Premiership: new boys Kelso not interested in short cuts to success

Director of rugby Neil Hinnigan says club is ready to establish themselves back among the top rank of Scottish club rugby

Kelso are determined to build long-term success by building the club up from within. Image: Charles Brooker
Kelso are determined to build long-term success by building the club up from within. Image: Charles Brooker

ONE of the great things to look forward to with Saturday’s launch of a new club season is the end of the phoney war that invariably fills the weeks leading up to it.

Rumours have flown round in recent weeks as to which team has surprise new players up their sleeve, what we might read into good or bad pre-season results, and who is paying who for what. So far in Premiership circles, we have heard of a team folding after the loss of their head coach (not true), a skipper moving clubs due to an internal bust-up (also not true), and that Premiership newcomers Kelso are shelling out wads of cash on players to try to be competitive on their first time back in the top flight since the year 2000 (also not true insists director of rugby Neil Hinnigan).

The Poynder Park men had won the top title back-to-back just a decade earlier, but have spent most of the 21st century so far in the second division, in whatever incarnation that has been, with the odd drop into the third tier. Now that they are back, however, Hinnigan is adamant that the club wants to find a way to stay among the country’s leading sides which does not mean relying on financial favours.


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“A club like ours in a small town is never going to have lots of money,” he said. “Like all clubs, we rely on a lot of local volunteers putting in unpaid hours to keep the club going, and if we are realistic about staying in this league for the long-term it has to be based on a conveyor belt of local talent.

“Paying players is something Kelso tried in the past to keep up, and that’s no secret, but it didn’t work. Lessons have been learned and now it’s about building from within. Paying players is not our model anymore. Last year in National One, we were allowed to pay something, not much, and we did that with Bruce McNeil and local boy Grant Shiells, who both had pro experience and were enthusiastic about coaching and providing other support for the club as well as playing, and we have stuck to that this season.

“But we’re not paying players. If we were to start that again, what happens when you get relegated, which is always a possibility? Then you’d lose players and be on a total rebuild again. For Kelso long-term, that’s not something we’re contemplating. It’s the wrong option for a club like us.

“What we have done is work on the local school and youth set-up, and develop a new culture, off the park. It’s about respecting each other’s time as volunteers – whether that’s coaches, players, people behind the scenes, whatever – and taking that culture on to the park on match0days, where we are there to do the best we can for each other and this club. That’s it.

“It might not seem like much, but it has already taken us forward a lot. We now have 40 boys training every session, a happy camp with respect to where guys are grounded and humble. Now, it’s about maintaining that, but you won’t hear a lot of noise coming out of here.

“Even though we won National One last season and were top of the league for most of the season, there wasn’t a lot of noise coming out of here. It will be the same this season. We’re excited and hopeful, but we know it will be tough, and we’ll be underdogs, so we’ll just see what comes.”

Under former Scotland centre Kevin Utterson and former Hawick and South star McNeil in the coaching team, with input from Mick Minto, who was part of successful Kelso teams in the 1980s, they are seeking to fashion a competitive pack with an entertaining ball-playing style. They handed debuts to a large number of teenagers in their recent Border League match against Peebles, where, once settled into the intensity of the game, they ran out 29-17 winner, playing an expansive brand of rugby in front of a crowd in excess of 500 at Poynder Park. The teams that won Gala 7s a fortnight ago, and followed that up by beating the Maroons in their final pre-season match at Netherdale last Saturday were young too, which Hinnigan agrees, suggests this season will be a steep learning curve.

“It definitely will be, but we’re excited by that,” he added. “We have been planning for this [return to the Premiership], and the key is how we build depth. We have a good youth system with our stand-off Murray Hastie, the local development officer, doing a great job, and great former players coaching the Harlequins and supporting in other ways. Youngsters are coming because they’re enjoying their rugby, and that’s where you have to start.

“We have boys aged 18 to 21 who are on different journeys, different paths. Archie Barbour, for example, is a Kelso boy who got a scholarship to Kirkham Grammar School, near Blackpool, and has come back with some great experience and is an exciting talent. Angus McGregor is a talented young loosehead prop who finished his schooling at Merchiston and this will be a great chance for him to test himself in senior rugby, learn, and push himself to the next level.

“And we’ve got talents like Dwain Patterson, a bit older at 21/22, who have been developing as good young players, and now have the opportunity to learn about Premiership rugby and step up again.

Frankie Robson, our captain, is experienced but still only late 20s, and has plenty left in the tank, and we’ve been lucky in the pack to have Bruce and Grant, and we picked up an Irish lad, Keith Melbourne, who came over during Covid and played a bit of Super Series rugby with Heriot’s, but loves playing at Kelso and has fitted in brilliantly at the club. This will be his third season with us and he’s been very loyal. We’ve also got a new boy who pitched up from Croatia in the summer, wanting to play rugby, and we’ll see how he goes.

“How will we go? We’ll wait and see. We know it will take time to develop our young players, and our depth will be tested, that’s a given. We’ll have some tough weeks in this league, but it’s exciting for the club and the town with how we’re developing again. We’re hopeful, but this isn’t about short-term fixes; we’re building to keep Kelso at the top for the long term.”

The opening round of 2023-24 Premiership matches will be played this weekend, all kicking off at 3pm on Saturday –

  • Hawick v Glasgow Hawks
  • Heriot’s Blues v Marr
  • Jed-Forest v Edinburgh Academicals
  • Musselburgh v Kelso
  • Selkirk v Currie Chieftains

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About David Ferguson 20 Articles
David Ferguson has covered Scottish rugby for over 30 years. Starting out in the Borders with the Berwickshire News and Southern Reporter, where he was sports editor and also covered rugby for a wide variety of national newspapers, Radio Borders and BBC Scotland, David became editor of Scottish Rugby Magazine, working with then Managing Director Sean Lineen. David was then Chief Rugby Writer with The Scotsman for 14 years, during which time he covered club, professional and international rugby, including several Rugby World Cups and Lions tours. He started his own communications and media business in 2014, and has worked across a wide range of areas from Scottish and UK government to charities and corporate business, most recently as Chief Executive of the Observatory for Sport in Scotland, Scotland's only research think tank on sport.

3 Comments

  1. Isn’t this what club rugby is supposed to be all about? Local club engaging with the community, local schools and youth teams? Inspiring youngsters to pick up a ball and represent their town and hopefully providing a springboard for some to go on to bigger and better things.?

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  2. An excellent approach which will no doubt be interpreted as being totally selfish by the usual suspect(s) with their anti-Borders agenda.

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