GREGOR MCNEISH was part of a fine Heriot’s club first XV which won back-to-back Premiership titles in 2015 and 2016, and the Scottish Cup in the latter year. Now he is returning to Goldenacre in Southern Knights colours as the Borderers look to build on last weekend’s morale-boosting home win over Stirling Wolves, but wary of the challenge they face against a side who trounced Watsonians in their last outing.
“I haven’t actually been back to Goldenacre since I played there, so it’ll be nice to go back and see some familiar faces,” stand-off McNeish, now 31, said. “A lot will have changed over the last seven years, but I have so many good memories from that time, we had an excellent squad and, with it being before the Super6/Series era, we were one of the top sides in the country.
“Heriot’s helped to make me the player I am today because I had gone there from my local club Dunfermline to play some sevens at the end of the 2013-14 season. I got on with the guys straight away and decided to give the Premiership a crack with them, and I am so glad I did because we had some really good times. The finals we played in were all close and all great occasions and we dug deep in all of them.”
In 2014-15, it was a last gasp try from Jason Hill that won the Premiership play-off final 22-20 in dramatic style versus Melrose at Goldenacre.
The following year they had an amazing April. At the start of that month McNeish came off the bench and, with the clock well in the red, he kept his cool to kick his second drop goal of the match as Heriot’s got past Currie 24-22 in the Premiership play-off semi-final at Malleny Park.
They then went on to beat Melrose 21-13 in the Scottish Cup final at Murrayfield before winning another classic Premiership play-off final 29-26 at Millbrae versus Ayr.
McNeish also earned Scotland Club XV honours while making a name for himself at Goldenacre before a season in New Zealand in late 2016 turned into an extended period away from these shores.
“I spent some time with Taradale in Hawkes Bay and intended to return to Scotland after that, but David Bruce, the then club chairman at Hong Kong Scottish, got in touch and offered me an opportunity there,” qualified teacher McNeish explained.
“When I got to Hong Kong ,I would never have imagined that I’d play international rugby for them, but I really enjoyed the culture on and off the field there straight away and was working at an international school.
“I was just doing my thing with Hong Kong Scottish when the opportunity to represent Hong Kong via residency came up a few years later and I jumped at the chance.
“People often ask what it is like to represent a country you didn’t have links to in your youth and all I can say is that playing for Hong Kong for me personally is a great honour, the country was my home for a number of years and I will give everything for the cause whenever I am called upon.
“When I made my debut [versus Belgium on a European tour in 2019], my family were there to watch and it was a very proud moment.
“Rugby in Hong Kong in general has given me so much over the years as has the Hong Kong Scottish club where I met some great people and friends for life.”
Had things worked out differently in the last 14 months, McNeish could have been in France just now looking to add to his nine Hong Kong caps at the Rugby World Cup.
Last July they lost 44-22 to Tonga in the Asia/Pacific 1 qualification play-off and then went onto a final qualification tournament in Dubai that November, with Portugal coming out on top to seal their place at the big dance while Hong Kong, USA and Kenya missed out.
“We were underdogs against Tonga and in the repechage event, but we gave it everything we had,” McNeish, who spent last year playing in Andorra following his six or so years in Hong Kong, said.
“The pandemic hit the growth of rugby in Hong Kong hard and we were always playing catch-up after that. There are some great people working in the sport over there, so hopefully we can come again.”
For now, McNeish’s focus is on helping the Southern Knights push on to try and earn a top four play-off place in the Championship come November.
Certainly, his experience is important in a young squad and the way he managed last Saturday’s 27-19 bonus point win over the Wolves from 10 – to be named man-of-the-match and earn a place in the TOL Round Six Dream Team – exemplified that.
Head coach Alan Tait wants his side to build on that win and McNeish, who is working at St Mary’s Melrose and at Stewart’s Melville College, having moved to the Borders with Kiwi partner Lauren a few months ago, said: “We showed against the Wolves what we can do when we get on the front foot and show belief.
“It has been a tough time with injuries, especially in a key position like second-row, but everyone is stepping up to the plate and working hard.
“I have been really impressed by the young talent that is at the club since I came here and now it is just about taking a bit of confidence from last week and trying to back up a good result with another.
“Heriot’s played very well against Watsonians last week and are the team in the league who most like to use their backs and really play at pace, so we know the size of the challenge that awaits us at Goldenacre.
“We just have to focus on what we are doing, stick together as a unit and who knows what can happen.”
Southern Knights are fifth in the Championship table before this weekend’s action which marks the halfway point of the regular season while Heriot’s are second. Saturday’s match at Goldenacre kicks-off at 5pm.