games.”
Selkirk visit Stoneyhill this weekend, then it is GHA away in a fortnight’s time, before the curtain comes down on the campaign with a home match against Currie Chieftains on 7th March.
“Two wins, we believe, should be enough to keep us up – which will achieve the goal we set ourselves at the start of the season,” says Paterson.
“I think that [staying up] would be a bigger achievement than actually getting here. If we get that second season then hopefully we will embed, the guys here will be a bit more used to this level of rugby, and a few more players might look at us as a place they want to go to develop because they see we are not just whipping boys.
“We’re doing it within our means,” he continues. “We don’t pay anybody, so in other circumstances reaching the Premiership probably wasn’t attainable because it would have required us to spend a fair bit of money on the player recruitment side of things. We have got this opportunity and there is a lot of really good, young players coming through the age-grade system in East Lothian who are hopefully beginning to see us as a viable option to further their career rather than disappearing off to an Edinburgh club. That’s what we’d like to be: an East Lothian hub for the players who want to push on to Super6 or whatever the next step for them is.
“There’s a real buzz around the place. Last season you were lucky if there were five or six advertising boards around the pitch, now it is absolutely full, so you can see the interest. The plan is to re-do the changing rooms and build a new gym in the summer, because we recognise that facilities are a big factor in recruiting and retaining players.”
You get the impression that Musselburgh have a strong sense of what they are about and that won’t change regardless of whether they are a Premiership or a National League club next season – but they feel they have landed in a place where they now belong, and they are not going to leave quietly.