THESE are tough times for the Southern Knights Super6 franchise, with last weekend’s 62-12 demolition at the hands of Ayrshire Bulls bringing into sharp focus the vulnerability of a young squad which lost nine key players to other franchises during the winter break, plus over half dozen more who either retired or returned to the club game.
It was their fourth defeat on the bounce since this Super6 Sprint series kicked off last month, but Rob Moffat – the former Edinburgh and Melrose head coach who has shared the Director of Rugby role at The Greenyards with Colin Meager since the summer of 2020 – insists that he has a ‘glass-half-full’ view of the team’s current predicament.
He doesn’t pretend that everything in the garden is at full bloom. Finance is bound to be a concern after Covid put paid to two money-spinning Sevens tournaments, and much work needs to be done to foster support for [or at least reduce opposition to] the Knights concept both in Melrose and among the wider Borders rugby community, but the ever-optimistic Moffat believes that the tide can be turned.
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“It is interesting times … and that was a tough one to take,” Moffat acknowledges, with brilliant understatement, when asked to reflect on last Saturday’s defeat. “We did lose a few players [during the winter break] and the squad is probably younger than we want it to be, but the way we’re looking at it is that we are here to develop players. While nobody wants so see results like that because it doesn’t help anybody, we’ve got belief that these young guys can learn from their experiences and come back stronger.
“It sounds like an excuse, but there was a lot of boys not involved against the Bulls – we had about a dozen players out – so we were really lightweight and young,” he adds. “In the three weeks before that, we didn’t win but there wasn’t much in it. So, I think circumstances were against us, and that could happen again because we don’t have the experience there that we could call upon last season, which means if we lose two or three of our senior guys then it gets very difficult fairly quickly.
“I’ll also point out that we came up against a good Ayrshire Bulls side who played very well on the day. We have to take our medicine and come back stronger against Boroughmuir Bears next weekend – although there are no easy games in this league.”
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Of the Knights match-day squad which faced the Bulls in last year’s final, tight-head prop Euan McLaren (gone to Heriot’s), loose-head prop Shaun Gunn (Watsonians), second-row Angus Runciman (Melrose Club XV), No 8 Iain Moody (Watsonians), scrum-halves Murdo McAndrew (Heriot’s) and Cam Jones (Ayrshire Bulls), stand-off Jason Baggott (Watsonians), centre Nyle Godsmark (Heriot’s), winger Sam Pecqueur (Heriot’s) and replacement winger/centre Andrew Mitchell (Hawick) are no longer involved.
With injuries, suspensions and other unavailabilities accounting for second-rows Dan Suddon and Dalton Redpath, back-rows Allan Ferrie and Harry Borthwick, and full-back Jacob Henry, there was only seven of the 22 Knights who took the field in that final at the DAM Health Stadium available for last Saturday’s match against the same opposition [Patrick Anderson, Billy Wara, Cameron Scott, Grant Shiells, Fraser Renwick, Russell Anderson and Ruairidh Knott].
Moffat concedes that a lack of clarity on how the future was going to look was the key driver behind the pre-tournament exodus of players, but stresses that stopping to take stock at that point was the responsible approach.
“I think the players will tell you that they weren’t happy with how the club handled it,” he says. “When [former head coach] Rob Chrystie left, we didn’t want to put a squad together before we got a coach in, and the club was thinking: ‘Where are we here financially?’ So, we wanted to think seriously about whether we could do this, and obviously that was unsettling for the players, but it is a reflection of where we were at that time – and I think that was the right thing to do.
“We didn’t take long to go through the process – the financial guys went right through everything, and we came up with a plan – but we lost 10 or 12 players. We offered them contracts on virtually what they were on before, but they’d had that period of uncertainty and made the decision to go elsewhere.
“Good luck to them – that’s the modern game – I’m not going to criticise anyone for doing what is best for their career. It has made life tough this year but I’m a glass-half-full kind of guy so I see it as a great opportunity. We’re here to develop players to go to the next level and having 60 to 70 percent of our squad aged 22 or under means there is a lot of guys there who can do that.”
Onwards and upwards, Moffat says the club has come out of that period of introspection reassured that they are doing the right thing.
“We would do it again,” he confirms. “I remember when it [Super6] was first brought up, I wasn’t actively involved with the club at the time, but they asked me and a few other old worthies along to find out what we thought, and straight away I said: ‘If Super6 is there then we want to be in it’. That’s the mentality at this club: we want to be the best we can be, playing at the highest level we can.”
There has, however, been a change of philosophy towards more of a ‘one-club’ approach incorporating the youth section, the club sides and the Super6 entity, which seems like a sensible first step towards giving the new structure real roots.
Moffat acknowledges that getting buy-in from the wider Borders rugby community is a much bigger – and more complicated – challenge, and believes that actions are going to speak louder than words on this front.
“I’ll speak to anybody, but I’m not going to lose sleep over it and I’m not going to waste my energy going over the same old conversations,” he shrugs. “There are good people at every Borders club, and we know that they are working like hell to keep their club going so I respect that’s their whole focus, but what I’m about is the player.
“Andrew Mitchell is a good example. I don’t think he was handled well, and I think it’s a damned shame if that means the door is now closed for him to test himself at a higher level. If he wants to play the next 10 years for Hawick in the Premiership then that’s fair enough, because it is a good standard and he’ll be a great player for them, but he’s the kind of guy who we should be looking at and pushing to see how far he can go.
“One of the criticisms of Super6 in general is that there is a lot of boys not playing, but that won’t happen here. There is no way Southern Knights will put out their best team every week, and that’s a difficult one because the punters want to see their team at their best every week. But that’s not what we’re here to do. That wasn’t in the original document for Super6. So, any young player who is here will play. He’ll not be sitting on the bench or in the stand. Some might not cut it, but they’ll all get a chance
“The other thing I’ll say is that we aren’t looking to grab players without communicating with his club to say: ‘We rate this guy and we’d like to give him an opportunity’. And if someone from Selkirk comes to Southern Knights and it doesn’t work out, then Melrose shouldn’t be looking to keep him, he should be heading back to Philiphaugh. It has to be a two-way process.
“Similarly, if the best Southern Knights player this year is good enough then we’ll be pushing him on, and if Edinburgh or Glasgow don’t want him then we’ll be looking at a Championship side down south or a team in France, because that’s what it’s about … giving players opportunities.”
First things first, a Boroughmuir Bears team buzzing after their first win of the season away to Stirling County in their most recent outing will host the Knights next Friday night. A win won’t exorcise the demons of last weekend’s painful drubbing, but it might begin the process.
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As you’d expect from a former Melrosian with such a commendable background in rugby at all levels, Rob Moffat is a true gentleman and a fine bloke who is doing his best to hold it all together at the Greenyards. That said, he has a big job on his hands right now, and whatever his personal views, is quite understandably presenting the position in the best possible light…
Weezall is absolutely correct to infer that “something” (not unconnected with S6 / SK’s plus various strategic & personnel changes at the top) has gone dramatically wrong behind the scenes in Melrose rugby – otherwise the numerous former club officials, players and indeed once loyal long-term Melrose supporters or major sponsors wouldn’t have pulled away in droves, disenchanted by what many of them have confided to me as changes in strategy, operations and culture imposed by the club’s management “new brooms”…. Part of the problem may lie in the area of communications, where many members and supporters feel inadequately informed as to what is going on amidst several recent changes – e.g. the apparently clandestine dissolution on 8 March of the separate wholly-owned limited liability company created by the club to operate its S6 franchise (intended to protect the core club from financial reverses in S6). No-one around the rank & file of supporters or members appears to know anything about that, but most of them have a lot to say about the unpalatable evolution of the famous Sevens tournament, a “nouvelle cuisine” dish served cold for which few if any have the slightest appetite!
From what I have been told, it is unclear where to begin in all of this, or indeed how it might end – but a good few Melrose traditionalists I know are standing back in the expectation that they may at some future point be called upon to return in support of a Glasgow Rangers-type “phoenix” re-building of their club…..
I still believe the solution is a third ( and maybe fourth ) Pro
side – there may be a vacancy in the URC with
Wales likely to drop a Pro side and in order to get maximum
financial gain I would locate it in London .
At the same time we should do more in enhancing our national club rugby through financing better coaching , training , ground and clubhouse facilities.
The SRU is in the best financial position it has been for years and should have £70m of new funding from 2019 to
2024 from Scottish Gov money and CVC investment in the
SRU share of the 6 Nations and URC
Dream on, Lefty!
Rather loose with the language today David.
The term franchise was dropped some time ago. As this has a number of legal requirements between the franchise provider and franchisee. I understand the term used now is licence.
How very magnanimous of Rob to say that they don’t want to keep a Selkirk player in their club side if it didn’t work out in S6.
We have fundamental problem with lack of players in the mens leagues. Taking nearly 200 players out of that set up doesn’t sound like a way to grow the game. As Rangi says if that same investment was made into the club game would we achieve more?
District rugby?!? What are you smoking Rangi. Season is already long enough for players, we don’t need a representative competition which clubs and players don’t support (clubs didn’t support its implementation this season or did you forget that bit). A district competition would be 6 games maximum, how on earth does that give players prolonged exposure to higher level rugby. Super6 isn’t perfect but full time coaches and season long exposure to a better level of rugby will drive up standards. Not some flash in the pan representative competition which we tried to get to work a decade ago. It didn’t work.
You seem to be able to opine on a load of stuff that you have absolutely no experience of including playing in the Premiership and playing district rugby. It’s like Boris telling us about a cost of living crisis.
I have no idea who you are Steven and it is clear from your response that that is mutual.
As for your initial comments. A district championship was never attempted a decade ago. The clubs did overwhelmingly support the reintroduction of a district competition as part of the season structure review and it will be initiated this coming season. A district competition plus club season would be 24 games long. A significant number of players involved in the current S6 Sprint have just completed a league season with their clubs.
Super 6 isn’t perfect, on that we agree. The degree to which it is imperfect appears to be where we differ.
Have to ask yourself why so many key players left ? Seams like something went wrong behind the scenes. 12 guys at once would cripple any super 6 team. Sad to see from a club that are known for looking after their players. Not a good look.
Not a good look at all, Weezall, not least because an entire coaching team flew the Greenyards coop for a different set of problems a couple of miles up the road! Clearly, Melrose rugby’s inability to retain players on updated contracts was due to finance, or more accurately, the lack of financial wherewithal preventing fresh commitments going forward.
Consequently, the most obvious area for attention could be finance, mostly because of significant accumulated losses attributable to S6 / SK’s. From a peek inside the club accounts, it appears most likely that the former chairman’s £8K loan was dropped in a couple of years ago under emergency conditions to keep the Melrose vessel afloat, as was the £50K Covid survival bank loan, obtained under a Government guarantee.
The reality is that Melrose is not alone amongst franchisees (or licencees) in finding the heat in the S6 kitchen so extreme that it runs the risk of burning not only cash but most of the good things that may occasionally lie in its vicinity! No wonder the SRU has been at pains to disguise from Member Clubs the true amount of funding and extra / emergency financial and other support the Governing Body has been throwing at the CEO’s ill-conceived “back of the envelope” high-risk wet dream.
Yep – as Moff had suggested, “interesting times”. Wise words!
If Scottish Rugby were instead to put the same level of resource into promoting and supporting the club game, we would achieve a significant uplift in standard whilst resolving most of the associated issues with S6, including how to get game time for players who aren’t selected. If we were to replace the “Sprint” part of the season with an Inter-District championship, with all of its history and heritage and buy in from across the club game, you have a formula that combines club/district for driving up the standard at which our best club players are being exposed, without the division caused by S6. I appreciate that there is a need for those clubs involved in S6 to make the best of the situation that we all have had forced upon us, but for me it makes more sense to transition to a model that works rather ploughing more and more resource into something that was fundamentally flawed from the start. The division that exists both between clubs and within clubs thanks to S6 is neither healthy nor necessary. There can be a way forward that works to the benefit of the club game and the performance department, if we are prepared to accept that things need to change. This may not be something that Mark Dodson and others will readily accept, but the game as a whole is what’s important here.
Border rugby fans are a funny breed..I include myself in that. They and the Melrose supporters identify the Southern Nights as Melrose RFC, unlike the South team off years ago where all borderers would follow the team home and away because we all identified as being South people, this will never happen as long as the Nights are based at the greenyards and identify as Melrose..bring back the inter districts
Bring back the Districts, we hear the people clamour….
Will be remembered as Dodson’s ‘Folly ‘ when it all goes tilts up .
I’ll conceived .pushed through by a man who doesn’t care about grass roots rugby only himself.