NEWLY promoted clubs invariably find the Premiership tough going, and Edinburgh Accies are realistic enough to know they are unlikely to be an exception. They took the National 1 title in style last season, winning all but one of their games, many by huge margins, and the morale boost from that campaign will stand them in good stead this season. But, having missed out on a Super 6 franchise, they are at a disadvantage when it comes to recruiting, and know that they will give away a lot in bulk compared to some of their rivals.
The coaching team, led by Derek O’Riordan, have a strategy to counteract that deficit, and are confident that if they find consistency they can give as good as they get in most games. The underlying aim at the club, however, is to look beyond this last season of the Premiership, and concentrate on building a squad that can go on to dominate the new-look Championship when it kicks off below Super 6 this time next year.
“To my mind, the Premiership is a nonentity for us, because Super 6 looms round the corner,” O’Riordan explained. “I like to think that I’m the eternal pragmatist as well as being the eternal optimist, so for me this season is about building a squad and a system that will enable us to win the Championship in its first year.
“If we do really well in the Premiership on the back of that, that’s great, but it’s just part of the process of building a Championship-winning side. We want to be winning that amateur league year on year. We want to build something pretty consistent and perpetual in terms of performances.
“Yes, it’s great to come into the Premiership and say you’re going to do great things, but the reality is it’s an attritional league where you need a lot of size and depth. Not getting Super 6 has impacted on our ability to create that depth, so we need to play the same rugby that we played to win Nat 1. But it’s going to be hard when you’re up against big boys who’ve got quite a lot of nous and experience in that league week in, week out.
“It’s great doing it in one-off games, as we did against Heriot’s in the cup last year, but we really need to step up to where we’re doing it week in, week out. We recognise it’s going to be a fairly big challenge, so we’re not going to make any big bold statements about what we’re going to do in the Premiership. For me it’s a long-term thing: it’s about the Championship the year after, and being successful the year after that and the year after that.”
One advantage that Accies have as they look ahead a few years is that they have already been working to a long-term plan on and off the field for some time. The long-mooted redevelopment of Raeburn Place is due to be nearing completion around this time next year, while Riordan, his assistant Iain Berthinussen and their team of specialist coaches have been making steady progress with their squad since taking up the reins.
They missed out on promotion on the final day of the 2016-17 season, losing out in the Premiership play-off to Hawick. They addressed that setback by adding some experience, principally in the shape of half-backs Sam Johnson and Richard Mill, and reaped their reward by pipping Jed-Forest to the title in the spring.
“I love it here,” O’Riordan continued. “I wouldn’t want to coach anywhere else right now, and for me we’ve built something I like to think fairly robust and fairly special at the club. When Bertie and I took over in October three years ago it was on a downward slump: they’d been relegated from the Premiership and we were down around the bottom in Nat One and pretty much had to start again.
“This is pretty much our baby in terms of what we’ve achieved so far, not just as coaches but as players. I just want to see that through, and for me that means winning the Championship in its first year and then trying to build perpetual success on the back of that.”
Adapting to life outside Super 6
The head coach has strengthened his squad again for the coming campaign, but acknowledged that the fact three other capital clubs will be in Super 6 has made it tougher than he would like to sign certain players. “You only need to look at where the academy boys have decided to align themselves to. We tried to get Rufus [McLean], and we tried to get Jack Blain and a couple of others, and their heads are turned by Super 6 clubs straightaway. You look at Boroughmuir and how well they’ve recruited on the back of Super 6, and historically they’ve not been the best recruiters in the world.
“I think players are losing their minds a little bit when Super 6 isn’t here yet. They’ve got to be playing in the shop window – that is, the Premiership week in, week out – and you’ve just got to think how much rugby these guys are actually going to be playing when they’ve gravitated towards the big three in Edinburgh.
“But for us it’s a good thing as well, because we can build a fairly decent squad of players here over the next two, three years without having to worry too much about what reasons people have for coming here. The people that are here at Accies are here for the right reasons, not necessarily because of the Super 6 tag.
“We’ve definitely added some depth. I’d like to think we’ve been pretty shrewd in the draft, picking guys who will add a bit of quality to what we’ve got. But physically we’re not the biggest side in the world, and when you look at the side that Boroughmuir put out against us [in a pre-season friendly], for example, we were probably giving up six or seven kilos a player in the pack. When you times that by eight, it stacks up.
“And when you look at some of the back lines, they’re fairly heavily stacked in the back three and their centres, and then you know it’s going to be a hard day at the office on the gain line for sure.”
There may be games, particularly once the pitches get heavier, when Accies are simply undone by such a physical disadvantage. But when the footing is firm, it is not always the heavier side which wins a catchweight contest, and O’Riordan trusts his players will have the wisdom and creativity to get the better of some of their bulkier opponents.
“We’ve got a brand of rugby that we like to think is fairly high tempo. We don’t play to a structure, which is fairly difficult to defend against. We give the guys a lot of freedom – we’ve got a couple of launch plays that we run, but we give the guys a licence to play what they see. I’d like to think that we’ve got 15 boys that can all play rugby and read a game pretty well. Fingers crossed it gets us through some of the games.”