HERIOT’S BLUES MEN (Club XV) play Gala at Netherdale on Saturday afternoon in a match which will almost certainly decide the winner of the National League One title and determine promotion into the Premiership next season. The Blues 2nd XV claimed the National Reserve League crown after beating GHA in the East v West play-off last Saturday. So, the pressure is now really on the club’s Super6 franchise to start delivering when they kick-off their Sprint campaign with a home tie against Southern Knights on Saturday afternoon [4.30pm kick-off].
Andy Kelly’s side ended up finishing last in the 2021 Super6 campaign after losing their 5th/6th place play-off against Boroughmuir Bears. It was a disappointing outcome but the head coach insists that it wasn’t cause to press the panic button.
“Last year definitely had its challenges,” reflects the former Edinburgh and Scotland A hooker, who returned from living and coaching in Hong Kong to take over the reins at Goldenacre just before Covid turned the world on its head. “Getting to know the guys and keep them all engaged during multiple lockdowns was tricky. Then going into that short burst of games, it was tough trying to fix issues when you have games coming so thick and fast.”
Several members of last season’s squad have moved on, including the retired Callum Marshall and the Stirling County bound Adam Sinclair, but Kelly feels like has been able to keep the nucleus of last season’s squad together while filling the gaps with a combination internal promotion and external recruitment.
Back-rows Callum Anderson and Lewis Govenlock, second-row Sean Johnstone and centre/wing Zack Smith are among six players who have stepped up from the Blues squad, prop Ewan McLaren, scrum-half Murdo McAndrew, centre Nyle Godsmark and winger Sam Pecqueur have made the switch from Southern Knights, and winger Gregor Tait has arrived from Musselburgh after being top try-scorer in the recently completed Premiership season.
“There has been some turnover, but that has given us a chance to reassess and think again about where we need to strengthen and I think we’ve done that,” adds Kelly, who was named back-row/second-row stalwart Ruairidh Leishman as the team’s captain.
“We’ve had a core of guys who have been with us since we started our pre-season in February, and the under-20s guys have dropped in and out to try to keep in touch with what is happening although they were obviously focussed on their Six Nations.
“Now we’ve got everyone in and the atmosphere is really good – we’re just looking forward to getting started.”
Stuart Edwards is another Goldenacre stalwart who will not be pulling on a strip this season, but he will be very much involved as attack/backs coach.
“He’s come in with some really great ideas and I think the players have responded to that,” enthuses Kelly. “His energy and how he wants to attack has really created a buzz amongst the boys.
“He’s been coaching for ages [as Head of Rugby at Stewart’s Melville College] and he’s done lots of national age-group stuff, and I think it helps that he knows the players. It is good to have that perspective from being a player last season coming into the coaching team, he knows where there are some areas we maybe dropped the ball as management and coaches.
Kelly will also have the 1990 Grand Slam hero, former Glasgow Warriors head coach and erstwhile Scottish Rugby age-grade guru Sean Lineen to lean on after he was unveiled as the club’s new ‘Head of Rugby Development’ last month.
“He’s been really laidback about it,” explained Kelly, when asked how that relationship is working. “He said from the start that he is there to offer advice, so we’ve met for coffees and had really open conversations about rugby, the squad and how we want to play.
“He has been an excellent sounding board. With his wealth of knowledge, you can pick up so much from just having a quick chat.
“He’s also been down to training most nights to have a look at what we’re doing, and he’s not been obtrusive in any way. He’s just there as a sounding board, which is great.”
The team has had a couple of pre-season hit-outs against Boroughmuir Bears and a Newcastle Falcons A team ahead of their campaign kicking off this weekend.
“You try and prepare all the areas you can, make sure you are organised and everyone is on the same page, do all your fitness and conditioning work, and we’ll really find out this week where we really are,” concludes Kelly.