STRATHMORE’S impressive 17 match winning streak in all competitions this season came to an end in dramatic and agonising fashion last Saturday when they were beaten by a short-nose in their National Shield semi-final clash against Greenock Wanderers at Inchmacoble Park. The final scoreline was 20-21 in the away team’s favour after an almost unbearably tense finale.
“It was the nightmare of all nightmares, to be honest,” reflected Strathmore head coach Alan Brown. “We scored three tries and played all the rugby, in my opinion. But we didn’t take our opportunities. We missed a penalty at the very end which was right in front of the posts. Our kicker hit the crossbar and it bounced back into his hands, so he had a run at the line, but the referee saw a knock-on and blew for full-time. You couldn’t make it up. It was heart-breaking.
“But I’m really proud of the boys because they got stuck in against a physically bigger side which contained quite a few experienced guys who have played at a higher level with Glasgow Hawks and GHA.”
If last Saturday was a big disappointment, Brown and his Strathmore team can take considerable comfort and encouragement from the fact that the rest of this season has been a rip-roaring success. The Forfar side won the Caledonia Regional Shield and are unbeaten in 15 games played so far in Caledonia League Division One, with a positive points differential of 646 [which equates to an average winning margin of just under 44 per game]. Promotion to National Three for next season is already in the bag before today’s final game of the campaign away to Aberdeen Wanderers.
“It has been amazing,” said Brown. “When I first arrived at the club at the start of pre-season, the boys were barely able to keep control of the ball – they were throwing it round willy-nilly – and I thought to myself: What have I got myself into? But we’ve all worked hard. It’s really been about instilling a better attitude. It wasn’t that there was a bad attitude, but they weren’t really thinking about being the best they can be.
“They weren’t gyming it, and they weren’t too keen on fitness sessions so wouldn’t turn up to them, but then I got my mate Darrel Lindsay Russell – who played with me at Dundee and did the S&C for a couple of years there – along to help. On the weekends in pre-season he had them running around the loch next to our pitch … up and down hills … crazy stuff … and I have to say that the guys really bought into it. They’ve been excellent.
“We just needed to tighten it up. Especially in the forwards because they are not the biggest group of guys, but they are a bunch of farmers, so they’ve got that core strength and the toughness which comes from working the land, so it was all there and it was about turning that into something we can use on a rugby pitch.
“But the hardest part was getting that mind-set right of when to hold onto the ball and when to pass, because everyone is watching TV and flinging the ball around like they are playing Super Rugby, and as I keep reminding the team: not everyone can do that. So, once we started to understand our strengths and our limitations, then we were able to play a game that suited us – and it’s gone pretty well.
“Look, I’d like to take some credit for how things have gone this season – who doesn’t want to be recognised for the work they have put in? – but I know I have been lucky that I had guys there who wanted to work with me.”
Brown is a former Scotland age-grade and Club XV representative, who played a handful of games for Glasgow Caledonians/Glasgow around the turn of the century, but he spent the lion’s share of his playing career with Dundee High bouncing between the top two divisions of Scottish club rugby. He was involved in the Mayfield club’s British and Irish Cup exploits in 2012-13, took over the captaincy for the 2013-14 season, and was appointed player coach the following year.
“I had 20 years at Dundee until I got hit the chest playing against Aberdeen Grammar last season and broke my sternum,” he said. “I had to take six weeks off my work as a self-employed plasterer, which isn’t great with a young family to support. I was at that age where I realised it was time to quit while I was still ahead. But I was still getting a lot of enjoyment out of my rugby, so I felt like I needed to find something else to do, and when Strathmore asked me if I fancied getting involved as a coach with them I jumped at the chance.
“It is an amazing club,” he continued. “We’ve got 45 at training, we’ve got a great 2nd XV coach who keeps it all ticking over and the boys love him, we’ve got a huge youth section, a thriving women’s section, an amazing amount of volunteers and committee members, and a massive amount of community stuff happening – the club really has got it all going for it.
“The only thing we need is a few better players in key positions – we’ve basically played the whole season with a scrum-half at stand-off – he’s a great player but he’s out of position. But, unfortunately, we have pretty limited playing resources in this area these days because so many people go through to Edinburgh.
“Caledonia has been left as the scrapyard of Scottish rugby, which is disappointing, but we’ll just keep plugging away trying to raise standards so that we give people a rugby reason to stay in the region.”
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“If I’m being honest, I really didn’t know what to expect when I first got involve – I thought boys would just turn up when they felt like it and not take it that seriously,” Brown concluded. “But I was completely wrong. It is a great club with great player who want to work hard and enjoy their rugby. And it isn’t just Strathmore. Teams like Ellon have great set-ups as well.
“The social side was the bit that really got me. The captains get up and speak after matches to thank the opposition for the game. Then there’s usually a boat race between the two teams, which maybe isn’t what we are supposed to be encouraging these days, but it is great fun and people love it. The opposition get a couple of crates of beer to take away with them on the bus. It is completely different to what I was used to, and I’m really loving it. The higher up the ladder you go, the more players are expected to be like machines – but, you know what? Rugby is meant to be fun!”