THE bloodlines run thick and deep at Mansfield Park – as they always have done.
In this afternoon Premiership ‘Grand Final’ matchday squad there are three sets of brothers in the shape of Fraser and Calum Renwick (plus cousin Kyle Brunton), Stuart and Ross Graham, and Gareth and Charlie Welsh (whose father Scott was a stalwart of the side in the 1990s and grandfather Rob was capped out of the club in the 1960s). Meanwhile, Shawn Muir (whose brother, Gary, is team manager) and Andrew Mitchell are cousins.
There’s a few other ‘weel kent’ Hawick names involved, including scrum-half Hector Patterson (son of Derrick, who played for Scotland in the 1990s after emerging from the Hawick player conveyer belt) and assistant coach Graham Hogg (whose father John is director of rugby and former Greens full-back, and whose brother Stuart has a big day coming up tomorrow).
Of the 22 strong match-day squad named for this afternoon’s match, club captain Matty Carryer, Patterson (who is from nearby Denholm and was schooled in Jedburgh) and classy Australian centre Ethan Reilly, are the only three players who have not come through the Hawick system.
Head coach Matty Douglas – whose father, Rob, also played for the club and is now on the management committee – is in no doubt that the tightness of the group has been key to the team’s unbeaten season so far, and he believes it could well be a factor again when everything they have achieved so far goes on the line against Currie Chieftains this afternoon.
“That has definitely won us games this season,” he says. “There have been times when we weren’t great but still got a result because of that bit of ‘want’ to do it for Hawick.
“I’ve always said, since taking over as head coach last year, that the one thing I want to achieve with the club is to have boys ready to pull the jersey on and put their body on the line – and I feel this group of players are of the same mind-set.
“So, even when we are under pressure in games, we find ways of dealing with that, which is a massive thing to have going into what will be the biggest game of their careers for a lot of these boys.”
At just 27, Douglas – whose own promising career was brought to a premature end aged 22 by a serious hip injury – is the youngest head coach in the league, and admits that when he took over the reins with an almost equally inexperienced squad at the start of the 2021-22 campaign he was more concerned about avoiding the dreaded drop than pushing for silverware at the top of the table.
The Borderers confounded most outside expectations by finishing third in the Premiership last time out, before losing to Marr at Fullarton in the play-offs semi-final.
“From last season we’ve gained – or regained – three or four experienced players, but apart from that the core of the squad was there before,” explains Douglas. “We were bitterly disappointed not to go further last time, but maybe we weren’t ready. This year we’ve kicked-on with a core group of guys who are all on the same page.”
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Revenge was a dish best served cold, because Hawick’s dominance of the regular season gave them home advantage against Marr in this year’s semi-final, and although their set-piece and attacking accuracy did not hit the high notes they now demand of themselves, the ‘Green Machine’s’ ferocious defence closed out a convincing 18-6 win at Mansfield last weekend.
That was a pressure-cooker situation, and this weekend’s game will be even more so – against a Chieftains side which finished second in the table and feels it has a point to prove after two heavy defeats to Hawick during the regular season.
“I think the two times we’ve played Currie, they’ve played poorly, if I’m being honest,” retorts Douglas, when prodded about the fact that his team start as red-hot favourites. “I know they’ll come with a game-plan, and they’ll have a few surprises up their sleeves, but for me, nothing changes.
“They are probably the team that needs to try something on Saturday, whereas we need to take them on and have a real go at them playing our game, because we know that’s what has worked for us over the whole season.
“They are top quality side on their day. Watching their performance against Accies last weekend, they know how to win. So, they’ll be full of confidence, but also hurting from the defeats they’ve suffered against us, which is a dangerous mix. We’re expecting backlash but I’m pretty confident we can deal with that and get the job done.
“The pressure to perform has been on this squad all season,” he adds. “Once you get on an unbeaten run, you have a target on your back, and the boys have stepped up every time a new question has been asked of them.
“We know this is a totally different level – it is a Premiership Final and we’ve never been in this sort of position for 20-odd years – but the players are embracing it, and I think last week against Marr was a good test of how we will deal with the pressure … we were a bit nervy in the first half but we worked our way through it.
“Even though we didn’t take all our opportunities in attack, I thought defensively we were excellent and that’s where the game was won. Currie will come here and throw the kitchen sink at us, and I think Marr was ideal preparation for that because it was just a battle for 80 minutes.”
The influence of several Hawick developed players returning to Mansfield after stints in Super6 has undoubtedly been key to the team’s success this season, but the quid pro quo under the current structure is that a few of the talented younger players in this squad will now head in the other direction before the end of the month. Douglas doesn’t see that as a major headache ahead of next season.
“At the end of the day, the [Super Series] squads will come out – it’s not for me to comment on who might be going,” he says. “But we’ll keep the core of the squad. There might be one or two players venture into it, and we wish them well because that’s the development pathway at the moment.
“Hawick deserve to be at the top of club rugby. They are a massive club in my eyes. And now it is about kicking on into next season because if you don’t keep pushing forward then you quickly find yourself falling back.
“So, it is about retaining players, recruiting players and making sure that the Force [2nd XV] has the right set-up. There is the challenge of the league above [Super6] at the minute making it very, very hard to keep your top-quality players, but we feel like we are in a good place.”
And what about the ambitions of top-quality young coaches?
“I’ve been on a steep curve,” he straight bats. “I’m thoroughly enjoying it. I have a coaching team around me who can take the pressure off. It has been hard at times – but we’ve all learned on the job.
“I’m just trying to get as much experience as I can, because I know I am nowhere near the finished article, but I couldn’t be at a better club to help me develop.
“Being named as head coach of the South [in the reprised Inter-District Championship for club players which will be played in a knock-out format in May] is just a progression beyond that, and above the Premiership there is Super6, but I have no plans at the minute to look elsewhere.
“I’ve probably not been in an environment yet where you are at the other end of the table. That’s still to come. But at the end of the day, I can only try my best and put as much effort in as I can.
“It is not a matter of luck that we’ve got to where we are. We’ve all put a massive amount of effort in as a club and it’s great that it is paying off. We just need to get over the final hurdle on Saturday.”