AS dissatisfied as Peter Wright was with how last season panned out for Boroughmuir, it was the response of one of his star players to another campaign spent scrabbling desperately to escape the relegation zone which provided the impetus to a summer of frenetic activity in the recruitment market.
The arrival at Meggetland of Rory Drummond from Watsonians, Archie Russell [brother of Scotland star Finn] from Cambridge University [formerly of Ayr], Kerr Gossman from Stirling County, Tom Wilson from Heriot’s, Jack Steele from Glasgow Hawks and William Wardlaw from Howe of Fife, among others, has transformed Boroughmuir – at least on paper – from relegation battlers to potential Premiership contenders.
“The catalyst was Jordan Edmunds. He was approached by another club in the Premiership – which isn’t new, it has happened the last few years and he has always stayed with us – but this time he was definitely going to go because he believed we lacked ambition,” explains Wright. “I think when we sat down with him, and he made that statement, it got us all to re-evaluate ourselves and where we want to be.”
There is, of course, a world of difference between wanting to be better, and being able to do something about it.
“We’re fortunate that sponsors have fronted up and helped us out in a number of ways,” agrees Wright. “That, along with Stevie Douglas’ ambition as president, and the vision of going down the Super 6 route, has allowed us to be pretty successful on the recruitment front.”
Old school values
But it is not all about money and ambition, Wright reckons the club’s commitment to traditional rugby values was also an important selling tool.
“We’ve got two years to go until our centenary and there is a big focus on having the club in a really healthy place for that – which means things like participation, fun, touring and making new friends – all the sorts of stuff us older guys got to do in our day but we don’t do anymore.
“When I was at Boroughmuir as a player we always had games against English, Irish and Welsh teams on international weekends and it was a great experience, but we are so insular now and we don’t offer that to young guys, which is a real shame. So, part of our sales pitch to players was that we want to go on a major tour abroad, and we’re going to try and pick up fixtures against the English, Irish and Welsh teams we used to play against for our centenary year – which is going to be difficult because we are trying to fit everything into a tight season but the ambition is there to do that.
“A weekend over at Blackrock College in Dublin, or down at Maesteg or West Hartlepool – when you played hard rugby against different opposition then had a bit of fun and created a few memories – is a life experience which used to be one of the great things about rugby. We talk about falling player numbers, but maybe if we were a bit better at remembering that it is supposed to be about fun, then young guys might be more interested in staying involved.”
Wright is now on a roll, so it is best just to leave the recorder running and let him get on with it. His focus returns to Boroughmuir.
“I think we’ve got the best facilities in the country. We’re one of the best rugby clubs. The whole place has as a real positivity,” he enthuses. “Usually when you are trying to get a player to come to your club you meet secretly at some hotel or bar, but we were actively trying to get guys to come down to our club to show them what we’ve got. We think that is one of our unique selling points. It’s a good place to be, it’s a good atmosphere, it’s a sports club not just a rugby club so you’ve got a lot of traffic coming through it every single day, from footballers, to hockey players, to rowers, to cricketers, to rugby guys – it is a pretty vibrant place. Somebody told me that there are 40 different teams playing regularly at Meggetland – that’s what it should be about!”
A lot of the new faces at Boroughmuir this season play regularly for Projecx Waterboys, the touring sevens team which is owned and run by Alistair Munro, a Dubai-based Scottish businessman who is a key sponsor of the club.
Munro has ruffled a few feathers in the Premiership in recent seasons for taking players off to tournaments across the globe, and Wright makes no bones of the fact that Boroughmuir’s willingness to accommodate mid-season breaks was key to getting the recruits on board.
“I know that was one of the reasons we got some of these players: the clubs they have come from had promised that they would be released and they weren’t – whereas we were happy to say: ‘If that’s what you want to do then we’ll accept that as part of the deal’. We don’t own the players. They are human beings and they ultimately do it for fun.
“Do you remember that word? Nobody in senior rugby talks about fun anymore!
“So, some of them have been guaranteed release to the Dubai Sevens [29th November to 1st December] as part of the deal, and a few of them are playing in Barbados the following week. Our attitude was that having them for 19 games out of 20 and allowing them to go play one sevens tournament, was better than not having them at all.
“At the end of the day, the guys are amateurs. Okay, all the players are signed to an agreement, but ultimately that is just a bit of paper which they can walk away from, and so can we.
“Can you really begrudge a 22-year-old guy wanting to go to Dubai to play in a high-level rugby tournament? As I said earlier, we don’t tour anymore – and that’s a big loss to the game. Where would you rather be on 1st December? In the sunshine of Dubai or up to your knees in mud at Meggetland? For one game out of 20 … what’s the issue?
“And its only for this season – that won’t happen in Super 6, if these guys make that level,” he adds.
The Shiel effect
There is a lot of speculation at the moment about the identity of the Super 6 coaches. Wright has already ruled himself out of the Boroughmuir job, knowing full well that he has been around the block too many time, and stepped on too many sensitive Murrayfield toes, to be considered a credible candidate. He will continue to work with the amateur ‘club XV’ (how much crossover there is with the new ‘part-time professional franchise’ remains to be seen).
The appointment of Graham Shiel as attack coach for this season puts the former Scotland centre well into the frame for the Super job, although Scotland Under-18s / Scottish Rugby Academy coach Iain Monaghan has also, it is understood, been interviewed for the role. For once, Wright keeps his powder dry on which way the club might go – preferring instead to discuss the qualities Shiel will bring to the team this season.
“We spoke to Sheesh [Shiel] and asked if this was something he would be allowed to do [by his SRU employers]. He made enquiries and said that he would be able to, so we interviewed and took it from there.
“He’s been coaching kids for a good part of his career and it is slightly different working with adults, but he’s brought a new perspective and outlook. He was a really positive player himself – he wasn’t one of those guys who would tuck it under his arm and bosh it up, he was a nice footballer – so he is bringing that to training and to our attack game-plan.
“The important thing is that the players have really bought into that – they believe in it. Along with the quality we have brought in, the players who were already here have improved. Although they have been knackered after the couple of warm-up games we’ve had because there is so much running, they have really enjoyed it.”
So, can Boroughmuir really be contenders in this final year of the Premiership?
“We’ve given ourselves a chance,” says Wright. “Bringing in the likes of Will Wardlaw, Archie Russell and Rory Drummond will give us another attacking edge. Young Aaron Purewal is back from a knee injury and he’s a really promising player, Jordan Edmunds is as sharp as ever and Chris Laidlaw is a class act.
“But you’ve got to win possession by getting your set-piece and breakdown right. Aubrey Mncube is playing out his skin at the moment in the back-row. Hopefully we’ll get big Callum Atkinson – who is an academy player but has been getting game time with Edinburgh this last fortnight – back in the second-row.
“In the front-row, Johnny Matthews is as good a hooker is there is in this league, Ross Dunbar needs to put his injury problems behind him, and Dan Winning will be back from his ACL injury in November. We ended up with three fit props last season, and Dale Robertson and Tom Gracie battled away heroically for us. They are good guys, there are perhaps better props in the league but the commitment and work-ethic of that pair is exceptional. They will never let us down.
An uneven playing field
“The big factor for me is going to be the pro players. All the Edinburgh aligned clubs got eight or nine and the Glasgow clubs got 13 or 14. That’s ludicrous – absolutely ludicrous.
“We know we just have to get on with it, and we will, but it’s wrong and there was a very easy way of correcting that by aligning five clubs to each pro team – we were happy to go from Edinburgh to Glasgow – but the logic was that there is only an average of one player per game released so it doesn’t matter. Well, averages are bullshit because if you look at Glasgow Hawks last year, they did well until mid-October when they were getting four or five players released each week, and after that they were getting nobody released and they ended up getting almost relegated. So, of course it matters.
“That frustrates me because we’ve worked really hard to recruit guys from the club game to make ourselves stronger and we could go in against Currie Chieftains next week with no pros and they could have five, six or seven, because there is no differential [in the number of pro players allowed in a match day squad] now.”
The great thing about Wright is his indefatigability. If something hacks him off then he will not hesitate in having his voice heard, and he has burned a few bridges over the years as a consequence, but then he’ll shrug it off and battle on regardless. So it would be wrong to finish this interview with him complaining about the pro player allocation.
“The style of rugby we are going to play will be good to watch,” he boasts. “Even in the crappy weather we are going to play a bit of rugby rather than tuck it up the jumper and try to bore the opposition to death. We’re going to go out there and put on a show.”