Always a highlight of the rugby calendar, this evening’s Brewin Dolphin Cup finals on the international pitch at Murrayfield look set to maintain the quality of competition that has made them such enjoyable occasions in past seasons.
Certainly the under-18 final (kick-off 7.45pm), bringing together Merchiston and last season’s beaten finalists, George Watson’s College, is one that promises to be a thrilling contest between two sides undefeated in Scotland this season.
Arguably, Merchiston have not really been tested en route to the final but the Colinton school has counterbalanced that with a number of fixtures outwith the Cup.
Merchiston director of rugby James Boyd said: “We’ve had a number of challenging games this season, which have prepared the boys well.
“Probably the best one was against Durham School. They came to Merchiston with an unbeaten record in the north of England but we managed to draw 24-24 with them. That was a great test for us,” added Boyd, who coached Oxford University to their 2008 Varsity Match win over Cambridge.
Merchiston also played at the St Joseph’s tournament in Ipswich in October, a competition that draws together many of the top schools in the UK.
Their fourth-place finish in Ipswich, along with joint first at the Tyndedale tournament at the beginning of the season, and a hard game against Cumbria’s Sedbergh School have all provided important experience.
For the final tonight, they will be without influential scrum half Hugh Fraser, who broke his collarbone in his side’s 33-0 semi-final defeat of Dundee High School at Mayfield. His place has gone to the promising Doug Crawford.
Boyd recognises that, despite Merchiston’s outstanding performances this season, his side still face a big challenge against Watson’s team which is physically well-equipped for this level of rugby. He said: “They have a very decent-sized forward pack. We’re very wary of their potential in that area and we know, too, that they have genuine pace in the back three.”
Merchiston also have a useful pack and a polished performer at No 8 in Magnus Bradbury, who has represented Scotland under-17s over the past two seasons. Against them, however, will be an experienced Watson’s pack, led from the second row by skipper Matt Poole and containing flanker Neil Irvine-Hess, who played at lock for Scotland under-18 last season.
Also adding a physical presence at No 8 is Ally Miller, who, like flanker Jake Kerr, played in last season’s winning under-16 Cup side.
The Watson’s back three will features aspiring 400m runner Ben Robbins on the wing and full-back Chris Cash, who returns to the side after missing the semi-final against Stewart’s-Melville College. That match resulted in a close win for Watson’s and, as Ally Donaldson, Watson’s director of rugby, conceded, provided his side with a useful lesson.
“We learned a lot from the game at Inverleith, most notably how to handle pressure. We know Merchiston are a side of real quality. What might help us is that half of the side played in the final at Murrayfield last year and many of the others played in the under-16 final. But, really, it’s about whoever gets it right on the night,” said Donaldson.
In the under-16 final (kick-off 6pm), Merchiston face Strathallan, who will be making a first Cup final appearance at any level. That says much for Strathallan, who, under director of rugby Andy Henderson, are now producing some skilful players.
Merchiston, however, will go into the under-16 game knowing that they have already defeated Strathallan, having won 17-3 at Forgandenny earlier this month. “The boys know, however, that it’s not job done,” cautioned Boyd.
MERCHISTON U18: G Parker; J Barton, P Kelly, H Slater, M Flett; A Ibbetson, D Crawford; S Usada, A O’Riordan, J Gibson, H Turner, A Sinclair, A Wauchope, B Flett, M Bradbury. Subs: D Voas, J Chan, D Cox, C Coutts, M Craig, D Balfour, C MacLean.
GEORGE WATSON’S COLLEGE U18: C Cash; J MacDonald, F McKay, C MacBeth, B Robbins; A Hastings, J Bedford; M Gillespie, H Campbell, D Berezford, W Brown, M Poole, N Irvine-Hess, J Kerr, A Miller. Subs: L Di Rollo, E Irvine, A Watts, P Halliday, F McMillen, C McLauchlin, C McMillen.
STRATHALLAN U16: C Nicol; J Rutherford, H Tyson, C Holborn, H Thomson; J Henderson, P Rumble; R Muir, J Waller, H Manos, F Buchan, A Ramos, C Hirst, J Burdett, G Meiklem. Subs: L Steele, M Chan, S Taylor, W Dallas, F Stewart, D Cook, C Gordon.
MERCHISTON U16: J Gillan; A Ogilvy, T Harvey, T Bissett, A White; F Ellison, D Nutton; G Tarr, H Burn, J Lascelles, S Richardson, A Middleton, J Maran, B Kenderdine, K MacCormick. Subs: A Evans, T Henderson, M Oliver, J McDonald, L Baird, H Ellis, L Tang.