SOME players have the ability to grab a game by the scruff of the neck and shake it so vigorously that journalists prone to hyperbole can forget that anyone else is on the park. Others can have an equal (or greater) influence on the outcome of matches in a far more understated manner, by helping set the tone of a team’s overall approach – rarely hogging the headlines but working selflessly to create an environment which allows others to flourish. Heriot’s captain Rory Carmichael fits into this second category.
“He brings a calmness and togetherness to the group due to his standing within the club. For me, his appreciation of how I want the boys to play means he can deliver and back-up my messages, making us a one message group. He leads on and off the field which brings him respect and backing from all,” says Heriot’s head coach Phil Smith.
Carmichael shifts in his seat, slightly self-consciously, when this is put to him.
“I suppose Phil and I see the game the same way most of the time, but we have an environment where people are comfortable speaking up if they don’t agree with something he or I or anybody else is saying,” says the 31-year-old inside centre.
“But I think everybody here buys into the general theme that we want to play expansive rugby off the power play of an unbelievable pack. We think it is simple, and hopefully anyone coming into the side thinks it is simple, too.”
This basic game-plan was evident last Friday night, when Heriot’s took their time but eventually ground out a convincing victory over Watsonians under the lights at Myreside.
“We just had to wear them down. I wouldn’t say we were worried at half-time but we were very conscious that we’d had the ball for almost all of the first 40 minutes and not managed to break down their very solid defence. Fortunately, we managed to build a bit of territorial pressure in the second-half, when Stuart Edwards found his kicking boots and and started pinging it into the corners, and that eventually told,” says Carmichael, who is initially from Perth and is an energy consultant from 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday.
That Watsonians match could be used as a metaphor for Heriots’ overall season so far. They flattered to deceive in frustrating defeats to Stirling County at home and Marr away at the start of the campaign, but then regrouped and built up an impressive head of steam with a sequence of victories against Glasgow Hawks, Hawick and, of course, Watsonians.
“Last season we lost four out of our first six league games and if you look back over the five or six years I have been at the club, we’ve only once – the year we got the double [2015-16] – won our first match, so there was no panic,” is Carmichael’s typically pragmatic analysis.
“In the first game we put it down to our set-piece malfunctioning completely, whereas that is normally one of our strongest points, and in the second game we had a lot of pressure and the game was there to be won but little decisions went against us – so we knew the things that were letting us down were all fixable.”
“We didn’t, in all honesty, have much momentum coming into the season,” he acknowledges. “We had a pretty disjointed pre-season with a lot of boys – including myself – unavailable for our warm-up matches. So, the familiarity wasn’t there in the first few games and everyone was still buying into what we are trying to do, but now that understanding is there and we’re doing the basic things well. So hopefully we can build on that.”
Heriot’s have now risen to third in the table and after taking on struggling Boroughmuir at Goldenacre this weekend, they face four matches on the bounce against the teams they are most likely to be jockeying against for a play-off finish at the end of the campaign.
It starts with a trip to Millbrae to take on Ayr, then pace-setters Melrose arrive at Golcenacre, followed by Currie Chieftains at Malleny Park and finally Stirling County at Bridgehaugh.
All huge games, but Carmichael stresses that Boroughmuir first up must be the absolute focus for his side.
“They have threats right across the backline who will do serious damage if given half a chance. They’ve not had the best of starts but they got an important win last week, which will give them a bit of belief, and we know they will come out firing against us because even at this early stage it looks like every point is going to count at that end of the table,” he says.
Carmichael was recovering from a knee reconstruction when Heriot’s defeated Melrose in the first ever play-off Grand Final at Goldenacre at the end of the 2014-15 season, and that kept him out for almost all of the following campaign as the club marched to a league and cup double.
He did return to wear the number ten jersey against Currie in the play-off semi-final, but did not make the cut for either of the finals. So, from the outside looking in, he was not the most obvious choice to take over the captaincy when Jack Turley headed off to England before the start of last season.
“It was a little bit of a surprise but I suppose I am older than all the other guys now,” he shrugs. “We lost five or six of our most senior players the year after we won the double so somebody had to step into the role.”
Heriot’s failed to make the play-offs last year by the narrowest of margins but are currently on course to put that right this year. Making the top four, however, is clearly not the full extent of the club’s ambitions for this season.
“We did lose some important characters after winning the double, but if you look at the guys who have come in – like Michael Maltman, Jack McLean and Callum Marshall – these guys are all as good as anyone, if not the best in their position, in the whole league. What wasn’t there last year was the familiarity of playing with each other. This season we’ve got a massive opportunity because we’ve got the same group of guys as last year, with a sprinkling of two or three other guys who really add value to the squad,” says the skipper.
Full-back Ross Jones [from Stirling County] and winger Craig Robertson [from Gala] have added bite in the back three, while second-row Adam Sinclair [also from Stirling County] brings bulk and aggression to the pack so long as he can keep his focus.
The biggest boost, however, is the return of Turley, who missed the first few games but immediately showed the value he can add to the team with a hat-trick off the bench against Hawick a fortnight ago and then another try when starting at number eight against Watsonians last Friday – although he misses this weekend’s match because he is at a wedding.
“The guys coming in want to win trophies and they see that Heriot’s have that attitude where we want to enjoy ourselves but are also well within our rights to expect to win every game we play,” concludes Carmichael.
There has been a lot of chat about Melrose being on an unstoppable roll, but this is more of an endurance test than a sprint and the Borderers should be wary of their old rivals from Goldeancre sneaking up on the inside rail.