WE have known who is going down from the Tennent’s Premiership to National League One ahead of 2022-23 for some time, but who is going to replace Aberdeen Grammar in the top flight is still to be decided.
Early on in the campaign, Gala, Heriot’s Blues and Biggar (who won title in 2019-20 before the pandemic saw the league season declared null and void) emerged as the frontrunners in Tennent’s National League Division One. However, home losses to both their title rivals over the last couple of months has left Biggar in third on 77 points with two matches remaining, meaning they are now highly unlikely to be crowned champions.
So, all eyes will be on Netherdale tomorrow where Gala, top with 84 points, take on second placed Heriot’s who are two points behind. The game kicks-off at 3pm.
Heriot’s head coach Phil Smith has called it a “Cup final” as he knows that if his side lose in the Borders without picking up both available bonus points then Gala will be crowned champions with one match each still to play.
The home side are keen to join fellow Border clubs Hawick, Jed-Forest and Selkirk in the top ten, so there is plenty to play for and it promises to be a cracking contest and an opportunity for the club game to show that it too can capture the imagination on the weekend Super6 action returns.
“We won up at Goldenacre back in September [34-24], but a lot has changed for both clubs since then,” said Gala head coach Fraser Thomson. “As a squad, the guys here have really come on since then and bought into what myself and the other coaches are trying to do.
“It is just great to have Gala back playing in big matches like this one and I imagine the locals will be out in good numbers to cheer us on.
“The win [29-26] at Biggar two weeks ago showed the fighting spirit this group of players have and we will need to show that again and more against a Heriot’s side who will come down here to throw everything at us.
“They have some experienced players in their ranks, but so do we, and it has been a boost having captain Rex Jeffrey back of late after he missed a period through injury earlier in the campaign.
“The squad is made up of mainly local guys and that is really pleasing, they know how much it means to the town to win for Gala. We believe if we play to our best we have a chance to win this game.”
At 32, former Glasgow Warriors man Thomson is one of a number of exciting young coaches coming through in Scotland. Although he is the head coach he is keen to stress that it is all about a coaching unit and he works well alongside Stuart Johnson, player/coach Euan Dods and Craig Jackson.
The latter joined the set-up whilst he recovers from injury and is good friends with Thomason having played with him at Melrose and the Southern Knights.
“Craig has come in with some different ideas and the guys really respond to him well, he is an experienced player looking to get into coaching and we are enjoying having him around,” Thomson said.
Heriots’ last outing was a 39-31 win over Edinburgh rivals Watsonians a fortnight ago and, for this game, head coach Smith is able to call on most of his experienced players who have been around the block a few times pre-Super6 era.
The likes of skipper Graham Wilson, who will be playing his 300th game for the club, his half-back partner Rory Carmichael and Craig Robertson will be key if they are to get an away win, but some of their up-and-coming younger forwards will also be important.
“Ali Johnston has been really strong for us this season since he moved from hooker to back-row, Angus Munro has broken through and is playing loose-head for us while Lewis Govenlock has been strong, too,” Smith said.
“I could go through a whole host of guys who are making strides at this level and I think that strength-in-depth and competition for places has really helped us mount a title challenge.
“Gala are a very good team and we know going down there is never easy, but we can be proud of ourselves that we are still right in the mix with two games left and we know that we can get the desired result on Saturday if we play the way that we know we can.
“For us, it would also be a big thing to become the first 1st XV from a Super6 club to get promoted to the Premiership and that would allow us to keep giving young players experience in this team and then moving them up to the Super6 squad when they are ready to do that.
“These are exciting times at Heriot’s at all levels and everyone is looking forward to this game.”
There is also a big game at the other end of National One on Saturday as second bottom Cartha Queens Park travel to Dundee Rugby. With two going down, the Dumbreck outfit have two chances to get the four points they need to leapfrog Watsonians who have already completed their fixtures. This is Cartha’s first chance with a second to come against Heriot’s.
Elsewhere, Biggar host Ayr, Stirling Wolves take on Kelso and already relegated Boroughmuir are on the road to Highland.
Gala: M Wilson; F Johnston, J Turnbull, R Jeffrey©, B Gill; C Dods, L, Johnston; J Williamson, J Easson, M Tamosaitis, R Irvine, E Dods, T Wilson, L Scott, A Dun. Subs: K Scott, S Cairns, J Irvine, T McKavanagh, S Peffers.
Heriot’s Blues: R Steele; C Simpson, O Quinn, J Semple, C Robertson; R Carmichael, G Wilson©; A Munro, R Jackson, R Hutchison, C Anderson, S Johnstone, L Govenlock, I Hill, A Johnston. Subs: D Dineen, A Bogle, M Hughes, S Simmers, J Rae.
Key battle: Rex Jeffrey v John Semple