Phil Smith looks forward to dual role at Heriot’s next season

Veteran coach will address around 90 players and club members at this evening's club dinner with a difference

Phil Smith's role with Heriot's next season will straddle the Super6 team and the Blues [Club XV]. image: ©Fotosport/David Gibson
Phil Smith's role with Heriot's next season will straddle the Super6 team and the Blues [Club XV]. image: ©Fotosport/David Gibson

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.


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“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.


Super6: Andrew Kelly aims to have Heriot’s hit the ground running

Super6PWLDFADiffTBLBPts
Watsonians10820253185683237
Heriot's Rugby10730259190694234
Ayrshire Bulls10640216182344028
Southern Knights10451238204345427
Stirling County10361188254-663118
Boroughmuir Bears10190215354-1394311

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David Barnes
About David Barnes 1818 Articles
David has worked as a freelance rugby journalist since 2004 covering every level of the game in Scotland for publications including The Sunday Times, The Telegraph, The Scotsman/Scotland on Sunday/Evening News, The Herald/Sunday Herald, The Daily Mail/Mail on Sunday and The Sun.

13 Comments

  1. Iain

    I have no issue with S6, but I have issue with Clubs who allowed bidding rules to be changed post bid, and are now trying to impose them on others.

    In terms of promoting adult rugby, as always as you well know I have striven to do so at my own level getting our own house in order, we were very close to getting out a 3rds made up of Vets/Colts before Covid-19 struck; have been sharing players with other clubs; and we have sat on as many working groups as we can. However the single biggest improvement would be to have a Board who talk up our game. With a modest marketing budget BTM could promote all the great things Clubs are doing, and help sell our great game.

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    • Keith, regarding the club game why can we not make big changes to try and encourage more platers to play the game.
      1/ shorter season
      2/ fewer National leagues
      3/ more regional leagues
      4/ less or no substitutes
      5/ clubs run their own regional leagues
      6/ maybe no promotion or relegation for a few seasons to stabilise things.

      I totally agree that we need to market the game and it’s values ( something that needs to be reinforced in youth sections as opposed to winner takes all)
      I have been going on about this for 8 years and still the numbers playing continue to fall, it is in the clubs hands to make radical changes but there seems a reluctance to do so.

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  2. Phil

    Your answer is very enlightening, assuming it is true and I have no reason to doubt you: it makes your stance clear and shines a bright spotlight on the franchise process.

    The Franchise Information document, which is all that the non-preferred bidders had to go on is crystal clear on this:

    “6.1.2 Thus, during the Super6 season, players with a part time professional contract with a franchised club may not , on any account, play competitive fixtures for any other club.

    And.

    They will not play in any fixture in which amateur players are engaged. Penalties for breaching this regulation maybe be substantial for both head coach and player.”

    This was the view of Stevie Gemmell at the time in The Offside Line:

    Gemmell struggled when he was asked why Super 6 squad members who are not getting game time will be barred from playing down the leagues.

    “As the performance environment kicks in and player standards improve, that is the right thing to do – to not have them play rugby that is not performance driven,” he said, which paints a pretty bleak picture of what the SRU anticipates being left behind.

    Your answer gives clear indication of yet another piece of flawed process and governance from BTM: attempting to rectify a failure in design through the back door by fundamentally changing the basic rules during a bid process.

    Thanks for pointing out these flaws to me.

    Meantime, your wish comes across as rather entitled does it not?

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    • Keith, Super 6 is a new concept which I hope will lead to better things in the Scottish game. The clubs did sign up to agreements but does that mean they are held to them for ever. It makes sense to give as many players in Scotland game time, I cannot see any reasons not to let players drop into the Premiership when not selected to play. It happened with the old Premiership when clubs had to play professional players looking for game time, not easy for the coaches. The Premiership clubs signed up to the agreement but in fairness did get money from the SRU if they stuck with the agreement. I’m not sure if the Premiership clubs receive any money from the SRU now but if they do then to receive that money they should accommodate Super 6 players if they want to continue receiving the money.

  3. Phil

    That is disingenuous.

    Agenda 3 and Super 6 were launched as a package. Alongside stopping payments to “amateur” players.

    The key phrase as Keith points out was that amateur and professional players could not play each other – ever!

    So let’s take your idea at face value.

    DJ Innes plays for Watsonians. He is a product of Grangemouth RFC. So on his off weeks he can pop along to Glensburgh and play for us. That we had a player of that standard and physical conditioning would be a game changer in Caledonia 1. And rightly would be rejected by the other clubs in that league.

    So when stays does he have. A semi pro when he has his Watson’s jersey on and an “amateur” when he dons our strip?

    Cake and eat it springs to mind

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    • Dom, as I have said Super 6 is a new concept and I hope it helps the Scottish game. Because an agreement was signed it doesn’t mean it can’t be reviewed for the betterment of the game. In times when we are struggling to get adult Male players to play the game every effort from the 2 pro sides downwards should be made to give every player game time. Mistakes are made, the clubs voted for 12 team leagues a few years ago, it didn’t work so sensibly they’ve reverted back to 10 times. Let’s move on for the betterment of the game.

    • Sucking 210 players out of club rugby isn’t helping the game Iain. That was obvious from the get go with Super 6.

      It’s interesting that the S6 club sides – with the fine exception of Heriots – have really struggled in National 1. Alongside many of them also dropping their lower XVs tells a tale.

      Phil isn’t suggesting they play in the Premiership. He proposes that they go back to their “home” club what ever that means.

      I’m all for the betterment of Scottish rugby. That’s what we are here for. What I’m seeing here is the betterment of Super 6 clubs which is a very different thing.

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    • Dom, we have not sucked 210 players out of club rugby. This is to eventually give players a stepping stone from club rugby into the pro game and give game time to pro players when they need it. The more successful our pro game the more successful our National team which in turn brings more money and media presence to our game. Can I also point out it is not just about players. It is also giving the opportunity to coaches, physios, fitness advisors and club personnel to operate at a higher level to hopefully if they wish to ply their trade at a higher level. This can only help the game for the future at all levels. Instead of moaning about a few clubs let’s get the game sorted out and youth and club level. Let’s hear suggestions that will help the game as a whole. Yes my club is Heriot’s but my genuine worry is for the Male adult game where player numbers continue to fall. Can we work together to give what young adult players want not what we think they want. You talk about 210 players being sucked out the club game. The average number of players required to field a team in Scotland is I believe 53, why is that so high? Season to long, to much travel, don’t want to sit on the bench etc. So the Super 6 clubs have wiped out 4 teams that is not nearly the number that have disappeared over the last 8 years, let’s tackle the real issues.

    • Looks like we will have to agree to disagree on the loss of 210 players from the club game Iain.

      As a starting position I support your proposals. I have been calling for several of them myself – especially “local rugby”. Caledonia region is vast and a real disincentive to getting teams out if you have many hours of travel if not an overnight stay in some places.

      The SRU have all that data to hand and have chosen not to publish it. I wonder why? The picture it would paint would show the dearth of adult players in Scotland.

      As a staring point the data team should publish

      Total registered players
      Number of adult male players who have played a match this season
      Total players used per club team – 1st 2nds etc
      How many matches each player has played
      Postponement due to lack of players
      Matches held with less than 15 players

      This should be published for each club. It’s not private data so there are no data privacy issues.

      The reason for publication is to show everybody whether a club can file one or two teams (or more). If it takes 53 players to get one side out then you will struggle to run two teams if you only have 50 players and it looks like many clubs have less than that.

      Enforce standards for entry to National leagues. One would be player pool.

      Sorry for the rant but the lack of action from Murrayfield On releasing the data really ticks me off

  4. Difficult times.
    I hope the Dinner goes well.

    However as for ““It is one of the biggest travesties going in the club game. It is utterly mental.”

    1. Super 6 being ringfenced with no playing up or down was a core part of it from its much troubled conception and inception.
    2. Heriots signed up to this.

    I agree it is “utterly mental”.
    Can I politely suggest there are two ways forward:
    1. Approach Mr Dodson and ask why this obvious consequence was not readily foreseen in the impact assessment of S6. Or
    2 Now that you have made your bed, lie in it.

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    • Well we can stay as Aye Been and watch our game die or we can try new ideas. Super 6 was never my optimal choice but I have always acknowledged a need for a tier of rugby sitting below the 2 pro sides but providing a higher standard that that of the Premiership. I hope it leads to Super 8 then a 3rd pro team. To deny players game time just because you didn’t agree with Super 6 is petty and small minded. We need as many players playing the game. Instead of worry about Super 6 and a few players dropping in and out of it to give them games why not try and rejuvenate our club game. I’ll go on about but less travel, we don’t need 4 National leagues, more regional rugby, shorter season. Why not get rid of subs at club level. Get rid of Reserve league rugby with the possible exception of the Premiership reserve teams mirroring the Premiership league. They could travel together with the reserve team playing first. Saves money and creates a better club atmosphere.
      Keith it is time to stop fretting about Super 6 and start coming up with creative ideas to reinvigorate our club game. I say this not as club member of Heriot’s but as someone who is passionate about a game that should be about all levels of rugby and not just a clubs first xv. Looking forward to hearing about suggestions how to grow the adult Male game. 🐻

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    • Keith, not one of the S6 signed up to players within their squad not playing within their club, this was decided out with, by clubs fearing they would lose their best player(s) who might want to better themselves. This can be easily resolved by players playing at their club of origin.

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