IT’S no surprise that Peebles Colts have been setting the pace in the Borders Semi Junior League this season such is the strength of their squad, underpinned by a system that would stand as a template for youth rugby throughout Scotland.
Last Friday, under the lights at The Gytes, Peebles Colts extended their winning run in the league this season to seven victories after defeating Melrose Wasps 32-0 in a match that showcased the skillset of this side, much to the satisfaction of their coach, Njord Maciver, who had nevertheless cautioned against over-expectation against what is a good Melrose side.
“Melrose have been going well this season,” he said. “They’ve had some good results. It’s dangerous when you expect to win because the concentration can drop. We got a try in the first two minutes and a second one in the first ten. We started well with lots of energy and good handling.”
Peebles benefitted too from the strength of their bench as Maciver acknowledged: “We’re really lucky at the moment at Peebles. We’ve got around 40 boys. So we can afford to have a really good bench and we don’t lose anything when they come on. So that’s a great situation to be in.”
Over the piece, Peebles ran in six tries, two first half touchdowns from wing Louis Whyte and one apiece from hooker Ruaridh Smith, flanker Kell Maciver, replacement Robbie Smellie and second-row Ollie Furness, plus one conversion from stand-off James Thomson.
For Melrose, who have a smaller squad, injuries and absences affected their performance but their head coach Jerry Brett was quick to dismiss this as the reason for a less than perfect performance. He said: “We lost our halfbacks on the day of the game and we had a few injuries to key players, as well as some on holiday.
“I don’t want to use that as an excuse though as Peebles were missing several of their older players. Our boys stuck in to the end but we gave them all the initiative in the first 10 minutes. Sadly an uphill struggle from there. As a coach these are the games where you learn the most. Peebles put way more pace on to the ball than us and our body shape in defence needed to be better to slow their ball down.”
At Netherdale, Gala Wanderers were convincing winners by 52-12 over Alnwick, scoring eight tries that included a hat-trick from full-back Richie Mitchell and one each by centre Nairn Moncrieff, prop Arran Little, wing Louis Arrandale Marshall, centre Luke Scott and No 8 Aaron McLaren, with six conversions from stand-off Ethan Wilson.
At Lothian Park, Jed Thistle found the muscularity and strength of unbeaten Morpeth too much. In spite of being up against it in the power game, this Jed side, who are trying to put the Border town back on the rugby map following a season made difficult by a shortage of players, held the English side to 10-10 at the interval, scoring a try through Robbie Duff and a penalty and a conversion by Aaron Weatherhead. “We were level at the break but their size and physicality told during the second half,” said Thistle’s coach Michael Harshaw.
Elsewhere in the BSJL, Kelso Quins’ game against Tynedale was postponed because the Hexham based club had an English Cup game, which takes precedence over the cross-border competition. Meanwhile, at Duns, Hawick Youth cantered to a 76-7 win over the Berwickshire side, stand-off Owain Gray scoring four of his side’s twelve tries as well as kicking eight conversions, the other try-scorers being winger Owen Mackie, hooker Fergus Bell, centres Eli Hamilton and Rory Stanger, flanker Fraser Casson and scrum-half Riley Muir.
“It was great to see our high tempo game-plan worked on in training pay off so early in the game which allowed us to try some positional changes in the second half and use our whole squad. This sets things up nicely for next week’s home game against Gala,” said team manager Paul McDonald.
In what is essentially an add-on to the inspire National League, the top three finishers and the bottom three finishers have been split into two divisions based on whole club positions, but the results from these will not affect entry to the Cup and Shield which is determined from the finishing place in each of the under-18 and under-16 tables at the end of the first five matches.
In the lower section, Ayr gained revenge for their defeat by Mackie a week earlier by reversing the result in the rematch at Stonehaven, the Millbrae side winning 43-19 with tries from Euan Doak (2), Duncan Singh, Scott Rodden, Jake Shearer (2) and Sandy Hay, and four conversions from Lewis Duncan. “It was very pleasing. We’ve shown glimpses in other games but confidence dropped after a run of losses. In that context the performance was doubly impressive. They all worked really hard and earned the win and it was a fun bus journey home,” stated a happy Colin Duck, the Ayr coach.
For Mackie, who had tries from Hunter Littlejohn and Fyfe Train (2) and two conversions by Rory Buchanan, the result was understandably disappointing. “Ayr played to a good game plan through their forwards. We didn’t get going and they deserved the win,” was coach Andrew Buchanan’s summary.
The split is based on whole club placings after the first five rounds but in terms of each age level the plan looks shaky. The most egregious shortcoming has occurred at under-18 level, where, because of the strength of their younger teams, GHA are in the top cut, but that has made life difficult for their oldest side, who have had a difficult season, losing all five games in the first part of the Conference.
On Saturday, GHA’s match against Boroughmuir was downgraded to a development game because the Braidholm side did not have a full team. Irrespective of GHA’s shortage of numbers, the game would in all probability have been a one-sided affair: surely at this stage it would have been much better to group teams of similar standards in each age-grade. After all, were conferences not all about avoiding mismatches in the name of both competitiveness and safety?
Of course GHA may have been affected by players being unavailable. October is a nightmare for those trying to organise under-18s fixtures. Effectively, because different schools have different holiday dates and indeed different lengths of holidays, three to four weekends can be written off for rugby in a month recognised to have the best weather conditions for the sport.
Merchiston Castle School have turned the void caused by holiday-enforced disruption of fixtures into a positive by staging what will be their second successive rugby festival this coming weekend. Filling the gap, of course, is not the aim of Roddy Deans, the force behind the Festival concept; his primary objective is exposing Scottish sides to the high standards and physicality of English schools rugby.
Of the 16 teams taking part, 11 are from south of the Border, among them the winners of last season’s festival, Seaford College, and the runners-up, Bedford School, the alma mater of Scotland and Lions scrum-half Ali Price.
Back for a second year to the Merchiston Festival will be Boroughmuir under-18s, who were the top finishing Scottish side last October, after placing third. They along with hosts Merchiston, George Watson’s College, Peebles Colts and Ayr/Wellington make up the Scottish challenge.
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Meanwhile Stewart’s-Melville College’s first half performance was decisive played in their rearranged match against Fettes College in the inspire National 1 Schools Conference yesterday [Tuesday], contributing to an eventual 38-10 win from tries by centre Thomas Russell (2), flanker Freddy Douglas, stand-off Jamie Cain, back-row Jake McGlynn and hooker Dan Smith.
“We started the match with a real sense of purpose, varying our attack well and scoring some pleasing tries. The intensity dropped out of our game, as we made a number of changes but to Fettes’ credit they put us under pressure in the second half and we had to dig in,” said the Stewart’s-Melville coach Haden Lingard.
For Fettes, who had tries by Rayane Bayeh and Jayden Agyei, there was satisfaction from their second half display. “Hugely impressive turn around in the second half let us take away lots of positives from the game,” suggested head coach Duncan Harrison. “This team is incredibly hard working but just haven’t been getting the rub of the green”.
The win by Stewart’s-Melville puts the Inverleith side back in the top four, the criterion for Cup qualification, and level with Strathallan School, who achieved a 28-10 win over Dollar Academy last Thursday with tries from prop Ellis Cooper, second-row Murray Oliver, centre Colby Taylor and full-back Archie Rankin, who converted all four scores.