IF the last Super6 campaign had been a sprint series, like the one which is about to kick off on Friday, that would have been ideal for Watsonians.
The Myreside men fired out of the blocks with four wins from their first five games (carrying on the fine form which had seen them finish top of the table during the inaugural campaign before Covid kiboshed the play-offs), to be the league’s pace-setters at the halfway stage.
However, a fairly dramatic dip in form – which was at least partially linked to some bad luck with player injuries and departures – saw Watsonians go off the boil, losing four out of their five matches in the second half of the campaign. They did manage to hold on to third in the table, then beat Stirling County at home in the 3rd/4th place play-off, but that couldn’t disguise the fact that a season which started with such promise had fizzled out.
“We were disappointed not to make the final,” reflects Fergus Pringle, their understated head coach. “We had a bad run of games when we lost four in a row, and we lost Lee Millar [their captain and stand-off who had played every minute of every match of that inaugural season] in the second round for the rest of the campaign, and a few other guys either picked up injuries or pro contracts. But, to be fair, the teams we played against were better on the day, and that’s all that really matters.
“I think we definitely learned a lot from last season, we’ve gone away and looked at the areas where we need to improve in order to grow as a team, and hopefully we can introduce some of those things for this season.”
Millar is back from that ruptured bicep but will face competition for the No 10 jersey from former Edinburgh pro Jason Baggott, who is one of three Southern Knights to have made the switch to Myreside, alongside No 8 Iain Moody and prop Shaun Gunn.
Academy hooker Patrick Harrison has also been redeployed from Knights for Watsonians (to fill the gap created by Ross Graham dropping out of Super6 to play for Hawick in the Premiership), with back-row Rudi Brown headed in the opposite direction.
Meanwhile, three players have made the slightly shorter trip from Malleny Park to Myreside, in the shape of Gregor Scougall (the Scotland Under-20s tight-head who went to George Watson’s College), Ryan Daly (a teenage winger who also went to the school) and Joe Reynolds (who had a spell with Watsonians last season as long-term injury cover).
Another new face is Seb Cecil, a Scottish qualified No 6 who can also play in the middle-row. “He initially signed for us in 2020 after playing well for Nottingham in the Championship, then when that Sprint series was called off due to Covid he moved to play in France, then had a spell playing for Sale FC [the semi-professional side playing in National League One],” explains Pringle. “He’s come up now and we can see from his performances in the pre-season games that he’ll be an important player for us.”
“We’ve also got a young guy called Rory Brand, who is a Scottish qualified No 9 who has come up from London Irish,” he adds.
The return of winger Angus Guthrie, who missed all of the last campaign after picking up an injury during pre-season, feels like a new signing. In all, there are nine new faces this season in what Pringle regards as a fairly settled squad.
“We’ve only got four academy players and a squad of 31 at the moment because Matt Currie has gone full-time pro,” he explains. “Harvey Elms has gone back to the sevens, and Reiss Cullen has also picked up a sevens deal, which is a great story because he is a Scottish guy who has come back up the road from Doncaster and always said that he would love to get involved in the sevens set-up – it was almost like his goal for coming back up – and it is great he has got that opportunity off the back of Super6.
Meanwhile, powerful No 8 Sam Daly has signed a contract at Doncaster Knights.
“The main focus for us is developing as a group off the pitch and then developing how we play on the pitch,” adds Pringle. “The sprint comp is an opportunity for us to do that.
“We focussed last season on having a strong set-piece and sound defence, so we have those foundations in place, but the attacking side of our game is something we want to develop a little bit.
“It’s a long season ahead of us [the Super6 ‘Championship’ kicks off in August] and it hasn’t happened before, so I think you’ve got to look at the whole year and say: what do we want to achieve and how are we going to get there? For us, that’s about giving guys opportunities to play during the Sprint series, trying out combinations and trying to develop the whole squad.
“We want to bring young players through to the next level – we want to be a stepping stone – and there won’t be many Super6 clubs have had as many young guys come through them to go pro, if you look at Connor Boyle, Jamie Hodgson, Ben Muncaster, Sam Grahamslaw and so on.
“But we also want to develop as a club ourselves and be successful, to build some sustainability. I look back over the last 10 or 12 years at clubs like Ayr, Melrose and Heriot’s, who have consistently won trophies and stayed competitive, when Watsonians haven’t. So, while we want to be an attractive option for players who want to progress to the next level, we also want to develop a good, solid foundation structure here at Myreside for the club, so that we can be successful every year.”
Pringle points out that it can’t be an either/or scenario between developing players and building long-term success.
“You don’t want to become an under-20 team because these kids don’t have the experience of fronting up week after week, you need the older guys there for the young ones to lean on and learn off. But you also don’t want it to be all seasoned pros, because these young players bring a lot and help push up the standards. It’s that balance we are looking for,” he reasons.
Richard Snedden and Nikki Walker will once again assist Pringle, while former Glasgow Warriors and Scotland tight-head Ed Kalman – who is now a physics teacher and coach at Strathallan – has come on board to help with scrummaging.