Chastened Chalmers sees cup final as chance to lift gloom at Melrose

AFTER a humiliating couple of weeks on and off the pitch, Craig Chalmers has to live with personal regrets as he prepares to return to centre stage by leading Melrose to Murrayfield on Saturday for the Scottish Hydro Cup final.

• Craig Chalmers values his responsibilities at the Greenyards and is determined to win the Scottish Hydro Cup. Picture: Stephen Mansfield

It is a chance to make headlines for the right reasons: his side will become the first in Scottish rugby history to feature in three successive cup finals and have the opportunity to become only the third club in cup history, following Glasgow Hawks and Boroughmuir, to win the trophy three times.

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They face up to final newcomers Ayr, who Chalmers rates as favourites by dint of them still being in the hunt for a rare league and cup double, but though confident, the chastened coach is clearly just pleased to have the opportunity to help play a part in atoning for an outburst which saw him arrested, detained overnight and fined 60 after he was refused entry to a Melrose Sevens party by door stewards. He has admitted that the past fortnight have been a couple of the toughest weeks of his life.

He told The Scotsman: "The position I put myself in two weeks ago was unforgivable and I hugely regret the embarrassment I've caused to my family, the club, Melrose supporters and the SRU.

"I have important roles as a husband, father, a club coach, where I demand high standards of my players on and off the pitch, as an ambassador for the club and as a coach with Scotland Under-20s, and these things mean everything to me.

"There have been crazy rumours and some exaggerations said and written about what I actually did that night, but the fact is I should not have put myself in a position for that to happen. The SRU are right to look at it and it is for others to decide what the future might hold.

"There is nothing I can do or say now to change anything. All I can do is concentrate on doing the job I have with Melrose to the best of my ability, and that's what I'm doing."

The 41-year-old is one of Scotland's most celebrated stand-offs, having been a lynch-pin of the 1990 Grand Slam success and at the forefront of the Scottish game as it turned professional. Since retiring in 2005 with 60 caps and a British and Irish Lions tour behind him, he has gradually worked his way up the coaching ladder and won admirers recently for his ability to work with young players, particularly up-and-coming backs such as Alex Blair, Edinburgh's newly-signed stand-off.

He has always been known for forthright views, confidence, searing ambition and headstrong characteristics that were valuable in the international sports arena. This brought its own frustration back in the world of amateur rugby coaching, in a game now devoid of the international quality he played with.

However, the involvement with Scotland Under-20s has reignited the flame, while five years at Melrose has provided a sound base of experience of the minutiae in the art of coaching.

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However, landing in trouble with the police and then being reported by match officials brought a level of ridicule and embarrassment that does not sit easily with officialdom, and threatened to derail his coaching career.

Chalmers is due to face a Murrayfield disciplinary hearing along with Melrose centre Jamie Murray, after assistant referees reported him for alleged protests in the clubrooms over a disputed try that cost Melrose a place in the tournament semi- finals.

There has been a certain amount of public sympathy because television pictures have shown that Melrose were indeed hard done by as they lost their quarter-final, but Chalmers refuses to be drawn on what exactly happened that afternoon until he appears at the SRU hearing – which was due to take place yesterday but had to be postponed due to the tragic death of a relative of one of the match officials involved.

After the damage done to his own reputation and to the club's image, Chalmers needs the cup final as much as Melrose, therefore, to help shift the gloomy cloud that descended in recent weeks and return the focus to the rugby, and what promises to be – with teams sporting pink and yellow – an altogether brighter kind of entertainment this weekend.

As well as providing some form of absolution perhaps for Chalmers, the cup final will also double as a league match to help Ayr complete a season elongated ridiculously by the winter weather and postponements, and with three, possibly four clubs taking part in next year's British and Irish Cup, a victory for Melrose – which they missed out on against Watsonians last weekend – would also secure them the league's third spot.

"Melrose have great traditions in the league and cup in Scotland," Chalmers said, "and the run to the final has really created excitement around the club again. Finishing as high as we can in the league is obviously important as well.

"Rugby is what we do; it's what the players are best at and what I'm best at, and we have a chance to move forward after a difficult couple of weeks. I let myself down, and the team has given itself a wake-up by failing to perform at the standards we set against Watsonians last week.

"Watsonians came here hungry and desperate to win to stay in Premier One, and while they deserved it, it was still a game we should have won. Maybe it was pre-cup final jitters, but if it was we have to get that out of the system this week.

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"Ayr are a very good side, well coached by Kenny Murray and with a lot of very good players right through their squad. It is no accident that they won the league last season and are still in there fighting for it this year despite having had a real fixture backlog.

"This will be their first visit to Murrayfield for a cup final, though, and experience can play a part in cup finals. Our guys have been there before, most have won there before and some have experienced losing, so they have a good idea of what it takes to win a cup."

He added: "From my point of view, it is simply about us playing to our best levels. We proved against Currie what we are capable of. They were flying before they came to play us and are back flying again with big wins in the league since then, but we beat them with good rugby that day.

"We need more of the same this weekend and if we can produce that I know we are capable of beating Ayr. But if we don't, they are a team with the talent to give us another miserable day.

"But I am working hard to ensure I prepare this team the way Melrose expect and we go up to Murrayfield, with a great Melrose crowd behind us, show everyone the good rugby that we stand for and play our part in what I think could be a fantastic cup final."