THE Southern Knights are the only Super6 team whose name is entirely separate to their parent club, but make no mistake, the formula which has brought Melrose so much success over the past few decades will still have a vital role to play in the new competition. Rob Chrystie, for one, will make sure of that.
The head coach has graduated from the club side, taking 17 of his players with him into the Knights squad to provide a strong element of continuity from previous years. At the same time, however, it is important to Chrystie and his colleagues that they emphasise the fact this is a fresh competition with a new, semi-professional squad. The fact that a 3G pitch has been installed at the Greenyards may be the most visible example of that, but Chrystie also hopes that heightened playing standards and in time a wide support will also reflect the changes.
“There’s been a big focus on changing the Greenyards, changing the facilities, changing within the club as well,” he said. “So there’s a new area for the Southern Knights guys to come in and feel it’s a step up, a different level. I believe the feedback that we’ve had from the players is that’s what we’re feeling, so that’s been good. Then ultimately it’s important that we create something that excites people to come into as well, that excites people who have aspirations to push on with their rugby. Hopefully through time more and more of these young players in the Borders will actually come through.”
Another hope is that the appeal of the Knights will extend throughout the region. Spectators from other parts of the Borders have always favoured their own local teams over Melrose, but Chrystie and the management behind the scenes hope that such differences will disappear as everyone gets behind the Knights. If that happens, the new franchise may just take on the mantle of the old South of Scotland representative side and of the Border Reivers, who had two spells as one of Scottish Rugby’s professional sides.
“We’ve had two professional teams in the area before, which unfortunately have come and gone, so this is the next level for folk to get behind,” Chrystie said. “Players and management have got a responsibility to create something for them to come and support. That’s the hard work: we need to excite people to come and watch something that they can buy into and feel a little bit of ownership. That’s going to take time: there’s no doubts about that. Again, once we see younger players coming through, hopefully that will help.”
Something else that will help is the opportunity Chrystie has been given to concentrate fully on coaching instead of dividing his energies between rugby and his job at Edinburgh College. Of course, besides being able to commit himself fully to the Southern Knights, he expects his players to adopt the same attitude.
“I’m not having to juggle two jobs now, so that’s nice,” he explained. “I’ve got a year out from Edinburgh College, so I’ll be able to put a little more time into it, and planning has been a lot more – trying to get more detail into it without overloading the boys, because they’re still only training as a full squad, once the season is up and running, twice a week. It’s important that I don’t try and change too much, because overloading them is the worry. We’re asking more of the players and of the management, so we are trying to push the standards up.
“We’ve been pretty fortunate in our club, in that we’ve had a good culture within our playing groups and they’ve always known they’ve had to work hard to get into the Melrose side. In relation to that, nothing’s changed, but with the standards coming up, players know they have to do more: if they’re not where they need to be, they’re not going to get picked.
“I asked 18 players from last season’s Melrose squad to join the Southern Knights, and 17 agreed to do it. The 18th showed an appetite to do it, but he just felt physically he couldn’t do it any more – he’d been through a lot and he’s got a very manual job. It wasn’t a decision he took easily, he just felt he couldn’t make the commitment that he believed was required.
“I think the 17 who have stayed with us were ready for a change. They’d done a lot as a group over the last three seasons and were ready for a new challenge. They had a nice long break from rugby over the summer and have definitely come back in refreshed.
“It’s really exciting times. There’s a lot of change at the Greenyards, it’s a new competition, and the players are refreshed so hopefully we’ll see that on the pitch.”
Not only is there a new team at the Greenyards and a new pitch for them to play on, there is a new logo on the jerseys of the Melrose club side who are playing in National One – the charity My Name’5 Doddie. Doddie Weir, who announced in 2017 that he has Motor Neuron Disease, played from Melrose between 1991 and 1995. The shirt sponsorship has been made possible by a donor who wishes to remain anonymous.
“We are eternally grateful to our generous donor,” Melrose director of rugby Mike Dalgetty said. “Doddie is a hugely admired and much-loved personality on the world rugby stage. He is and always will be a son of Melrose Rugby, so we’re delighted to be able to help him raise awareness for his MND charity.