THE BT Premiership returns on Saturday after a three-week break, and from top to bottom every team has a lot to play for. At least six clubs are in contention for the four end-of-season play-offs, and at least three are in danger of relegation – with seventh-placed Watsonians currently hovering between the two groups.
Elsewhere on The Offside Line, eight head coaches offer their assessments of how their own clubs have fared thus far. Here is our own mid-term report card: what we have made of the season so far, and what we expect to happen in the remaining eight rounds of games.
The league table as it stands –
WITH a perfect return of 50 points from 10 matches, Melrose are so far ahead of the rest that they are already all but guaranteed to finish top of the Premiership at the end of the regular 18-game campaign. Normally the main concern for a team in such a dominant position would be the onset of complacency, but that is unlikely at the Greenyards given the strength in depth of Robert Chrystie’s squad and the fierce internal competition that exists.
Will they go through the whole season unbeaten, then? It would be foolish to bet too heavily against them at this stage, but once the play-offs begin the pressure will really be on them, while their opponents will feel they have nothing to lose.
Curiously, then, it might actually be better for Melrose to lose at some point in their eight remaining scheduled games. True, such a result would provide encouragement to all the other teams by reminding them that the league leaders are not invincible, but more importantly it would certainly also have a galvanising effect on the Melrose players themselves, encouraging them to focus on winning the more vital games to come.
So where might that defeat be most likely to come? Surely not at Meggetland in the first game back after the break, and probably not in the two subsequent games either, when they are at home to Ayr or away at Glasgow Hawks.
But what about their first fixture of the New Year, at Malleny Park on 13 January? Melrose beat Currie 41-10 at home at the end of September, but if the Chieftains can find their best form they could have a real chance.
AS things stand, Currie Chieftains lead the chasing pack by two points, having won seven of their 10 games so far. They began the season strongly with three straight wins before losing at home to Ayr. They showed at home to Glasgow Hawks that they are never willing to accept defeat, coming back from 27-0 down to win 29-27.
They have not been at their best in their last two games, both of which were at home, losing by a point to Heriot’s then beating Hawick by eight. But they look strong enough to make the play-offs, and with a modest improvement in consistency should hold on to second place. Their clash against Ayr at Millbrae on 16th December will be crucial to their chances of achieving that goal.
LAST year’s champions Ayr have flattered to deceive so far this season, as demonstrated in their two home games during October which involved an emphatic 41-17 dismantling of Heriot’s followed by a 12-48 capitulation to Watsonians a fortnight later. There is no doubt that they have one of the strongest squads in the league but getting everything to click at the same time has been problematic – an issue not helped by a catalogue of injuries to key forwards, as well as to talismanic scrum-half David Armstrong, during the first half of the campaign.
A battling victory over Currie Chieftains in horrendous weather conditions a few Friday nights ago – which booked their place in the last eight of the BT Cup – could be a galvanising moment for the side. Having fallen 15-0 behind early on, the team pulled together heroically, showing incredible nerve and patience to build the pressure and finally clinch the victory after numerous pick-and-goes, with man-of-the-match Robin Hislop rumbling over for the game’s decisive score.
Hislop missed almost all of the first half of the season through injury, and the former Edinburgh and Rotherham Titans prop could be a key man as the Millbrae men set their sights on claiming second spot and, as a result, a home draw in the end of season play-offs.
THE last of the play-off places is currently occupied by Heriot’s, who just missed out on the top four last season when they were defending champions. After a couple of narrow defeats they pulled off a good win at Glasgow Hawks, then went on to inflict a humiliating 70-7 defeat on bottom-of-the-table Hawick. More recently they lost heavily at Millbrae then by a respectable 18 points at home to Melrose, but in their last two matches league matches they seemed to rediscover better form with good wins at Currie and Stirling County.
Edinburgh Accies are going well at the top of National One, but Heriot’s should have had too much firepower for their north Edinburgh rivals when the two sides met in the Cup a few weeks back – the fact that Phil Smith’s side slumped to a demoralising 29-24 loss seems to typify the problems the team has had playing somewhere close to their best on a week-to-week basis this season.
Three very winnable matches during December, at home to Marr and Glasgow Hawks and away to Hawick, might not make their season – but could break it if they don’t deliver what they are capable of.
THREE points out of the play-off places at present, Stirling County got their season off to an encouraging start with a hard-fought win at Heriot’s, but in the return fixture at the start of November they lost heavily to the team from Goldenacre.
After a desperate beginning to their home game against Melrose which saw them lose three tries in the first 14 minutes, they rallied well and ended up chasing two bonus points at the end of the game – showing that they can be competitive against any team in this league.
They have scored more points than every other team apart from Melrose, but have also conceded more than every other team apart from Hawick and Broroughmuir – which gives a good indication of where there is room for improvement.
Peter Jericevich is the lead coach in a seven-man panel and also first choice scrum-half when his work commitments as a coach development officer for the SRU do not preclude him from selection. It is a rather unorthodox arrangement but the club are satisfied that they are getting maximum value from the coaching resources at the disposal. He has a very good working relationship with Graeme Young, who runs the touchline on match-days.
A number of experienced backs – including Jericevich and fellow summer recruits Ross Curle and Kerr Gossman – have missed significant chunks of the season so far for various reasons, and they will hope to have more consistency in selection behind the scrum during the next few months.
Meanwhile, their pack has been heavily populated by players involved in the pro game – either as full-time professionals (Callum Hunter-Hill, Lewis Wynne and Chris Fusaro) or as level three Academy prospects (Hamilton Burr and Adam Nicol) – so much will depend on how much access they get to these characters when the Six Nations window opens during the final three rounds of matches.
A huge December looms, with Hawick away, Watsonians at home and Boroughmuir away on the agenda – all matches County can realistically target taking maximum points from.
FIN GILLIES surely has a good claim to be the most frustrated coach in the division given Glasgow Hawks’ displays so far. At their best, his team is relentlessly professional and a real 80-minute outfit, as they showed by winning at Meggetland thanks to two tries in the last five minutes, but they are equally capable of losing games that looked well within their grasp. That loss from 27 points up against the Chieftains was a case in point, as, less extremely, was their home defeat by Heriot’s.
They are sixth at the moment, but on the same number of points as County. They are another team who have a fighting chance of getting into the play-offs, but need to become more consistent if they are to do so.
Seasoned campaigners such as full-back Bobby Beattie, centre Brendan McGroarty and scrum-half Paddy Boyer, plus Steven Findlay, Gary Strain, Andy Kirkland and Stephen Leckey in the pack, are going to have to step forward to help talented youngsters such as stand-off Ross Thompson and winger Kyle Rowe and Sam Yawayawa grow towards their full potential during the second half of the season.
WATSONIANS have improved significantly after heavy defeats in their first two games. Some allowance should be made for the fact that their opponents in those games were Melrose and Currie, but a combined loss of 99 points made it clear that defence had to be a big priority for new head coach Steve Lawrie. They have since tightened up considerably, and were responsible for the biggest result of the season so far when they went to Millbrae and won 48-12 with an outstanding display.
Even allowing for the fact that Ayr were some way below their best that day, it was still a hugely encouraging result for Watsonians. Currently seventh, if they can play as well as that consistently in the coming months they will be contenders for the play-offs. Of their eight remaining games, seven are in Edinburgh and five are at Myreside. They only have to travel to Stirling, so should gain some sort of benefit, if only by saving on petrol money.
You suspect, however, that inexperience will tell against them, and that they will have to be content with ensuring they are well clear of the relegation zone. The absence during December of influential back-rower Rory Drummond, who is serving an eight week ban for making contact with an opponent’s eye against Ayr, is a significant set-back.
WITH only two wins to their name so far, Boroughmuir are second bottom, ahead only of Hawick. Like most of the other sides in the division, they have a lot of good individual parts to their game but have all too often failed to put it all together into an articulate whole. The home defeat by Hawks was an example of that, as they went from an apparently secure lead to a seven-point defeat in the space of five frantic final minutes.
Their cause is far from hopeless – they are only two points behind eighth-placed Marr, who they beat narrowly at home at the end of September – but they do need to start learning how to win tight games rather than merely picking up losing bonuses from them. And if it does come down to a straight fight between Peter Wright’s team and Marr to avoid that play-off spot, you suspect that the Ayrshire side’s greater strength at home could see them safe.