THERE are several reasons for seeing Saturday’s RBS Cup final between Melrose and Ayr as the end of an era.
Most will focus on Craig Chalmers, who is heading to England, but, as well as their coach, it could be the final curtain call for Melrose’s most influential player of the last decade.
John Dalziel may have to put his boots on one more time for the final of the Border League a week on Wednesday but even his endless enthusiasm for the game runs a little thin and he concedes that the “right result” at Murrayfield will probably signal the end of the road.
At the age of 36, Dalziel has finally decided to concentrate on a promising coaching career that has been quietly going on, he points out, in tandem with playing. Ever since the Borders professional team folded in 2007, Dalziel has been coaching the Melrose forwards as well as leading from the front on the field itself. Chalmers has already moved south to take over at Chinnor RFC in Oxfordshire and, while he’ll be back for the final, Dalziel has already been promoted to head coach for next season.
He hopes it will be a launchpad for a move into professional coaching, despite his predecessor’s longstanding frustration, and Dalziel points out that his role as the Scotland U20s forwards coach means that he has some of the required experience.
“The 20s squad are in camp for the whole Six Nations and then the World Championships, which are in France this summer. That means almost four months of full-time coaching. It’s as close as you can get to the full-time professional experience.”
Dalziel is one of several up-and-coming Scottish coaches who should eventually wean us off the imported variety. He is undoubtedly smarter than your average bear and earned respect when the Scotland age grade forwards proved highly competitive in the shadow Six Nations.
But, had he moved south when the Borders folded in 2007, things might have been very different. “Funnily enough, I had just signed a three-year deal with Exeter in the English second division. I was all set to head south when I discovered that my wife was pregnant and I was offered a great business opportunity by my brother-in-law who was starting up a new company. At the age of 30 I just thought that it was better to concentrate on my career rather than my rugby. The day my original contract with Exeter expired was the very day that they were promoted to England’s Premier League so I sometimes wonder how that would have turned out. Still, I have no regrets. I am passionate about club rugby and I am pleased to have given something back to Melrose.”
Seven years, to be exact, of almost unbroken service. After years of being “bulletproof” a broken collarbone disrupted last season, not once but twice. Astonishingly, that was the only serious injury Dalziel had ever suffered which, considering the way he mixes it on the field, is testament to his durability. There were times when, especially in those early years, Dalziel appeared to be a one-man team. He’d win the lineout, carry the ball into the heart of the defence a couple of times before popping up to score the try. It was just as well he didn’t kick the conversions. He recalls those days as trying times for both Melrose and Borders rugby. “It was difficult,” says Dalziel. “We lost a lot of boys and it seemed as if the city clubs were just getting stronger. Melrose were mid-table when I joined and Hawick were usually near the bottom and Gala had just dropped into the third division.
“George [Graham] has done great things at Gala and he is probably two years into the journey that Craig [Chalmers] and I made with Melrose. I think we finished fourth in our first year but there is talent in the Borders if you know where to look. A year later we were third and we finally won the league twice in succession in 2011 and 2012. We have also been in five cup finals in the last six years [including Saturday’s showdown], although we have only won one of them [against Heriot’s back in 2008].”
Two of those losses came against this year’s opponents Ayr, who seem to have a hex on the Borderers. Ayr won at a canter in 2010 and triumphed over Melrose again in 2011 although, according to the player/coach, that win only came courtesy of Melrose not being given a perfectly good try that was not seen by the match officials.
“Ayr do seem to have a jinx on us when it comes to the cup final,” Dalziel concedes. “But both of the last two we were involved in were very close. In the second one there was one score in it and we had a try disallowed under the posts.
“I felt that Melrose had the better rugby players in those games but Ayr used their big men like ‘Skippy’ [Damien Kelly] to play a very direct, muscular brand of rugby. They also killed us at the breakdown, where we weren’t able to get any quick ball. Things have changed now and both sides want to play expansive rugby so it will probably go down to efficiency with the ball – who executes the best.
“Anything can happen in the cup final but we have guys who have played in enough of them to know that there is no point in coming second. It’s a great day but things can turn sour on the final whistle as most of our guys know from experience. The players will want to send Craig south on a high.”
Melrose will also want to usher in his replacement with a win.