CURRIE CHIEFTAINS finished second in the Premiership last season and have made the play-offs in each of the four years the knock-out format has been in operation. Four members of their squad have been handed full-time SRU contracts ahead of the upcoming campaign (Luke Crosbie and Charlie Shiel with Edinburgh, Ratu Tagive with Glasgow Warriors and Harvey Elms with Scotland 7s), two more (Cameron Hutchison and Hamish Bain) have been sent to play in the third tier of French club rugby as part of the SRU’s bizarre link-up with Stade Nicois, and James Gordon has signed a partnership deal with Glasgow Warriors.
Head coach Ben Cairns counted 11 individuals who were, or are, part of the Malleny Park set-up in the Edinburgh and Glasgow Warriors squads for the pro teams’ opening pre-season matches nine days ago.
They are clearly doing something right in terms of player development and creating a winning culture, so it was a bitter pill to swallow back in early May when the Chieftains were told that a secretive selection process had identified three Edinburgh clubs to take on Super 6 franchises and that they were not one of them.
The club has made its dissatisfaction abundantly clear at committee level, but the relentless roll of the seasons means that there is no time for head coach Ben Cairns and his squad to concern themselves too deeply with the debate over how the domestic game should be reconfigured from next season onwards – save from using the snub as a motivating factor as they set about taking the step from nearly-men to champions in this last year of the Premiership.
“Some of what is going to happen in a year’s time has been taken out of our hands, but what we can concentrate on as a squad is what we concentrate on every year, which is being the best amateur club – or whatever you want to call it – in Scotland,” says Cairns.
“We felt we should have been a Super 6 team – the rugby side of it speaks for itself – so now it is a case of going out there and showing that again. We’re definitely using that as motivation.
“Our aim at the start of every season is always the same, which is to finish in the top four and secure a play-off slot. We really want a home semi-final which means finishing in the top two, and we’d rather finish first and get a home final.”
No time to stand still
Bold words, but Cairns and his team have surely earned the right to believe in themselves. They toppled both of last year’s play-off finalists – Melrose and Ayr – during the regular season, and the club has been working quietly away at plugging the gaps in the squad to ensure that they can mount another serious challenge this year.
“We’re pretty happy with what we’ve recruited,” says Cairns. “We’ve got 11 boys coming in who are capable of playing 1stXV rugby. Time will tell how quickly they get up to speed, and how much the difference is between a Hamish Bain not being there and a Cal Hope (from Western Districts in Australia) or Marc Kelly (from Young Munster) coming in.
“The other part for us will be the balance of how often we get our first-year pros. If we get a Luke Crosbie or a Charlie Shiel or a Thomas Gordon most weeks then we’ll be really strong, but if we don’t get them then its dependent on how quickly these new recruits adapt.”
In the backline: former Glasgow pro stand-off Gregor Hunter has arrived from Gala; utility-back Joe Reynolds, who has been training with Glasgow this summer and got game time in their hit-out against Harlequins, has joined from Counties Manakau in New Zealand; Scotland Under-18 scrum-half Roan Frostwick has signed from North Berwick; half-back Chris Davies, brother of Chieftains number eight Rhys, is back in Edinburgh for a year on a university work placement; and stage two academy prospect Adam Hall (a centre) has moved from Melrose in the hope of getting more 1stXV exposure.
“We’ve got good depth in our backline with some really experienced guys coming in like Gregor and Joe, who will be massive for us,” says Cairns. “Add them to Ben Robbins, Jamie Forbes and our captain Robbie Nelson, then chuck in a Charlie Shiel every so often, and we should do some damage.”
“But one of the big issues for us has been the size of our pack,” he continues. “We have been dominated a little bit at times, which means we have not been able to get the speed of ball we need to compete against the physicality and size of the opposition. So, it is about how much we concentrate on getting better at the things we’re not good at, and how much we concentrate on the things that we are really good at. If we can produce really quick ball, then we eliminate a lot of the physical factors where we have struggled in the past.”
Cairns expects the set-piece to be bolstered by the arrival of three props. Fraser Watt and Reece Patterson have re-joined the club from Marr and North Berwick respectively, while Argentinean Jose Matias Sonzogni Argiro has been recruited from FC Auch Gers in France. With Hope and Kelly adding firepower to the back two rows of the scrum, Cairns is quietly confident of his pack holding their own.
“The key to us is going to be starting well because I think the second half of the season almost takes care of itself,” he says. “We’ll get stronger and stronger, that’s something we’re pretty good at, that consistency during the tough months, we stick together really well and tend not to have boys going away on ski holidays.”
There has also been a bit of movement coach-wise. Former Currie playmaker Andrew Binikos has come in to oversee defence and the backs, which has freed Cairns up to take more of an oversight role.
“With me taking defence, attack and backs, I never really got to see how it all looked because I was in there dealing with the details the whole time. It is nice to be able to stand back, or go and watch the forwards to see what they are up to,” the head coach explains.
“Andrew picked up a wealth of experience both as a player at Currie, and as a coach with Musselburgh and Cyprus, before setting up and managing the Sharks academy in Super Rugby. He is now coming back to Edinburgh as director of rugby at Loretto and it is great to have him on board. The boys have instant respect for him on the basis of what he did as a player at the club and the type of guy he is.”
Cairns has been pretty heavily linked with taking on the head coach job at the Stirling County SUPER 6 franchise, but given that the clubs have still not signed their franchises contracts with the SRU, it is premature to start regarding that as a foregone conclusion.
“It is all speculation,” he insists. “I’d be speculating if I was to talk about it as well. Nothing is set in stone so there is no point. We just have to wait and see what happens – and I think that’s the same for every club and all the individuals involved, it is a case of waiting to see what unravels.”
In the meantime, Cairns and his Chieftains have more immediate matters to deal with. First up is Boroughmuir at Malleny Park on Saturday.