Super Series countdown 2: Alan Tait hunts for hidden gems at Southern Knights

Head coach is hopeful that the Greenyards outfit can start climbing the table again

Alan Tait
Alan Tait has been the Southern Knights' head coach since January. Image: ©Craig Watson -

THE Southern Knights were one of the leading lights in the first year of Super6, ending as runners-up to the Ayrshire Bulls in the inaugural final back in October 2021. Times have been a lot tougher for the Melrose-based team since, and after winning just two games out of 10 in last season’s Championship they failed to pick up a win at all in the Sprint earlier this year.

But head coach Alan Tait, as befits a man who succeeded at the highest level of the game as a player, is defiantly optimistic. The former Scotland and Lions international knows the road back to the top will not be easy, but he is confident that his young squad has exactly the right kind of work ethic required if they are at least to start making progress.

“Unfortunately the Knights are the bottom of the pile at the minute, there’s no getting away from it, and the wins are few and far between,” Tait accepts. “When we did get a win when I was involved last season, you saw the joy on the boys’ faces, and that makes it all worthwhile. It’s all for them.  They’ve been working hard in pre-season to try and turn things round from the Sprint, so hopefully we can get it right.

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“In year one the team had a settled side – it was almost the Melrose team coming into it. There were a lot of good players there, and a lot of senior players. A lot of them now are spread around the teams in Edinburgh and beyond.

“Now we’re definitely a younger side. There’s a lot of youth. We’ve tried to get some experience in – we’ve brought in Rory Brand and Russell Anderson is there – but generally we’re looking at youngsters in the Borders to try and bring through and see what they think of the Super Series.”

The need to produce a winning team is clearly a key priority for Tait and his assistant coaches, but he is also well aware of the development role that the Series plays within Scottish rugby, forming a link between the clubs and the professional game. He has no problem with players who may decide after a short while with the Knights that they would rather revert to club level, but he believes that there are others who can definitely thrive at the Greenyards before graduating to the fully pro set-up elsewhere.

“To get anywhere in life you’ve got to have sacrifices, and I think the Super rugby is definitely a standard above the club stuff. Lads have got to put in extra work – they’ve got to do extra gym sessions and training sessions, the physicality is going through the roof.

“I’m looking at a level of player that can come into the Super Series and withstand it, because as I say, the demands are greater. You want players that you think are going to make that step up and make a difference.

“There’s not hundreds of them, as we know. But there are going to be gems. The Borders always produce good ones and I hope the Knights can be a step on that journey. Hopefully they see the stepping stone of the Knights and then carry on to professional rugby after that.

“I’ve had some of the guys put their hand up after the Sprint Series and say it was too much for them, and they’ve gone back to their clubs. I just thanked them for giving it a go. But it just shows what a step up it is from club rugby.”

Now 59, Tait initially joined the Knights as an assistant coach to Bruce Ruthven, focusing on defence – an aspect of the game that has been a key interest of his since his days as a professional in rugby league. Since taking over as head coach at the start of the year he has reshaped the back-room team, but still takes very much a hands-on role.

“I got involved because Bruce asked me to come on. I still love the defence and I still have that as my part of the training. And I’ve got Scotty Wight there, who has been a head coach and has been around the circuit a bit, and he loves it. Scott is really into coaching, he loves the attacking side, so he runs all the attack – I let him dip his feet in as much as he can.

Lewis Carmichael is a young coach who has been there – I’ve given him the role of forwards coach. Again, totally his role – I don’t interfere. Scrums, lineouts, all the forwards stuff – it’s his responsibility.

“They both seem to be enjoying it. We’re having good fun, the three of us together.”

Nearly a quarter of a century has elapsed since Tait was part of another group of three who had good fun – the Scotland midfield which also included Gregor Townsend and John Leslie and was a vital part of the team that won the last Five Nations in 1999. That is still the last time to date that the national side have won a major trophy, but the erstwhile outside centre believes that Townsend’s current team have a chance of emulating his side’s achievement.

“They’re very close. They’ve got quality, they’ve got depth – they’ve got strength in depth right through the team.

“I speak to Gregor regularly. He’s got good coaches in there. They’re not far away.

“Like everything, we’ll probably have a cycle unless we can uncover a few gems. Stuart Hogg has announced his retirement. I think when Finn Russell eventually goes, we’ll definitely need to replace him.

“And you’ll always have that – every side goes through transitions. But I think this group of players has probably got the best chance in the next three years to win something. Once they go over the hill, I just hope we’ve got more to come through who are as good as them guys.

“But I do think that with Finn at 10 – I’m his biggest fan, really – as long as he’s there we’ve got a chance of winning something big.”

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About Stuart Bathgate 1392 Articles
Stuart has been the rugby correspondent for both The Scotsman and The Herald, and was also The Scotsman’s chief sports writer for 14 years from 2000.

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