ANDREW MITCHELL and his Hawick team-mates know that it is far easier being the hunters rather than the hunted, but the Mansfield Park men are very much up for the challenge of trying to defend their Premiership title in the club’s 150th anniversary year.
When the Borderers achieved their best top flight finish in years to reach the play-offs at the end of the 2021-22 Premiership campaign it was taken as a sign of green shoots appearing at the traditional powerhouse of Scottish club rugby – but not many could have imagined that it would be the catalyst for an unbeaten campaign in 2022-23.
However, after a minor hiccup on the opening weekend when they drew at home to Selkirk, the Greens went on to win their remaining 17 regular season matches. A play-off semi-final triumph over Marr was followed up by a last gasp play-off final win over Currie Chieftains in front of their biggest home crowd in a number of years as they were crowned Scottish club champions for an unmatched 13th time. They also lifted the Scottish Cup and, throughout it all, kept hold of the Bill McLaren Shield.
“It was just an amazing year to be part of,” says 22-year-old centre Mitchell, who has been a midfield stalwart at Mansfield since breaking into the side aged 17. “When you are part of it, you just take things game by game and week by week and you aren’t really thinking of how big an achievement it is because there is always the next match to focus on.
“But when you see family, friends and club members celebrating like they did after the league final and then the Cup final, you realise that what you have done means an awful lot to a lot of people and that is special.
“The key for us was keeping standards high last season. No matter what the score had been on a Saturday we started afresh at training the next Tuesday. It is the unseen work on dark, wet nights at training that allows you to go out and win games come the weekend, and we have so many senior players around that those standards were never going to drop.
“We were also pretty lucky to not pick up many injuries, so it meant that our squad was settled and we gained momentum from that [Hawick used just 36 players throughout the whole campaign].”
One of the keys to Hawick’s success in 2022-23 was the centre pairing of Mitchell and Australian Ethan Reilly, who has since returned home and recently suffered a long-term injury resulting in a broken fibula, fractured ankle, torn syndesmosis ligament and torn deltoid ligament.
Filling the gap that he has left will be key for Hawick head coach Matty Douglas this term, but with the majority of the squad still in place and a batch of other players having joined they should have enough strength in depth in general to still be the team to beat.
“Yes, it is a bit different being the team that everyone wants to beat rather than being a challenger,” Mitchell acknowledged “Maybe for the first few weeks of last season we went a bit under the radar, but that won’t be the case this year and we know that we have to be ‘on it’ in every game because clubs will all be wanting to take our scalp.
“They will up their game against us, but we won’t move away from the things that helped us do so well last year. We will just take things one game at a time, not get ahead of ourselves, keep those standards high and, if we do that, then we should be fine.
“Personally, I am really enjoying my rugby just now and I am always learning from Matty and [backs coach] Graham Hogg,” he continued.
“They are always pushing me and the other young players to try and get better. There are always ‘work ons’ and as a group and s an individual that is good because it helps you think about your game and the areas you can improve on.”
This season, Mitchell is also set to have the experienced Lee Armstrong alongside him at training and perhaps the match-day backline to offer advice. The former Scotland Club XV player last turned out for Hawick in the 2018-19 campaign, but he never officially hung up his boots and, at 33, he is back in the fold, to add a different dynamic to the backline.
Meanwhile, with the club’s 150th birthday coming up in December 8th, a whole host of celebratory events are planned throughout the season, starting on September 16th when a mural will be unveiled at their famous Mansfield Park home.
The next day at Buccleuch Park there will be a re-enactment of Hawick’s first game against Langholm with the teams dressed in the rugby costumes of 150 years ago.
“Defending the title in such a special season for the club would mean a lot to us all, so we just have to get our heads down, work hard as a team and see where it takes us,” Mitchell concluded.
The opening round of 2023-24 Premiership matches will be played this weekend, all kicking off at 3pm –
- Hawick v Glasgow Hawks
- Heriot’s Blues v Marr
- Jed-Forest v Edinburgh Academicals
- Musselburgh v Kelso
- Selkirk v Currie Chieftains