Gala’s 1999 epic battle against Melrose packed a punch
Ex-Netherdale forward Dalziel recalls classic encounter, but finds loyalties revised as he returns on Saturday as coach in rival camp, writes David Ferguson
THE last time Gala and Melrose clashed at Netherdale in a memorable competitive fixture the fireworks of the old-fashioned fisticuff kind exploded within minutes, before the home side went on to win an entertaining match 28-22 that sent Gala into the Scottish Cup final.
It was in 1999 and in what was then known as the Tennent’s Velvet Cup. Gala had just clinched the Division Two title and Melrose finished second to Heriot’s in Division One. Nathan Hines was at No8 for Gala, Chris Paterson pulling the strings at stand-off, the home player-coach was Gary Parker, a great Melrose player, and the original Richie Gray was captain. Melrose then included former Gala winger Mark Moncrieff and Selkirk man Scott Nichol alongside Greenyards legends Robbie Brown, Craig Redpath and Andy Purves.
They have met on many times since, mostly in the Boxing Day ‘friendly’ and occasionally in the cup, but few in Gala forget that ’99 experience as it led ultimately to victory over fellow Division Two side Kelso in the Murrayfield final, still the Maroons’ sole cup success.
In the intervening 12 years they have done time in the second and third divisions, which has made George Graham’s squad’s rise to the top of Premier One this season both unexpected and intoxicating. No Gala player from 1999 has endured quite such a rollercoaster since then as John Dalziel, however. He started that match on the bench, and will do so again this weekend – but this time in the Melrose camp as their forwards coach for Saturday’s long-awaited renewal of league acquaintance.
Looking back 12 years, Dalziel recalls the fight that broke out among forwards in the opening minutes of the semi-final with a wide grin, and impressive clarity.
“That’s because we watched re-runs on the video for weeks after!” he said, laughing. “It was a great game, but what a start. There had been a bit of wind-up between the boys from Gala who had gone to Melrose and vice versa, with Stevie Scott being called a ‘quitter’ I remember in the warm-up by old Melrose team-mates. It kicked off almost straight away and I can still see Jim Fleming, the ref, standing back, folding his arms and saying something like ‘when you’re finished we’ll get on with the game’. It was just handbags really, but with that out of the way the game settled down and became a cracker.
“There was a great crowd, a few thousand I think; the TV cameras were there, and I remember Jill Douglas presenting Rugby Special and getting pelters from the Gala fans because she was going out with Carl Hogg. There was an amazing atmosphere when we won.”
Townsend scored the final try to seal Gala’s success, Craig that is, Gregor’s older brother, while Doddie Weir’s younger sibling Tom was another key performer for the hosts. Dalziel learned at the feet of Weir, John Amos, Hines and others, but the then 21-year-old was to leave for Melrose the following year.
“That was the first time I went,” explained Dalziel, “and when we beat Melrose that day I’d never have believed that I’d have been playing down the road a year or so later. But, after we’d won the cup, were promoted, won the Tennent’s ‘Team of the Year’ and the Melrose Sevens, the club decided to bring in foreign talent. We only lost Mossy [Paterson] and Hinesy that year I think, and I didn’t think it was necessary.
“It meant a few Gala boys like myself and Hovis [Gareth Brown] were shoved to the seconds to play every week. The Borders pro team was being talked about again, I wanted to be a professional player, and Gary [Parker] had gone back to Melrose. So he offered me the chance to play first division rugby again, and although I took a bit of persuading, I eventually went.
“It was the best decision I made because I got the chance to play pro with the Borders and see a bit of the world with other opportunities too. I planned to go back to Gala at the end of my career but when I finished with the Borders Gala were in the third division and only wanted me as a player. I wanted to get into coaching and Melrose said I could start learning to coach with them and play, so I went back there.
“Most people understood that it was a rugby decision and I don’t regret it. Melrose are a great club and while I’ll always be a Gala man this is where my loyalties lie on the rugby field.”
Sadly for Dalziel but pleasingly perhaps for Graham the 33-year-old will not be playing this weekend, after suffering a broken collarbone playing for the South against the Barbarians last month. He faces another four weeks at least rehabilitating.
“My first thought when I landed on my elbow and heard the crack was this game,” he said, wincing at the memory. “It’s gutting. The Boxing Day games are big but now Gala are up this really means something, the way it used to, and then the Boxing Day game this year is also a Scottish Cup match, so we get to do it all again at the Greenyards.
“We actually had to say a while ago at Melrose we didn’t want to hear any more talk about this game, until this week, to keep the focus on every game before now, but it’s not easy.
“Both teams have to realise that this is just one game and it won’t determine the season for either of us, but it will decide who is top after 11 games, and for us that would represent our best start in 12 seasons I think. And of course it’s a massive game for bragging rights.”
Dalziel is a solid character, physically and mentally, as easygoing off the field as he is aggressive on it. He is confident that Melrose have the ability to retain the RBS Premier One crown, but is wary of his hometown club.
“Gala have done brilliantly so far and have achieved a lot to be where they are in their first season back,” he said. “They will be favourites at home on Saturday. They have won nine, we’ve won eight. We haven’t put performance in for few weeks now and have players due big games, but both sets of players will be licking their lips at the atmosphere and sense of occasion we expect on Saturday,
“It’s brilliant for the clubs and Borders rugby to see gala back up and at the top and Melrose looking to knock them off. Gala have had a real hard time, with committee disputes, problems with coaches and getting the right squad, but George [Graham] has made a huge difference.
“He is the best kind of coach for Gala, someone from outside, who is strong and disciplined, and has respect, earned through being a good coach. I was honestly a bit fearful of how they would do this season with a young squad, but Gala are an example of how teams who want to play rugby can thrive at the top.
“A lot of division two sides come up and spend all their time just trying to stop others playing in dog-eat-dog battles, where in this league the teams who are ambitious and want to play tend to be more successful.”
As for Saturday’s game, and whether we might expect a similarly explosive opening, 12 years after the ’99 affair, Dalziel added: “I think we’ll get another cracker, but you can’t get away with that kind of stuff nowadays.
“Neither us nor Gala can afford to have a man in the sin-bin because I expect it to be tight. It will be very physical and I don’t expect boys to stand a step backwards, but the players know they have to be sensible to win at this level. We’ll need the referee to apply some common sense too. That’s always the case with Border derbies, in any decade.”
Edinburgh Society referee James Mathew is a rising talent known for having a cool head, but he might just seek out Fleming for a little word before Saturday’s eagerly anticipated kick-off.
Gala: M Dods; G Parker, C Townsend, D Gray, K Amos; C Paterson, D Boland; A Johnston, S Scott, E Johnstone, R Gray, N Hines, G Shepherd, T Weir, J Amos. Subs: J Dalziel, G Robson, G Brown, R Scott, B Easson
Melrose: G McGarva; M Moncrieff, S Nichol, B Ruthven, C Dalgleish; A Morris, R Chrystie; M Browne, D Graham, C Smith, R Brown, S Aitken, C Redpath, J Henderson, D Watt. Subs: A Clark, A Purves.
Referee: J Fleming (Boroughmuir).
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Saturday 18 May 2013
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