Super Series Sprint: all roads lead to Millbrae for Neil Irvine-Hess and Watsonians

Qualification to 1st/2nd place play-off is on the line in final clash of the regular season

Neil Irvine-Hess is looking forward to the Super Series Sprint run in. Image: Graham Gaw
Neil Irvine-Hess is looking forward to the Super Series Sprint run in. Image: Graham Gaw

MATCHES against Ayr and the Ayrshire Bulls have been significant moments in Neil Irvine-Hess’ career – and he is preparing for another important meeting with them on Friday evening.

Now 28, the back-rower spent his first year of senior rugby with Watsonians in National One in 2013-14 before joining Melrose in 2014-15, and Ayr pipped Melrose to the Premiership title in 2016-17, before the Borderers, with Irvine-Hess at six, gained revenge by winning the Scottish Cup final between the two sides 23-18 to end that campaign.

With Super6 having come into being in 2019-20, Irvine-Hess helped the Southern Knights defeat the Bulls 29-20 in the Championship at Millbrae, the No.8 scoring a first half try before a shoulder injury forced him off just after the break. Then, in the 2021 Championship he helped the Knights beat the Bulls 22-20 at The Greenyards, but suffered a serious knee injury in the process which meant that he missed the rest of that campaign. And, in the 2022 Championship final, Irvine-Hess came off the bench to help Watsonians defeat the Bulls 43-24 after extra-time and lift the trophy.

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Fast forward to the current day and second placed Watsonians will be at Millbrae on Friday taking on Bulls, who are top of the standings, in the final round of regular season Super Series Sprint action for 2023. The clash will decide who makes it to the play-off final next weekend and Irvine-Hess said:  “I have certainly had a fair few battles against Ayr and the Ayrshire Bulls over the years and these are the kinds of games as a player I like to play in.

“When I was with Melrose, ourselves and Ayr were two of the top club sides in the country and the matches were always keenly fought and that has continued with the advent of Super6/Super Series rugby.

“With the Knights and now Watsonians I have had some good matches against the Bulls and last year’s Championship final will live long in the memory because both teams really gave it everything.

“We are looking forward to heading through to Millbrae on Friday and we know that it is an important game. The Bulls pride themselves on their home record, but we have to embrace the challenge and hopefully we can play as we know we can and can get the result that we need.”

So, how did Irvine-Hess end up back at Myreside last summer to sign up with Watsonians ahead of the 2022 Championship, almost a decade on from making the switch to The Greenyards?

“After the injury I suffered in 2021 and then leaving the Knights at the end of that campaign I did fleetingly think about stopping playing altogether,” explained Irvine-Hess, who now works as a financial systems analyst.

“That was my second serious knee injury while I’d also had a shoulder injury and various other issues which kept seeming to end my seasons.

“However, I was on holiday in Mallorca around this time last year and I was streaming a Sprint game on my phone and was watching my old Melrose and Knights team mate Iain Moody still doing well at that level.

“It got me thinking that I still had plenty to offer, so Iain put me in touch with [then head coach] Fergus Pringle at Watsonians and I got involved ahead of the Championship.

“It was one of the best decisions I have made because I joined a squad with a great culture and a winning mentality which led to us coming out on top in the final.

“I enjoyed being back at Myreside again playing for the home team in the first time in a number of years while a good amount of game-time allowed me to get back to peak fitness. Thankfully, I have managed to take that into this Sprint season and I’m feeling as good as I ever have.

“We have obviously had a change of head coach, but Stevie Scott is a very experienced coach with an impressive CV, so it has been good working with him so far.”

Watsonians have won three, lost one and drawn one so far in the Sprint and a number of injuries to key personnel have hampered their progress slightly.

“Injuries are just part and parcel of rugby at this level, especially in a short, sharp competition like this,” the former Scotland under-20 cap and Edinburgh Rugby elite development player said. “The whole squad needs to play their part and opportunities have arisen for a few new members of the group like George Pringle who has grabbed it with both hands

“And the young players in the squad have been brilliant, it is quite scary how young they are! Teenagers like Jack Brown, Hector Patterson and Ben Riley are so keen to learn and they definitely have positive futures ahead.

“For guys still at school or just coming out of school, starting senior rugby at Super Series level may be a bit daunting at first, but it is such a great opportunity for them and they are proving that they are ready to play at this level.

“It will only help them being around a part-time professional environment and the Super Series is definitely a step up from club rugby.

“We have two big weeks coming up in the Sprint, but for now all we are focusing on is the Ayrshire Bulls game.”

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About Gary Heatly 354 Articles
Gary has loved rugby ever since he can remember and since 2004 he has covered the sport and others in a professional capacity for many publications and websites and runs his own company, GH Media.

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