HERIOT’S will hold their annual club dinner this evening via conference call which will involve around 90 ‘guests’, all dressed in shirt and tie, and serving themselves a three-course meal from their own kitchens.
Phil Smith will say a few words at the start of the evening, it will be something of a valedictory speech as he is stepping down as head coach of the Heriot’s Super6 team – but not a farewell because he is still going to have a key role to play as Director of Coaching at Goldenacre when rugby finally resumes.
“I am going to be helping [new head coach] Andrew Kelly with the Super6 team – dipping in and out to assist as required – while at the same time heading up the Blues [Club XV] coaching team in their push for promotion from National One to the Premiership,” he explains.
“I know the club as well as anyone, and I know my way around the Scottish club game as well, so I can give that perspective which he naturally doesn’t have because the vast majority of his rugby background is in the pro game or in Hong Kong.”
Smith was head coach of Heriot’s with considerable success for eight seasons before the launch of Super6 – two Premiership titles and two Scottish Cup successes – but as full-time head of rugby at Glasgow Academy when the new league came along, he was not in the frame to lead the side during this inaugural season of the new league, so Ciaran Beattie initially took on the role instead.
However, when Beattie moved from Heriot’s to take over the Scotland 7s job before a ball had been kicked, Smith stepped in as emergency cover for the domestic part of the Super6 season – finding a way to combine it with his new day job as Head of Sport at Glasgow High School – until former Edinburgh hooker Kelly was clear from his commitments in Hong Kong to take the job on a permanent basis.
“It was difficult at the time because I wasn’t expecting it,” he recalls. “I’d committed myself to taking the Blues and we’d almost started pre-season, so it felt like I had moved on. But we ended up having a great season and we were pretty confident going into the play-offs.
“It was a running joke at the club that when we went to other clubs and they were telling us all the extra stuff they were doing with their coach, and our boys were saying: ‘It’s Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday for us because Phil can’t give any more time away’. So, we had this philosophy this year where less is more, we worked really hard when we were together, and we had a bloody good squad which meant we got ourselves in great shape going into the games that really mattered.
“Now, I guess I feel I have unfinished business in Super6, but at least I am still going to have a role to play helping Andy. And I think we should be a bit stronger next year with a pretty settled squad, strengthened in a few areas, and with a head coach who is able to dedicate himself full-time to the role.”
A mixed bag
In truth, the inaugural Super6 domestic season was a mixed bag. There was undoubtedly a step up in pace, physicality and intensity from the previous season’s Premiership, and almost all the games were competitive, but pushing the start of the campaign back to November in order to avoid a clash with the World Cup meant that horrendous weather and a disjointed schedule left many of those involved frustrated that they did not get a chance to fully showcase what the new tier is all about.
The cross-border element of the competition against the top club sides in Wales was supposed to be the big opportunity for Super6 to really take off, so it was a major blow when that fell foul of the coronavirus lockdown.
“At least we should get the proper domestic season now and it will be interesting to see how we go with what will probably be 12 game back-to-back in much better conditions,” says Smith, looking ahead to an uninterrupted stretch of matches from August through to November. “We’ll find out more about the strength of squads, and really what levels they can reach in warmer and dryer conditions, and when they have a chance to build a bit of cohesion and momentum.”
As for the Blues, Smith is expecting a soft landing after his long-time assistant Jamie Parker kept the pot bubbling this season by guiding the team to a second-place finish behind Biggar in National One. However, he recognises that the stated aim of promotion to the Premiership is going to be a big ask.
“Jamie is delighted! He is a very strong technical rugby coach so he’ll just love being hands-on and getting out there with the boys,” retorts Smith, when it is put to him that demotion is a pretty raw deal for Parker after such a successful 2019-20 campaign.
“We’ve got a team of three – Jamie, OJ Brown and myself – and the reality is that Jamie and OJ will probably carry on as they did last year, while I step in whenever needed. It’s a good squad so hopefully we can have a real crack at going up.
“I believe ‘old Bert’ [Stewart] Mustard is dusting down his boots for one more season. That’s the word on the street. Graham Wilson is having another year, and we’ve got a few players coming back to us. We’re trying to boost ourselves in a couple of positions where we were a little bit lighter than the likes of Biggar last season, just to give ourselves a bit more grunt.
“I feel for Biggar [having missed out on promotion because last season was declared null and void] because they put a lot into this season in terms of recruitment and so on – but I’m sure they’ll be able to dust themselves down to go again, and they’ll have a point to prove.
“Other clubs will improve as well. Melrose look like they are getting it together now, Watsonians and all these clubs will go hard again, and Highland have had a full season in that league now so they should be a real handful as well.
“It is a lot better league than people realise. We played GHA – who were mid-table in the Premiership – and beat them in the cup, so I think those top two divisions are closer than they have ever been.
Can of worms
“I’m hoping to get up despite of this mad situation we’ve got whereby we cannot play a player from our Super6 squad in our Blues XV,” he continues, unable to resist the opportunity to open up that can of worms. “It is one of the biggest travesties going in the club game. It is utterly mental.”
“It means we can’t put someone like Martin Hughes into our Super6 squad knowing that if he doesn’t get much game time then he can’t come and play for the Blues. I find that an atrocious way to treat players and clubs.
“It should be done as club of origin. So, they don’t come down to play for our Blues if they are not involved at Super6, but they go and play for the club they joined from.
“We’ve had a system for years where full-time pros have dropped into the Premiership, but now we think a lad who is doing an extra session a week and maybe some analysis with Super6 is going to make a massive impact on a Premiership or National One game? Come on!”
Nearing the end of the road
The competitive flame clearly still burns bright, but Smith insists – not very convincingly, it must be said – that he is reaching the end of his time as a club coach.
“I had threatened to quit last summer because I was crushed that we didn’t win either the league or cup when I thought we were easily good enough. The way we lost the cup was heart-breaking and I thought at the time that maybe I had done enough.
“If I do one more year then that will be a 10-year spell and I have a funny feeling that might be enough. A nice round number to finish on, and I’m pretty confident that the players wll be sick to the back teeth of me by then.”
No sooner have the words left his mouth and he is reassessing. “But maybe I’ll get another two seasons out of them – so, we’ll see. My wife has told me on many occasions that she believes I mean it when I say that I am quitting ‘but ten days after the start of the new season you will be climbing the walls’.”
You suspect she knows the man better than he knows himself.