CHIEFTAINS had a hard summer. They lost coach Ben Cairns to Stirling County’s Super6 franchise, AP McWilliam and Scott McGinley to Boroughmuir Bears, Joe Reynolds, Jamie Forbes, Roan Frostwick and Campbell Wilson to Watsonians, Thomas Gordon to Glasgow Warriors, Ben Robbins to Rotherham Titans and Robbie Nelson to Australia.
But the club’s indomitable spirit shone through. Ben’s brother Mark stepped seamlessly into the head coach role – and Ally Donaldson pulled the boots back on to lend a hand. Stalwarts Fergus Scott, Mike Vernel and Gregor Hunter stayed put, and their vibrant recruitment and development structure threw up a glut of eager youngsters.
With up to twelve teenagers in their match-day squad, physicality was an obvious early problem – and the big game with Marr at Fullarton came just too early – then they hit the wall again in December with three consecutive defeats to Hawick, Marr (at home this time) and Selkirk.
However, the youngsters toughened up – they sorted their set-piece – and Donaldson got the backs running. They fought their way back into serious contention, so much so that when Scottish Rugby called a halt because of Covid-19, mathematically they still had a chance of catching Marr.
- Having their name inscribed on the Bill McLaren Shield after their fourth successful defence against Hawick at Malleny in September.
- Bouncing immediately back from the disappointing defeat at Fullarton with a bonus point win over Accies despite having 12 teenagers in their starting line-up — and Gregor Hunter out with concussion.
- Down 24-21 well into injury time in their last game before the season was cut short, against Musselburgh at Stoneyhill, but taking the game through 20 phases for young Hamish Ferguson to plunge over for the winning try and an improbable victory. ‘Grand larceny ’was how Colin Renton reported it – ‘RESILIENCE’ is how Graham Hogg would have desribed it.
- Gregor Christie, Fergus Scott, Mike Vernel, Wallace Nelson and Rhys Davies all making Scottish Club XV programme, with Scott being appointed captain.
- Talented youngsters like Fraser Sayers, Josh O’Brien and Hamish Ferguson finding their feet in the senior game.
- Three consecutive defeats in December – an insipid display against Hawick at Mansfield – squandering chance after chance against Marr at Malleny when they had most of the game – and then shooting themselves in the foot down at Philiphaugh.
- With his cultured left peg and his three dimensional vision, Gregor Hunter is maybe the most influential player in the league, and his concussion early in the first Marr game was a severe blow.
- Fergus Scott leads from the front. Excellent set-piece and ultra-active around the paddock with or without the ball. Scored an incredible 11 tries and was regularly top of the tackle count.
- Mike Vernel – their great warhorse – wholehearted – strong in the tight and surprisingly mobile. Very much a focal point both on and off the park.
- Wallace Nelson revelled in his switch from wing to flank – and even with his limited experience forced his way into the Scotland Club XV.
- Live wire scrum half Gregor Christie is the latest in long line of influential Kiwi Chieftains (though he is actually a Borderer by birth), and Fijian-born Roy Vucago was an excellent recruit bringing power and skill to the pack, either at hooker or in the back-row.
- “We’ve got six boys at 18-years old and we’ve got another six boys who are under 20. You’ve got twelve boys who are really young and just learning” – Mark Cairns early in September.
- “It was a massive step up and we learned a lot from it. Losing Gregor (Hunter) so early certainly impacted on our attack, but in the end it was poor work in defence which cost us. The youth of our side and lack of physicality was a major factor in the loss, but in what was a poor performance, there was a glimmer of hope in the way they came back to salvage a try bonus” – Mark Cairns after defeat by Marr at Fullarton in September.
- “I thought Fergus (Scott) led really well from the front. His tackling was outstanding. He made line breaks. He was hitting his line-outs. He is an outstanding player” – Mark Cairns after the Jed game in February.
- “The fact that we went twenty plus phases in the last play of the game showed our resilience and bravery under real pressure” – Mark Cairns after the game against Musselburgh at Stoneyhill.
50 years ago, when Balerno was still ‘out in the sticks’, six of the early ‘settlers’ (Bob Kirkwood, Jack Hogg, Roger McLaren, Tom Chandler, David Bisset and Alex Galbraith) met for a pint one Saturday night in the Weaver’s Knowe and somehow started a rugby club – a club which won the Premiership in 2007 and 2010 and now celebrates its golden jubilee looking confidently forward, and rightly regarded as an absolute benchmark in terms of community rugby and player development.