A VITAL stretch in this league campaign gets underway this weekend, with the next three weekends leading up to Christmas having the potential to make or break several teams’ play-off chances.
League leader Ayr have suffered something of a mid-season blip after losing two of their last three games, and they will recognise that a trip to Bridgehaugh to take on a youthful Stirling County side, who have shown real bite when on song this season, is another potential banana skin. Ayr had a week off last weekend because Dundee failed to raise a a team for their Cup clash, which could leave them slightly rusty or mean that they are absolutely raring to go. The return of club captain Pete McCallum from a knee injury is definitely a big boost.
Second placed Melrose host fifth placed Watsonians at The Greenyards. Last season’s champions have battled through a mini injury crisis and are now just one point off top spot with seven games of the regular season left. Both teams have been in good form in recent outings so this should be a cracker.
Third ranked Currie Chieftains know how tough a place Hawick is to go, especially at this time of the year, but with two Edinburgh rivals in Heriot’s and Watsonians both hot on their heals, they cannot afford another slip-up at Mansfield Park.
Fourth placed Heriot’s hammered Edinburgh Accies 12-71 at Raeburn Place at the start of the season. The two sides met again in the Cup at Goldenacre last weekend and it was much tighter, with the home side eventually edging it 29-20. A number of key men were rested for that game, but they have been recalled to the Heriot’s ranks for this clash, so Accies know they will have to be at the top of their game to avoid another painful mauling.
Boroughmuir broke Glasgow Hawks‘ hearts with a dramatic injury-time, match-winning try from skipper Johnny Matthews at Balgray back in September, so there will be a few scores to settle at Meggetland when these two sides renew acquaintances. Boroughmuir really need the win to keep alive their play-off chances. They are currently nine points shy of fourth place, and that could stretch to 14 points with just six games to go if results do not go their way this weekend.
HOW IT STANDS –
THE LOWDOWN –
MELROSE v WATSONIANS
VENUE: The Greenyards @ 2.00pm
Melrose: F Thomson; B Colvine, P Anderson,G Wood, I Sim; S Hutchison, M McAndrew; G Shiells, R Anderson, C Young, A Runciman, I Moody, N Irvine-Hess, R Darge, G Runciman©. Subs: R Ferguson, R McLeod, C Wilde, A Jardine, D Colvine.
Watsonians: J Rowland; A Chalmers, A Guthrie, D Innes, L MacPherson; L Millar, M Scott; G Jackson, R Graham, D Ferguson, H Fisher, C Borthwick©, J Miller, C Boyle, M Fedo. Subs: F Renwick, F Hobbis, G Nelson, E Fox R Hutton.
TEAM NEWS –
Melrose: Fraser Thomson returns after missing last Friday’s cup match when he failed a late fitness test on his back, and Bruce Colvine comes back onto the wing. Only one change in the pack with Angus Runciman returning from a hand injury to start in the second-row.
Watsonians: Greg Jackson, Ross Graham, Harry Fisher, Connor Boyle, Lee Millar and Andrew Chalmers all return to the starting team with Fraser Renwick, Finn Hobbis, Gregor Nelson, Ewan Fox and Rory Hutton reverting to the bench. Paul Cunningham drops to the 2nd XV, while Rory Steele and Charlie McKill are in Dubai playing rugby for Projecx Waterboys.
KEY BATTLE: Rory Darge versus Connor Boyle
WHAT THE COACHES SAY –
“Watsonians are a team in good form, having defeated both Stirling and Ayr away before an impressive home victory over city rivals Heriot’s, so they will be full of confidence. This weekend will require another huge effort from our squad and it is clear our attack will have to be accurate going up against Watsonian’s well organised defence …” – Rob Chrystie (Melrose)
“Melrose have demonstrated a killer instinct in recent weeks by grinding out the results when required. As we found out twice last year, the Greenyards is a difficult place to go. Therefore, we will need to bring a focused approach and plenty of energy in order to get what we desire from the game …” – Stevie Lawrie (Watsonians)
VERDICT: Watsonians are much improved since being badly out-gunned by Melrose at Myreside in September. Ross Graham will keep their scrum honest – but Charlie McKill will be a big miss, especially with Jamie Hodgson also away with Edinburgh. Rory Hutton’s demotion to the bench reflects the quality of their midfield backs – and Lee Millar is the most reliable goal kicker in the league.
Angus Runciman’s return for Melrose offsets James Head’s absence and they are now not far off full strength up front. They will be pleased that Fraser Thomson’s back troubles appear to be over – and they will be hoping that Struan Hutchison can keep up the good work at fly-half.
On paper this could go either way – but home advantage and an edge up front, particularly if they can get their driving maul working, will probably shade it towards Melrose.
Narrow home win.
VENUE: Goldenacre @ 2.00pm
Heriot’s: R McMichael; A Ball, R Jones©, D Steele, C Robertson; S Edwards, A Simmers; M Bouab, M Liness, S Cessford, C Jupp, A Sinclair, M Hughes, J McLean, R Leishman. Subs: A Johnstone, J Scott, C Marshall, S Dewar, C Lineen.
Edinburgh Accies: P Flood; C Gray, R Chalmers, W Stephen, R Kent; V Hart, M Love; M McGinley, C Black, C Imrie, R Seydak, R Lovett, M Badenhorst, J Sole©, L Seydak. Subs: R Jackson, C Taylor, N Stephen, M Sinclair, R Cameron.
TEAM NEWS –
Heriot’s: Michael Liness, Struan Cessford, Martin Hughes and Andrew Simmers all return to the starting XV after making an impression off the bench against the same oppositIon in the Cup last week, while Callum Marshall and Struan Dewar are available again and come onto the bench.
Edinburgh Accies: Concussions sustained by stand-off Richard Mill and inside-centre Richard Wilson allow Vincent Hart and Will Stephen to come back in. In the back-row, Lawrie Seydak returns having missed last week with a niggle picked up on international duty with Poland in place of Jack Mann who is ruled out with a dead leg.
KEY BATTLE: Michael Liness versus Callum Black
WHAT THE COACHES SAY –
“Last week’s performance [against Accies in the Cup] once again showed we have great fighting spirit but need to start better. We need to apply pressure better and for longer to give ourselves a foothold in the game from the first whistle. This is an area the boys recognise and will be hopeful of improving in the coming weeks, not just on Saturday. With our injury list beginning to ease, I hope the pressure for starting places will increase the intensity of all parts of our game …” – Phil Smith (Heriot’s)
“I think we were underestimated by Phil and Heriot’s last week and that was reflected in their selection and poor start when they were almost surprised that we came to play rugby. I don’t think we will be in for the same soft start this week and we need to adapt the way we play in anticipation for that. Heriot’s power game is there to see and we cannot allow ourselves to be sucked into that battle of attrition…” – Derek O’Riordan (Edinburgh Accies)
VERDICT: Accies gave Heriot’s a fright early doors in the Cup last week – but were eventually bulldozed out of it. This is, however, a much stronger looking Heriot’s squad, with a couple of big hitters coming off the bench. The only real question is whether Heriot’s will play to their potential and win the vital play-off points with a bit of style — or get lost up their own fundament yet again, and end up scrambling to keep their aspirations alive.
BOROUGHMUIR v GLASGOW HAWKS
VENUE: Meggetland @ 3.00pm
Boroughmuir: G Parker; J Hamilton, J Edmunds, M Hare, B Renton; G Cannie, M Johnston; R Dunbar, J Matthews©,R Montgomery, T Drennan, W Inglis, C Keddie, M Walker, J Steele. Subs: D Robertson, A Mncube, S Smith, C McDevitt, R Weersma.
Glasgow Hawks: J Henderson; J McCready, R Beattie, C Harrison, J Couper; R Thompson, K Baretto; G Strain©, A Fraser, L Skinner, F Hastie, A Kirkland, B Flockhart,G Wilson, G Adams. Subs: P Cairncross, C Wills, L Brims, P Boyer, C Symes.
TEAM NEWS –
Boroughmuir: The versatile Gavin Parker moves from the wing to full-back in place of the injured Craig Gossman. With Kerr Gossman, Will Wardlaw and Tom Wilson away in Dubai playing for the Waterboys, Jack Hamilton, Mark Hare and Ben Renton return to the three-quarter line. In the forwards, Matt Walker comes back in at open-side with Aubrey Mncube moving to the bench.
Glasgow Hawks: Josh Henderson returns to the club for the first time 18 months, with the Scotland Sevens squad member – who spent last season in France with Stade Nicois – coming in at full back. Another Hawks man who spent last season in the south of France, full-time Glasgow pro Bruce Flockhart, is the only change in the pack from last weekend’s Cup defeat at Stirling.
KEY BATTLE: Jordan Edmunds versus Bobby Beattie
WHAT THE COACHES SAY –
“Back to league action after a cracking Cup game last weekend – the players were bitterly disappointed losing that one and know this is going to another tough game. We have trained well and with home advantage we are looking for another good performance…” – Peter Wright (Boroughmuir)
“Back to league duties this Saturday and we cannot wait to get back into the fray. We have had a good week of training and this is a huge game for the club. We know how tight things are at the bottom of the league and we need to do our best to pick up some points, with the amount of effort that has gone in from players and management I know that our fortunes will change. Boroughmuir have X-factor throughout their squad and even with a few names not available they still have lots of quality throughout. We also haven’t forgotten the pain of our last minute defeat at home the last time we played …” – Fin Gillies (Glasgow Hawks)
VERDICT: Boroughmuir played very well against Melrose in the Cup last Friday night – and they won brilliantly against Currie Chieftains in their last home league match – but they are missing a few important faces – and Hawks have a couple of good young pros. On balance, Boroughmuir are still probably favourites.
STIRLING COUNTY v AYR
VENUE: Bridgehaugh @ 3.00pm
Stirling County: J Hope©; L Trotter, J Brogan, E Magarvie, C Dineen; P Jericevich C Turnbull; R Chies, A Orr, M Walker, J Pow, C Henderson, H Burr, R Bundy, A Mackie. Subs: B Robertson, A Nicol, S Yarrow, G Arnott, C Jardine.
Ayr: G Anderson; P Dewhirst, O Smith, D McCluskey, K Rowe; F Climo, H Warr; R Sayce, R Smith, S Longwell, D Corbenici, L Morrice, T Spinks, P McCallum©, B Macpherson. Subs: A McGuire, C Miller, A North, A Rademaker, S Lyle.
TEAM NEWS –
Stirling County: Cammy Henderson and Murphy Walker return to the starting pack with Adam Nicol ready to add some professional power from the bench. In the backs, injuries and unavailability have meant a reshuffle allowing Charlie Dineen and John Brogan to return to the side and the experienced Colin Turnbull to make his first start of the season. Peter Jericevich shuffles from scrum-half to stand-off in place of Andrew Goudie.
Ayr: Club captain Pete McCallum makes only his second appearance of an injury ravaged season so far, coming in at opensside flanker. New Zealander Lars Morrice – a former member of the Chiefs Super Rugby franchise development squad – makes his first start for the club in the second-row. Amir Rademaker returns to the squad after international duty with Holland.
KEY BATTLE: Murphy Walker versus Ruairidh Sayce
WHAT THE COACHES SAY –
“Our matches against Ayr at Bridgehaugh are always competitive and close fought affairs. Hopefully the poor weather will subside a bit to allow both teams to entertain what should be a vociferous crowd after selling out our annual Christmas lunch again.…” – Eddie Pollock (Stirling County)
“Stirling is a tough ground for visiting teams to travel to. They have some big forwards and exciting backs so we will have to be ready for the challenge that lies ahead. We have had to wait a while since our last game due to Dundee calling off, but we have managed to get some good work done on the training pitch and we will be looking to take this into the weekend and see a reaction from the Currie game …” – Peter Murchie (Ayr)
VERDICT: Stirling are without the influential Andrew Goudie at fly-half – and their prospects are closely linked to how Peter Jericevich copes when switching from scrum-half to breach the gap. Ayr will be desperate to get their show back on the road after their disappointment at Malleny a fortnight ago – and they look very strong up front. A big day socially at Bridgehaugh – but Ayr unlikely to be dispensing much Christmas cheer.
Comfortable away win.
HAWICK v CURRIE CHIEFTAINS
VENUE: Mansfield Park @ 3.00pm
Hawick: A Weir; R McKean, A Mitchell, G Walker, D Lightfoot; L Armstrong, G Welsh, S Muir©, M Carryer, N Little, D Lowrie, D Redpath, S Graham, D Davison, B McNeil. Subs: C Renwick, D Johnstone, S Fairbairn, K Brunton, A Nother.
Currie Chieftains: J Forbes; B Robbins, J Reynolds, R Nelson©, S Hamilton; G Hunter, R Frostwick; A McWilliam, F Scott©, M Argiro, V Wright, M Vernel, M Kelly, T Gordon, S McGinley. Subs: G Carson, R Patterson, R Davies, G Christie, A Hall.
TEAM NEWS –
Hawick: Youngster Ronan McKean gets a start on the wing, scrum-half Deaglan Lightfoot is on the other wing, with Gareth Welsh coming in to wear the number nine jersey. Dale Johnston comes straight into the squad after returning from a three-month trip to New Zealand.
Currie Chieftains: Thomas Gordon, Gregor Hunter, Robbie Nelson and Ben Robbins all come back into the starting XV after the squad was rotated for last week’s Cup game, and Graeme Carson returns on the bench. Matt Hooks and James McCaig miss out through injury, Adam Hall drops to the bench, and Chris Davies and Campbell Wilson drop out of the squad.
KEY BATTLE: Drew Davison versus Thomas Gordon
WHAT THE COACHES SAY –
“Another home game and after last week’s Border derby, and we need to build on that win over Gala to be effective against an excellent defensive side in Currie Chieftains. Home game are vital to gain points …” – George Graham (Hawick)
“A good first 30 minutes versus GHA last week before we lost our way a bit and did not value the ball enough. However, not conceding any points versus National One’s leading points scorers was very pleasing. We’ve had two really good defensive performances in a row now and this will be pivotal if we are to get a result away from home this weekend. Mansfield is never an easy place to go and especially at this time of year. They will be desperate to pick up some form and points before the Christmas break and I am sure George will have them fired up to put in a big performance this weekend …” – Ben Cairns (Currie Chieftains)
VERDICT: George Graham has indubitably made Hawick a much more difficult side to beat than they were when the Chieftains hammered them 42-7 at the start of the season. They have brought on some very exciting young players and Lee Armstrong has been outstanding – but there is a worrying lack of depth to their squad – particularly in the front-row.
Currie’s strength in midfield and the back-row should see them home – provided, of course, they do not allow themselves to be compromised by the ‘Mansfield factor’.