SOME might call Hawick’s 73-10 defeat to Currie Chieftains in their final pre-season outing at Malleny Park on Saturday a wake-up call, but George Graham does not tend to go in for such bland banalities.
“I’d call it a kick in the arse,” he states. “That’s certainly the way I’m going to approach it when we sit down and speak to the players. We need to iron things out and make sure that they are made aware of what is expected of them because last Saturday is certainly not what I expect from this group.
“We were going not too badly in our build-up to the season until that point,” he continues. “We had a not bad performance against Mowden Park when we shifted a lot of points [losing 28-66] but I thought we approached the game in the right way, then we had a really good training tournament when we played well in two 40 minute games against Tynedale and Currie showing good shape in attack and defence, but then it fell apart when we played Currie again last week.
“They had a lot of their frontline players back and they were very strong. I think they could be a force to be reckoned with if they can sort their set-piece out – they’ve got a very, very exciting backline – and we need to be ready to cope with that.
“I think it has brought everyone back down to earth a wee bit, and it has given us a few home truths that we have to look at. There’s a lot of things to sort out between now and playing Melrose on Saturday but I’m hoping it is a bit of a blip because we had a few people missing.”
One of the missing men is captain Shawn Muir, who has a broken hand and is targeting a return to action in round three when – as luck would have it – the Borderers are back at Malleny Park to face the Chieftains.
The talismanic Bruce McNeil also missed last weekend due to farming commitments but has done all of pre-season and is raring to go.
“That pair are very important to us. They are really dynamic around the park. They are leaders, not just because of what they say, but more importantly because of what they do,” says Graham. “But that’s no excuse. We weren’t good enough on Saturday and the boys have to get used to the fact that over the season you are not going to have your strongest team out every week. These guys missing games should be an opportunity for someone else to come in and make that jersey their own.”
Hawick were in dire straits when Graham got involved as assistant coach to Darren Cunningham last September. They had lost their first three league games of the 2017-18 season, and it did not pick up immediately after his arrival, with the Borderers suffering a humiliating 70-7 loss at Heriot’s in his first game involved.
By mid-October, Hawick were still winless after seven league outings and had suffered another heavy defeat in the capital, this time to fellow strugglers Boroughmuir, when the decision was made to give the former Scotland prop full authority over the team.
Turning the tide
Eventually, the tide turned, and Hawick won six of their last eight matches in the league, climbing off the foot of the table and even managing to avoid the relegation play-off with a victory over Melrose at Mansfield Park in their final game of the season.
“They were a broken team when I took over,” reflects Graham. “We didn’t change anything drastically in terms of how we wanted to play the game from what Darren had put in place, we just streamlined it. What it was really about was giving them confidence, saying to them that they were not that bad a team and that they had the ability to do a lot better. It was about dragging that belief out of them.
“We’re still a work in progress but I have high hopes for the boys. We finished last season very, very well and I think we’ve been bolstered by a few decent players coming in – we just need to make sure we get everybody pushing in the right direction.
“We’ve seen in flashes what they can do, so that hopefully feeds their belief and helps them do those positive things more often.
“We’re certainly not the strongest team when we play away from home, which is fairly well documented. So, we need to try and change that, and it is mainly about your mental approach and attitude to what you are trying to do. You need to stick to the things that you know will work, which sounds simple but isn’t if you are not in the habit of winning those sorts of games.”
Graham, who was a physical training instructor in the Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders before becoming a professional rugby player, also believes that improving the team’s fitness this summer will be key to any progress Hawick make in the season ahead.
“That was something I identified when I took over. I brought in David Cowan, who actually used to play for the club, as strength and conditioning coach, and he’s done really well with the guys,” he explains.
“We’ve maybe worked a wee bit longer during pre-season than we should have done on fitness, but my philosophy is that no matter how good a player you are, if you aren’t fit enough then we’re not going to see the best of you.
“So, I’m happy with the with the way things are going in terms of fitness, it’s just a few other things we have to sort out before they make me really happy … which will be no mean feat!”
Even the brusque Graham will surely manage to flash a smile this Saturday if his team are able to follow up their victory over Melrose at the end of last season with another success over their Border rivals in this season’s Tennent’s Premiership curtain-raiser. The champions have had a fair bit of player churn this summer and fell some way short of the high standards we have come to expect from them when losing to Stirling County in the Charity Shield last Saturday.
Graham insists his players have nothing to fear, but he knows it will take a huge effort to get a result in what promises to be a typically ferocious Border derby.
“If you need any more motivation than the fact that you are playing Melrose at Mansfield then you’re probably in the wrong game,” is his typically curt analysis. “We know it wasn’t Melrose’s strongest team last time we met, but you can only play what is put in front of you, and we did that pretty convincingly.
“That loss to Stirling at the weekend will be a bit of a shock to them, and it will be interesting to see how they respond – but there is definitely an opportunity there.
“If you want to topple the champions, then the start of the season is probably the best time to catch them.
“I’m not really focussing on what Melrose bring to the party, to be honest, I’m trying to get my own party in order right now.”