Roving Reporter: Misfits Berwick are in a happy place

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Berwick Rugby Club are headed for promotion and also have a National Shield semi-final to look forward to. Image: Fotosport/David Gibson.

A 36-12 victory over local rivals Duns to extend their undefeated run in all competitions this season to 19 games. 180 diners at the pre-match lunch. Now 23 points clear at the top of East Region League One (although they have played two more games than second placed Royal High), with only three more league points required from three remaining games to secure promotion back into the National Leagues. The Borders Shield already in the bag. A cup win for the 2nd XV, who are also top of their league. And a hard-fought draw for the Colts. It was a good day at Scremerston on Saturday.

Berwick – who are celebrating their 50th birthday this season – are a curious club. Located three miles south of the Border, but more northerly than all the traditional Border League teams. They are affiliated to both the SRU and RFU, with separate honorary presidents for both countries. Their 1st XV play in the Scottish league set-up, their 2nd XV are in the Northumberland Leagues.

“It’s a double-edged sword,” says club president Colin Frame, who was born in Lanark but moved to Berwick for work,  married a local girl and has now lived in the town for 28-years. “We’ve got double the bureaucracy– we’ve got an English representative and a Scottish representative – we’ve got to go to double the meetings about health and safety, coaching, refereeing, finance and so on. But it has its up sides. I think you have to be part of the Berwick club to really understand.

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“If you ask anyone in the town, they are very much Berwickers – they don’t see themselves as Scottish or English. It comes down to the history of Berwick changing hands 13 times between Scotland and England. They think that nobody likes them, if you are a Berwick player and you go south you’ll be teased about being a ‘Jock’ and if you go north you are teased about being an Englishman – so, in the end, they take the view that it doesn’t really matter.

“Our full internationalist are Gavin Kerr and Craig Smith, who both played for Scotland. But on the English side of it, we’ve had people like Stephen Gilchrist, our current secretary, who has played for the North of England, and Scott Wilson, who was born in Eyemouth but played for English Saxons before retiring this year from Newcastle Falcons because of injury.”

Turbulent times

The rugby club’s recent history has been almost as rocky as the town’s turbulent past as a Border gateway between Scotland and England. Berwick climbed all the way to Premier Two as recently as 2006 (back in the days when there was three Premier Divisions and three National Leagues), but when that ‘golden generation’ of players moved on or hung up their boots they quickly found themselves tumbling down the ladder and ended up in East League Division Two in 2013-14.

They managed to steady the ship to bounce straight back up into East One the following year, and even won promotion back into the National Leagues four seasons ago. But when they came straight back down again, head coach Colin Young and team manager Owen Weatherhead – a couple of true club stalwarts – started to think that it might be time to step aside.

“We felt like it had got stale, and that the club needed new blood coming through in a coaching sense,” explains Young. “But then we looked at this crop of lads coming through the colts and we realised that this might be the kind of spark that we were needing. They had all the spirit and the charisma, and it felt like they just needed coached in what is required in adult rugby and they could do great things.”

Over the last two years, around 15 players have come out of the youth set-up to become genuine 1st XV contenders, including seven of the starting team which defeated Duns on Saturday, in full-back Rory Hindhaugh, centres Jack Dalrymple and Duncan Hardie, scrum-half Cameron Rogerson, hooker Ryan Wilson, second-row Euan Thompson and flanker Mason Emery. Winger Aiden Rosie is a year older.

Blending experience and youth

Crucially, the return of two Berwick boys who had gone off to play at a higher level in stand-off Andrew Skeen [Newcastle Falcons development squad, Watsonians, Scotland 7s, Amatori Rugby Milano in Italy,Melrose, Kelso] and No 8 Ali Grieve [Kelso, Melrose, Hawick] has reinforced the spine of the team with some valuable experience and a winning mentality.

“We’ve just built and built,” says Young. “The first game we had in the league, at the start of last season, was a 59-19 loss at North Berwick, but we continued to back the young boys and we’ve reaped the reward … they’ve reaped the reward, because they’ve worked hard at what we’ve asked them to do, and they’ve done really well.

“Bringing in Andrew this year has really brought them on,” he adds. “He’s been at that higher level in Scotland, he’s been a professional across in Italy, so he’s a go-to man for me. I can go and pick his brains about any situation.”

Grieve’s return to the club was unplanned and complicated but a big boost.

“Ali was dropped by Hawick 1st XV at the start of the season so he phoned us and asked to dual register, and he played for us against Hawick Harlequins,” explains Weatherhead. “The next thing we know, Melrose have all these injuries and they ask him to come back there, but you can’t play for three different teams in one season – that’s just the rules.

“It’s probably not ideal for Ali but he’s been superb for us. Now that he is playing every week he’s getting fit, and he’s really bought into it with some ideas which have sharpened up our line-out. He organised himself and two other self-employed players – our captain Tom Jackson and Scott Owens – to sponsor the warm-up jackets, and he went off and bought them for the team, all off his own back. That kind of thing is huge for a club like ours.”

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Skeen scored two tries on Saturday – including a 55-yarder – and kicked nine points. Grieve crossed the line once, while winger Gareth Hill also got the ball down twice.

The immediate target is to go on and secure promotion, and to get a result at home to Royal High in the National Bowl semi-final on 30th March which will book a trip to Murrayfield for Finals Day at the end of April.

Looking to the future

In the slightly longer term, a return to the National Leagues will bring challenges but is an opportunity the club is ready to embrace, says Frame.

“Going on a bus journey from Berwick every second week is tough going,” he explains. “It is an hour and a half journey each way to Edinburgh, Glasgow is two and a half hours, Aberdeen is four hours, Caithness is an overnight stay with seven hours travel either side, and Orkney is a three day-trip. And it is not just the time it takes, it is also a financial issue because you are effectively raising tens of thousands of pounds to give to a bus company. But if you want to play National League rugby then that’s what you’ve got to do.

“We can’t say to this group of lads that they can’t go up because of financial concerns. As a committee and a coaching group, we have to say: ‘Reach for the stars. Go for it. We’ll back you 100 percent and we’ll find a way of making it happen’. Because, ultimately, people like me have so many good memories of away trips to places like Caithness and Highland and Aberdeenshire, and we can’t deny this generation of players that opportunity.

“The love of the game comes first. It is about getting people playing rugby – growing numbers – and if off the back of that the club gets to the second tier again then I’d be delighted. I think we can do it with the talent we’ve got.”

“However, if the club doesn’t rise any further but keeps having days like this,” he adds, looking round a packed clubhouse an hour after full-time. “Then you’re not going to hear me complaining.”

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About David Barnes 4011 Articles
David has worked as a freelance rugby journalist since 2004 covering every level of the game in Scotland for publications including The Herald/Sunday Herald, The Sunday Times, The Telegraph, The Scotsman/Scotland on Sunday/Evening News, The Daily Record, The Daily Mail/Mail on Sunday and The Sun.