THE men’s Premiership is back for another season with five intriguing clashes on Saturday to open things up.
Hawick, the undefeated champions and double winners, were the team to beat last season and they will hope to be there or there abouts this time around, but as centre Andrew Mitchell alluded to during the week it can be easier being the hunter rather than the hunted. They have a target on their backs now and the first team to have a pop at them is Glasgow Hawks at Mansfield Park.
Currie Chieftains were pipped by Hawick in the play-off final last year and they start in the Borders at Selkirk.
The third match in the Borders in week takes place at Riverside Park when Jed-Forest, under the leadership of a new coaching panel, welcome Edinburgh Accies who made the play-off semi-finals last term.
In Edinburgh, Heriot’s Blues are taking on last year’s play-off semi-finalists and Scottish Cup runners-up Marr while league new boys Kelso are at Musselburgh.
With new tackle laws and a whole host of new faces across the 10 teams joining the party this year the battle for the top four – and to avoid the relegation spot –is set to be as exciting as ever.
Bring on the twists and turns …
The Lowdown –
Hawick v Glasgow Hawks
(for the Bill McLaren Shield)
Venue: Mansfield Park @ 3pm
Hawick: C Welsh; M Tait, A Mitchell, L Armstrong, R McKean; K Ford, G Welsh; S Muir©, F Renwick, N Little, F Wilson, S Fairbairn, D Redpath, C Renwick, J Linton. Subs: F Bell, T Hope, G Lowrie, D Lightfoot, B Donaldson.
Glasgow Hawks: J Couper; S Graham, R Flett, W Burrows, J Pinkerton; L Brims, J Imrie; D Irvine, P Cairncross, M Goodwin, S Halafihi, S Leckey©, A Syme, JP Thomson, T Wright. Subs: A Burgess, M Downer, K Shanahan, M Crumlish, H Lapslie.
Key battle: Shawn Muir versus Marcus Goodwin.
Team news –
Hawick: Former Scotland Club XV cap Lee Armstrong has looked sharp in pre-season and starts at 12 with Kirk Ford at stand-off allowing Kyle Brunton to get some game time in the Force [2nd XV] after missing most of pre-season. Teenager Fraser Wilson, signed from Gala, gets his first taste of Premiership rugby in the second-row with Dalton Redpath moving to six due to Stuart Graham and Connor Sutherland missing out through injury. Last year’s Hawick Youth under-18s captain Fergus Bell covers hooker from the bench where he is alongside the returning Gary Lowrie.
Glasgow Hawks: Like every year at Hawks there has been a huge turnover of players, however they have managed to retain more than previous years. There are six debutants in the ‘new’ Premiership, one of which is full-back James Couper who turned out for Hawks numerous times before the inception of Super6/Series. The experienced Sione Halafihi and Wayne Burrows have come out of retirement and start in the second-row and at centre respectively. The other new faces in the squad along with Couper and Burrows are teenage scrum-half James Imrie, tight-head Marcus Goodwin, back-row JP Thomson and young replacement Aaron Burgess.
What the coaches say –
“We know how good a side Hawks are and we won’t let their large turnover of players lure us into a false sense of security. We will have to perform to our best to get off to a winning start here. We are all looking forward to an exciting game of rugby as we get a chance to show that Premiership rugby is very much still alive and kicking …” – Gary Muir (Hawick DOR)
“There can be no bigger challenge than starting your season against the reigning Cup winners and unbeaten Premiership champions in their own back yard during their 150th anniversary season. Nonetheless, the lads have worked hard to develop relationships and partnership throughout the pre-season and the cohesion amongst the squad is the best it’s ever been. In our last outing of last season against Hawick in the Cup semi-final, we were ahead for much of the game which showed we are capable of competing against the best teams in the league. We are hoping a few small fixes and a few new additions will mean we put ourselves in the same position going into the final 20 and it will come down to whoever makes the most of the opportunities presented to them. All at Hawks would like to wish Matty Douglas [Hawick coach] a speedy recovery after his recent hip operation …” – Andy Hill (Glasgow Hawks)
Verdict: Hawick’s squad is settled as they look to defend their title and they have added some good players while there is a bullishness about Hawks as they aim for more consistency this time around. They were the last away team to win at Mansfield Park in October 2019 and they’ll push Hawick hard, but the champions should come through this one.
Heriot’s Blues v Marr
Venue: Goldenacre @ 3pm
Heriot’s Blues: T Soren; R Steele, O Quinn, B Kay©, C Meager; K Kutsuna, G Wilson; A Munro, D Dineen, A Bogle, B Dineen, M Keough, R Kirkpatrick, I Hill, A Johnston. Subs: M Bouab, S Cessford, D Yellowley, D Tomanek, P Christie.
Marr: G Montgomery; J Jacobson, G Paxton, C Bickerstaff©, J Scott; C Sturgeon, G Baird; A Rogers, C McMillan, A Apthorpe, D Andrew, H Murray, F Grant, C Young, B Jardine. Subs: S Clelland, G Dick, M Blair, C Ingles, G Beckwith.
Key battle: Bobby Kay versus Conor Bickerstaff.
Team news –
Heriot’s Blues: There have been a few injuries to contend with, but Kenta Kutsuna makes his debut at stand-off and he is the first Japanese player to start for Heriot’s in the Premiership. Trent Soren, at full-back, and former Currie winger Cammy Meager also start. Dan Tomanek could make his debut for the club off the bench.
Marr: Alex Apthorpe has joined from Cumnock and starts at tight-head. Greg Montgomery and Graeme Dick have returned to the club and start at full-back and on the bench respectively.
What the coaches say –
“We are very much going into the unknown with a fairly new look group of players. Excitement is high, though we are very aware of the dangers that Marr will undoubtedly bring. With the weather looking good, hopefully both teams can take advantage and put on a show …” – Phil Smith (Heriot’s)
“The first game is always tough as new players come in and there are fresh ideas around. We look forward to the challenge. We have a good few new faces and some returning old faces. Hopefully it’s a great game for the spectators and we can get the league off to a good start …” – Kenny Diffenthal (Marrr)
Verdict: Heriot’s Blues did well to stay up last year on their return to the top flight and will be keen to kick on. After making the league play-offs and the Cup final, Marr will be focused on silverware this time around.
Jed-Forest v Edinburgh Accies
Venue: Riverside Park @ 3pm
Jed-Forest: L Elder; S Paxton, G Young, O Cranston, R Shirra-Gibb; L Young, M Glen; G Slorance, M Weekley, H Meadows, C Skeldon©, D Wardrop, B Roff, J Howe, B Fotheringham. Subs: J Fergusen, P Ferreira, J Hynd, D Batey, R Marshall.
Edinburgh Accies: S Wells; M Wallace, R Chalmers, N Armstrong, F Lindsay; J Loomes©, P Ritchie; C Imrie, G Hall, C Crookshanks, R Thompson, S Whittaker, F Simpson, A Wood, J Sole. Subs: H Campbell, A Hain, K Slingsby, B Grainger, G Woods.
Key battle: Ben Fotheringham versus Jamie Sole.
Team news –
Jed-Forest: Due to players still on holiday the coaches have had to give some young lads a chance alongside some players who have many years of experience playing at Riverside.
Edinburgh Accies: Full-back Struan Wells, scrum-half Patrick Ritchie, hooker Grant Hall, tight-head Calum Crookshanks all debut with other new faces Arran Hain, Kieran Slingsby and George Woods on the bench. Robbie Chalmers returns to the club and starts at centre after finishing his commitments to Super Series.
What the coaches say –
“We’ve had some good tussles against Accies in recent years, especially at Riverside Park. We ran them close in the last game of last season, and we’ll be hoping to give them another good run for their money on Saturday …” – David Grieve (Jed-Forest)
“Jed-Forest first up away is always a very tricky prospect and certainly not one we will not be taking lightly. This week is all about complete clarity in the way we want to play on both sides of the ball. As a coaching group we are excited to see all the hard work from pre-season on the pitch at the start of this league season …” – Iain Berthinussen (Edinburgh Accies)
Verdict: Jed know that their home form will be key this season while the corresponding fixture last term was a cracker. Accies just edged it 33-28 and, if their new faces can bed in quickly, they should just have enough to do the same again.
Musselburgh v Kelso
Venue: Stoneyhill @ 3pm
Musselburgh: J Ferguson; O Craig, R Watt©, R Smith, S Watt; D Owenson, F Call; C Owenson, R Mackie, N McNairn, J Haynes, J Arnold, J Lister, M Crawford, P Bogie. Subs: R Stott, D Miller, J Herbert, G Inkster, B Heber.
Kelso: D Patterson; A Barbour, H Tweedie, F Robson©, R Tweedie; M Hastie, A Tait; G Shiells, E Knox, T Logan, C Thompson, C Brown, A Cowens, M Woodcock, B McNeil. Subs: C Marshall, A Asante, E Thompson, J Glendinning, M Wilson.
Key battle: James Ferguson versus Dwain Patterson.
Team news –
Musselburgh: The squad includes a couple of wise heads in Craig Owenson and Neil McNairn in the front-row, complemented by the energy and enthusiasm of Joss Arnold, Ollie Craig and Gav Inkster who will all make their debut along with Darren Miller, Raymond Mackie and Ben Heber. It’s Rory Watt’s first campaign as captain and standing down from the captaincy has “lifted some of the shackles off Danny Owenson and we look forward to seeing him play with a bit more freedom this weekend”, according to head coach Derek O’Riordan.
Kelso: Keith Melbourne and Greg Ponton are not available due to being on holiday, Liam Herdman is out long-term after a knee operation, James Thompson is absent after suffering an ankle injury against Gala last weekend, Angus Mcgregor sits out after a head knock and Angus Roberts misses out through work commitments. Youngsters Archie Barbour and Robbie Tweedie have shown up well in pre-season and get the nod on the wings on merit over some of the more experienced campaigners.
What the coaches say –
“Selection is the worst part of the job as there will be some players who will be buzzing with getting fired into the league and others who will be questioning whether their effort over pre-season was worth it. We believe we have selected, on balance, the best possible squad to meet the challenge that Kelso will provide. It’s not uncommon for a team being promoted to spring a surprise in their opening match and we are prepared for the threats Kelso will bring on both sides of the ball. The first league match is always a bit of an unknown, and with the integration of the new tackle laws the tempo of the game could go either way in terms of being stop-start or pretty frantic in nature. We feel like we have prepared well for those realities and personally I am really looking forward to being tested on our prep and our selection …” – Derek O’Riordan (Musselburgh)
“We look forward to our first Premiership match as a club for over 20 years. It is a big step up for most of this squad who have never played at this level before, so we must get the details right on the day to give ourselves an opportunity to get something from the match. Musselburgh finished last season in fine form and pulled of a great escape, so if they are in that sort of form it will be a very hard match at Stoneyhill …” – Bruce McNeil (Kelso)
Verdict: Musselburgh have had some good pre-season results and finished last term very well, so will look to build on all of that. It is a big day for Kelso being back in the top flight and they are sure to take a healthy travelling support with them. Musselburgh’s experience in tight games at this level to just get them through this one.
Selkirk v Currie Chieftains
Venue: Philiphaugh @ 3pm
Selkirk: C Anderson; C Findlater, J Welsh, A Grant-Suttie, B Cullen; C Easson, Aaron McColm; L Pettie, B Riddell, Z Szwagrzak, A Cochrane, D Nichol, J Turnbull, S McClymont©, Andrew McColm. Subs: F Easson, J Milliband, C Turnbull, J Beveridge, F Malin.
Currie Chieftains: C Brett; R Daley, DJ Innes, C Gray, I Sim, M O’Neil, C Lessels; C Anderson, R Vucago, G Carson©, C West, W Inglis, A McCallum, S Cardosi, R Davies. Subs: T Jeffrey, O Blyth-Lafferty, A Bain, K Steel, J McCaig.
Key battle: Zen Szwagrzak versus Chris Anderson.
Team news –
Selkirk: The hosts are still carrying a couple of injuries suffered at the end of last season/during the Super Series Sprint with Ross Nixon and James Bett being noticeable absentees. Finlay Wheelans and Archie Penman should be available for selection next week. Josh Beveridge of Boroughmuir Bears is on hand to help out as scrum-half/backs cover this week.
Currie Chieftains: Courtney West is handed a debut in the second-row with former Dundee Rugby man Sam Cardosi at seven. New arrival Thomas Jeffrey and Edinburgh Rugby Academy member Ollie Blyth-Lafferty cover the front-row from the bench.
What the coaches say –
“We are excited to be starting yet another campaign in the Premiership whilst players moving onto Super Series clubs can be difficult it is a great opportunity to build from within and after hard work in the off season we are ready to go again. Currie are always a tough team to play against and we welcome them down to Philiphaugh for what will hopefully be a cracker of a game. Everyone knows how important it is to get out the blocks and put in a solid performance in the first game and the players are buzzing to get on with it now …” – Gordon Henderson (Selkirk)
“Competition for a place in the squad for the first game of the season has been high and I am excited to see the guys that have made the final cut on Saturday. A new season and a lot of excitement amongst the players who can’t wait to get started. Philiphaugh is a tough place to kick things off and Selkirk will be looking forward to playing in front of their home support. It’s a cliché, but never more true than at the start of the season, we are very much focussed on our own performance …” – Mark Cairns (Currie Chieftains).
Verdict: Selkirk will be desperate to get off to a good start under their new coaching team headed up by Gordon Henderson. Like most rugby games, the packs will be key and if Currie can get the upper hand there they’ll take the points back to Malleny.