TURNING professional is the great ambition of every young rugby player, but some of the star attractions on show when the new RBS Premiership season kicks off today are proof that it does not suit everyone.
Fraser Thomson will captain Melrose for the first time against Heriot’s as they open a campaign they hope to end by regaining the championship trophy taken from them by Ayr last season. He is only 24, yet the pro door seems to have closed on the fair-haired flyer from Galashiels, and through his choice.
Thomson was earmarked for stardom as a teenager, his pace and angles of running leaving defenders clutching at ghosts, but he dropped out of the SRU academy system frustrated with the pressures of increasing college work, academy fitness, strength and conditioning and skills training, and the decreasing amount of time to play rugby with his home club Gala. At that time many young players were not allowed to actually play, as the SRU focused on increasing strength and fitness.
After moving to Melrose and becoming a consistent club star, Thomson was given a second chance last summer when Gregor Townsend stepped in to offer his fellow Galalean a one-year contract on an apprentice’s Elite Development Player (EDP) salary, but with the challenge to prove himself worthy of a full-time pro deal.
He duly did that to the point that he was voted Glasgow’s “EDP of the Year” and was offered a full-time contract likely to be worth more than double last season’s salary. But he could not find a way past Stuart Hogg and Peter Murchie, enjoying just three appearances, and that bothered him. When Townsend called him in to offer a new pro deal, Thomson decided it was not for him.
“My contract finished in May and I had the chance of getting my old job back down here [tax office in Galashiels],” he explained. “When I stopped and thought about it I realised that as much as I liked being a pro the enjoyment really came from playing for Melrose.
“It might sound like I’m not ambitious, and I did think pro rugby was for me, but a big part of playing rugby is, actually, playing rugby and I just felt that to be playing for Melrose every week, competing for titles, with a steady job was not that bad a deal.
“I really enjoyed being part of the Glasgow set-up and the boys were all great,” he stressed. “Gregor gave me a great opportunity and I was grateful to him, and I think I did pretty well in the few games I played. I wanted to play more, of course, but Glasgow have a very competitive squad, especially in the backs, with about 12 or 13 players who can all step in, and most are internationalists.
“I enjoyed competing with Stuart and Peter, and I learned a lot from them, even though Stuart’s younger than me. But I need to play and the thing is I don’t see this as a massive drop.
“The club game in Scotland now, compared to when I first started playing at 17, is stronger and more competitive and I can’t wait to get going.” Those comments will be like music to the ears of club coaches across the land who continue to lobby the SRU for more investment in the Premiership, to help clubs appoint full-time coaches and firm it up as a stronger nursery to the pro and Test arena for players and coaches. Today, we will see countless skilful youngsters making their debuts in various leagues and, like older talents, using these games to push their case for a pro step-up.
Having come from the club game himself, Townsend welcomes that and is forging stronger links with clubs, but some also fear suggestions of new Glasgow and Edinburgh reserve teams geared to give more pros, like Thomson last season, more game time.
Club rugby, however, is not merely a stepping stone, but also an attractive part of Scottish sport in its own right, one that enthuses more people in more corners of the country more regularly than two pro teams can.
Ayr kick off today as kings of Scotland, and the league and cup winners are not planning to relinquish the crown. The Ayrshire club strengthened in the summer and will again be the team everyone is gunning for from today. Graeme Young’s nicely-building Stirling County squad are first to take up the challenge of dethroning the lads from the west.
Strange scheduling of fixtures by the SRU have all three Border clubs home and away mostly on the same weekends, which has not been welcomed by the many in the rugby-daft region, particularly older supporters and families, who do not travel but prefer to go to the biggest game of the day in the area, irrespective of who is hosting it.
Today they have a surfeit of choice as, a few miles from Melrose, Gala kick off at home to Currie, with the Maroons’ youthful team gaining maturity, and stand-off David O’Hagan from Musselburgh a promising replacement for Lee Millar, while Hawick welcome Aberdeen to Mansfield hoping to launch their return to the Premiership with a green brand of fireworks against a Dons side now under Kevin Wyness and potentially stronger than it has ever been.
The capital has an enticing inter-city derby, with Jonny Else’s Edinburgh Accies facing the promoted Glasgow Hawks, talk of the new Raeburn Place stadium dropping to the back-burner as on-field action returns.
But the same question remains: who can challenge Ayr? Thomson is hopeful that Melrose’s disappointment of missing out on a top-four place and British & Irish Cup spot – Accies make their debut this season – will give them the chance.
“That was a big disappointment for us,” he said, “but now it might play into our hands. Ayr benefited from not having that last season, so if we can keep our squad fit and push on with new guys coming in, then maybe we can take advantage of the four teams trying to compete in two competitions.
“Don’t get me wrong, we’ve played in the B&I Cup almost every year since it started and we’d rather be there because those six games are great for the club and for raising the levels of players, but at one point last season we needed six or seven pros to help us out because of injuries.
“Squad depth is not what it is at pro club level, so fingers crossed we can stay fit and take advantage this season, but it’s going to be very tough, with lots of close games, and I think will go to the wire. But that’s exciting isn’t it? That’s why I came back.”