MELROSE are a club with grand plans. They have just launched an ambitious proposal to transform their historic Greenyards home into a state-of-the-art sporting facility, with a 3G World Rugby compliant pitch, floodlighting and a shiny new stand which will house plush changing rooms and clubhouse. The idea is to make it a seven-days-per-week venue capable of hosting high level sporting events throughout the year.
On the field, the aim is to continue pushing boundaries in terms of raising standards in the club game in Scotland, with an immediate target of expunging the painful memories of last season’s denouement, when dreams of double glory were blown away by a rampant Ayr performance in the Premiership play-off semi-final and a ruthlessly efficient Heriot’s showing in the Cup final the following week.
This quest for redemption starts tonight when they can gain some measure of revenge on Heriot’s in the BT Charity Shield at Goldenacre [6.45pm kick-off]. It will be the first (semi) competitive match in charge for Robert Chrystie, who has moved up from the assistant role he has occupied during the previous five seasons to replace London Scottish bound John Dalziel as head coach.Stuart Johnson, who played more than 200 games for the club, was confirmed as permanent forward’s coach earlier this week after impressing while filling in on an interim basis during the summer.
“John has left the club in a great state. Nothing changes. I worked with Craig Chalmers for two years and John for the last three years, so there is real continuity there. It has always been a team effort, with one guy leading it, and now it is my turn to be that guy. I’m more than comfortable with the responsibility, there are good people at the club so I am just excited about getting going,” said Chrystie, who came through the ranks as a player in his native Hawick, before moving to Melrose and embarking on a professional career which took in Bath, the Border Reivers and Scotland A.
Scotland under-20s stars Tom Galbraith and Ally Miller have been seconded by the SRU to play at London Scottish this year, the talismanic Graeme Dodds has retired, and it is not yet clear how much game time Melrose will get from Lewis Carmichael and Nick Beavon (who signed professional contracts with Edinburgh at the end of last season) – but this is offset by a clutch of exciting new arrivals in the shape of former Gala and Scotland under-20s hooker Russell Anderson from Jersey, Scotland club international back-five forward Iain Moody from Boroughmuir, home-grown inside back Craig Jackson who played for London Scottish last season, and winger Ross McCann (just returned from a summer in New Zealand on the Macphail Scholarship) from Stewart’s Melville.
On top of all that, the return of South African livewire Austin Lockington after a year out with a knee injury will almost feel like a new signing. He starts on the wing tonight.
“Locky just brings something completely different to the game, and you would never want to coach that out of him. He’s worked really hard to get back after injuring his ACL, and he could have been back for the end of last season but we decided not to push it too much. He played a bit of Sevens last weekend and got a bit of confidence there. He won’t be back to where he was when he was at his best, it’s going to take a bit of time, but he’s really keen to get going,” said Chrystie.
“The guys who have gone to London Scottish are very good rugby players but they are pretty young, and we’ve got some experienced guys coming in who have been around the block a few times. Plus we have several players who have been with us since under-20s and are now two or three years down the line, which means they have got a little bit more knowledge and they’ll be leading a lot of it,” he added.
Forget about a similarly elaborate renovation of the facilities at Goldenacre, Heriot’s have got plenty to focus on in terms of rebuilding on the park this season as they look to emulate the success they have enjoyed in winning the league followed by the league and cup double under head coach Phil Smith in their last two campaigns.
Three key men from those triumphs have moved on to pastures new, with kiwi captain Jack Turley joining Flyde in England’s third tier National League One, back-rower Jason Hill signing for Bedford Blues in the English Championship, and stand-off Gregor McNeish heading overseas to play for Hong Kong Scottish.
“We feel as if we have replaced them like for like, because we’ve got a stand-off [Alex Hagart, signed from Aberdeen Grammar], we’ve got a number eight [Callum Marshall from Selkirk] and we’ve got a back five cover player [Thomas Lapeyre, who has arrived from France]. But will they be of the same standard? Its more the fact that those guys been running it for three years as a group and they were comfortable with the way the team was playing and so on, whereas now we have got to integrate these new lads into it and try to get them onto the same page as quickly as possible,” said Smith.
Heriot’s have also lost back-row stalwart Jamie Syme and South African lock Roan van Heerden to retirement, while Scotland under-20s scrum-half Hugh Fraser is another of the youngsters to have been seconded to London Scottish. Stand-off Stuart Edwards and scrum-half Graham Wilson are still on the long road to recovery after nasty knee injuries during the first half of last season.
“That’s what happens in Scottish club rugby: players move on and you have to deal with it. One of the things I was fairly pleased about last year was that we had pretty good strength in depth right across the squad and now we are going to see if the proof is in the pudding,” mused the ever optimistic Smith.
Gavin Parker, who has moved back north after being aligned with Exeter Chiefs when studying in the south of England, starts at full-back tonight; while Smith says he is particularly excited about seeing the nimble-footed Josh Laird lining up at outside centre after an injury ravaged 2015-16 campaign. Donald Crawford will make his Heriot’s debut against his old club at inside centre.
A late call-off from Tom Wilson gives Andrew Simmers (a Scotland under-20 hopeful this season) a start at scrum-half, with Lorne Christie coming onto the bench.
Both coaches insist that tonight’s match is very much part of their respective team’s pre-season programme, however they welcome the extra edge which will be created by having a bit of silverware up for grabs. With all proceeds on the gate going to CCLASP (Children with Cancer and Leukemia Advice & Support for Parents), there are worse ways to spend a Friday evening in the capital.
THE LOWDOWN –
HERIOT’S v MELROSE (IN THE BT CHARITY SHIELD)
KICK-OFF TIME: 6.45pm on Friday 19th August
Heriot’s: G Parker; J Rae, J Laird, D Crawford, C Simpson; A Hagart, A Simmers; M Bouab, M Liness, S Cessford, R Nimmo, C Smith, A Henderson, J McClean, C Marshall. Subs: D Mason, R Mitchell, T Lapeyre, L Sinclair, L Christie, R Carmichael, A McLean.
Melrose: F Thomson; A Lockington, G Taylor, C Jackson, R McCann; J Baggott, M McAndrew; J Bhatti, R Anderson, R McLeod, J Head, A Grieve, N Irvine-Hess, G Runciman, I Moody. Subs: C McKay, D Elkington, H Borthwick, R Knott, B Colvine, R Taylor.
KEY BATTLE: Josh Laird versus George Taylor
WHAT THE COACHES SAY –
“It’s difficult to pick up fixtures that challenge players. That’s meant with no disrespect to the lower clubs, but that’s where we’re at. But this a real fixture, which is perfect for rolling into the season because it really challenges the boys. At last we’ll get a little bit of competitiveness to what we are doing because we feel like we are world beaters at the moment …” – Phil Smith (Heriot’s)
“It’s a new season and a new group [of players]. The boys who were involved will reflect on it as all players do, but once you get going again you have to move on pretty quickly. We won’t be saying: Heriot’s won everything last year so let’s make sure we get one over them now. We want to focus on ourselves. It’s still part of our pre-season, with a bit of added spice, which is brilliant because it makes it all a little bit more real …” – Robert Chrystie (Melrose)
VERDICT: A small sense of revenge for Melrose
Image courtesy of Scottish Rugby/SNS Group