by STUART RUTHERFORD
NINETEEN months. Well, 587 days to be exact. That’s how long it had been since Selkirk and Aberdeen Grammar had last faced each other before Saturday’s BT National One clash at Rubislaw, and a lot has happened in that time span: Bruce Jenner became Caitlyn Jenner; Leicester City won the Premier League; the UK voted to leave the European Union; Donald Trump became the republican nominee for President of the USA; and, of course, Selkirk were promoted to the BT Premiership and then immediately relegated the following year.
Aberdeen, on the other hand have had two fairly uneventful seasons after being relegated from Scotland’s top flight following the 2013/14 season. Both clubs now find themselves as foes once again in the race back to the Promised Land.
The last fixture between these two clubs was of great significance to Selkirk, who travelled north knowing that victory would secure promotion back to the big time after a four year hiatus, and furthermore continue their incredible run of 19 straight league victories. Aberdeen, meanwhile, were out of the promotion race altogether, but a chance to play pantomime villain doesn’t come around too often: it was game on.
The rest as they say is history. Selkirk ran out comfortable 42 -13 winners on the day. They were crowned as league champions the following week and won their remaining two fixtures to complete the ‘perfect season’. However, the bubble well and truly burst the following year when, after losing several key first team players in the summer, coupled with a series of injuries over the stretch of the season, Selkirk found themselves relegated with four games remaining. The team that had won 22 straight the previous year lost 17 out of 18 in a campaign that was over from the start. The Border’s outfit will be the first to admit that they simply weren’t good enough but their cruel fall from grace serves to highlight the gulf between Scotland’s top two leagues.
Former Scotland stand-off John Rutherford is the club’s current chairman and he is adamant that although the team struggled it was beneficial playing at a higher level, even if it was for a single season.
“I think we certainly learned a lot. In most of the games we were very competitive up to the last 20 minutes, where we were simply overpowered. The thing about the Premiership is that it’s not just how strong a squad you have, it’s also how you play the system with regards to the pro draft. It was half way through the season that we realised you could have partnership players. So those are the sort of little things that new clubs going into the Premiership don’t appreciate,” he said.
The team from Philiphaugh may have suffered from not ‘playing the system’ last year, but they believe that they will benefit in the medium to long term from their own approach of giving opportunities to as many local players as possible. Selkirk may have been battered and bruised physically last year, but Rutherford says that pride remains very much intact, and maintains that behind the scenes the club is still in great shape, despite that gruelling relegation battle.
“The only problem we have is that Selkirk is such a small town. We only have 360 pupils at Selkirk High School so we punch way above our weight. I think we’ve got as good an infrastructure as any club in terms of our youth set-up and facilities. Our gym is excellent. The new changing rooms are going to be open in December. All these things will benefit our home-grown talent and hopefully attract new players in the future, because we’re realistic in that we have to bring in a few guys each year,” said Rutherford.
Much like The Souters, Aberdeen Grammar struggled with league form last year, winning only eight games the entire season and finishing in ninth place in National One, a mere seven points above the dreaded relegation play-offs. Essentially, they have been in full rebuild mode since their relegation from the Premiership in 2014 and from the side that was beaten by Selkirk nineteen months ago, only five players remain.
Gordon Thomson, club’s current chairman and director of rugby, is under no illusion as to the difficulties his side face in their efforts to get a competitive team on the pitch after a tough few years following relegation.
“I think it’s extremely difficult to bounce back, especially in one season. If you’ve been in the premiership for a limited time then you’re basically forced to recruit outside your team to try and balance the odds, and when you come back down then all those players suddenly disappear,” he says.
Thomson also believes that a lack of equality in the pro draft was major factor in his side’s departure from the Premiership, with Aberdeen’s remoteness from the central belt a significant disadvantage.
“In our experience, the pro draft skews the Premiership dramatically. In our last season up there we were allocated only 13 players over the entire season, compared to Edinburgh Accies and Glasgow Hawks, who had something in the region of 150 releases between them. So, with that in mind, it’s going to be really difficult for us to compete back in the Premiership without spending ridiculous amounts of money on overseas players,” he said.
“We found when we were allocated pro players they wouldn’t travel to train and it was amazing how many had hamstring problems come Saturday. The only guys who would come up north were ex-Aberdeen Grammar guys. In fairness, Gordon Reid [from Ayrshire] was a real trooper and would come up and train midweek, but we also had instances of guys turning up and asking which team they were playing for, that’s how embarrassing it got,” he added.
It was only five years ago that Grammar finished fifth in the Premiership, one point off qualification for the British and Irish Cup. Although Thomson is not satisfied with the current league position [ninth in National One], he is resolute in his opinion that the club is not ready for promotion – perhaps wary of the plight suffered by Saturday’s opponents when they were in the top flight last season.
“I’ve got no wish to see us promoted this season or next. All we’re doing at the moment is treading water with a view to developing the younger players in our squad. Realistically, if we went up this season or next we wouldn’t be able to support ourselves or bring in any new players. We would most likely go the entire season maybe winning one or two games and that’s just not fun. In the unlikely position that we win the league this year we would actually decline to be promoted,” he says.
On Saturday it was again Selkirk who came out victorious, winning a tight affair 36-32. Unlike 587 days ago there was no confetti or promotion to go along with the win, but there was a statistic that sticks out: Of the six players who scored for Selkirk, all attended the local high school and came through the youth system.
For Rutherford, seeing Selkirk players advance through the ranks is as satisfying as any unbeaten season but he does not share Thomson’s views on promotion.
“I think we’re in a great position to be competitive in National One and hopefully be in the mix to go up again next season … why not?”
Aberdeen Grammar: Conor Lavery; Grant Walker, Alex Ratcliffe, Kyle McFarlane, Matt Arnold; Sam Knudson, Jake Gray; Rob Ellinson, Fergus McKenzie, Colin Neilson, Aaron Robertson, Harry Bloomfield; Matt McCall, Robin Cessford, Calum Champion (c). Subs: Chris Prentice, Conall Howard, Jordan Robertson, Ali Addy, Doug Russell.
Selkirk: Darren Clapperton; Scott Hendrie, Lewis MacLennan, Ross Nixon, Josh Welsh; Ciaran Whyte, Michael Davies; Kieran Cooney, Ruairi Wilson, Lwando Mabenge; Peter Forrest, Max Gordon; Scott McDonald, Matt Robertson, Ewan MacDougall. Subs: James Bett, Michael Waldron, David Allan, Craig MacDougall, Jackson Wallace.
Aberdeen Grammar: Tries: Knudson, Cessford, McCall, Bloomfield; Cons: Knudson 3; Pens: Knudson 2.
Selkirk: McLennan, Clapperton 2, Nixon, McDougall 2; Cons: Welsh 3.