THE management of the Borders professional team yesterday sent a clear message of hope to young players in Scotland and, particularly, Borderers, when it unveiled more than half of its new squad.
With the experienced Newcastle trio of Gary Armstrong, Doddie Weir and George Graham already confirmed, the accent at the announcement in Galashiels was firmly on youth with Kelso teenager Ross Ford being named still two months before he finishes school.
In all, the 17 names feature 11 players from the Borders and three New Zealanders - Craig Dunlea, Tony Walker and Scott Paterson - who have been playing club rugby in the region for some time. Alongside Graham as a new face to Borders rugby come Edinburgh duo Richard Metcalfe and Matt Taylor.
Frank Hadden’s capital side will lose six players to the new team, transfers which Borders coach Tony Gilbert stressed had pleased all the players involved, with the most notable movers being Scotland caps Steve Scott and Cammie Murray, and Scotland A centre Kevin Utterson.
Borders chief executive Alastair Cranston stated that another 11 players have ‘signed up’, but could not be named yet as contractual arrangements are not finalised, and added that he expects to fill the remaining two places, and name the final squad of 30, by 1 June.
Gilbert deflected any questions on his bid to attract southern hemisphere players to the Borders, with it being known that the acquisition of All Blacks centre Daryl Gibson had run aground. He insisted he was not looking for any more players, but admitted when pushed that one or two southern hemisphere players are likely to feature in the final squad list.
Dismissing speculation on possible targets, he said: "Jonah wasn’t available.
"We’ve got the best squad we could possibly have, and these guys want to be here to play; it’s not just about professional players picking up contracts to make money. It will be a side with a good balance of experience and youth. The experience will give us a professional viewpoint right from the start and the youth will give us that raw enthusiasm which is so vital.
"There are a number of Borderers in the group, but each one of us, whether we were born here or not, are totally fixed on the idea of making the side as successful as we can."
While the signing of eight club players, with more to come, should provide a real boost to the Scottish club game, the appearance of players like Ford, just 18 last month, and Nikki Walker, 20, is proof the old adage ‘If you’re good enough, you’re old enough’ has a bearing in the professional game.
Ford admitted: "I was a bit surprised to be approached at first, because I thought I’d probably have to play another two or three seasons at Kelso.
"It’s a dream come true, and I hope it does give hope to young players who want to be pros in the Borders. Me and Nikki getting contracts shows that you will get a chance in Scotland."
A very focused youngster, Ford has astutely balanced his schoolwork with a daily training regime which has left club peers in awe. His performances for Division Two Kelso, in a back row with mentor Adam Roxburgh, catapulted him into contention.
Walker’s try-scoring feats on the wing for the double-winning Hawick side have similarly won him national acclaim this season. In fact, he is one of four Hawick players to be given the chance to step up, alongside prop Dunlea, centre Stephen Cranston and promising lock Scott McLeod.
Walker said: "It’s pretty exciting, and I think we’re all glad we left Hawick on a high note. It’s time for me to test myself higher up, with some experienced players and a world-class coach."
With only Dunlea and Taylor not at yesterday’s press conference in Galashiels, due to being on holiday, there was a clear excitement among the assembled players. Returning to the Borders from Edinburgh, Utterson, Scott, Cammie Murray and Iain Fairley spoke of an overwhelming desire to play for their home area.
One of the 11 players still involved in negotiations is Scotland stand-off Gregor Townsend, who remains likely to join up contrary to a report in a Glasgow paper which said he had signed for Northampton.
As stated in The Scotsman on Tuesday, the Borders will launch its season with three pre-season games in August away from Galashiels due to Netherdale’s new international-standard pitch, with undersoil heating, not being expected to be ready until September. Ulster will join Newcastle as pre-season opposition, with a third team still to be confirmed.
Borders signings: G Armstrong, S Cranston, C Dunlea, I Fairley, R Ford, G Graham, C Laidlaw, S McLeod, R Metcalfe, C Murray, S Paterson, S Scott, M Taylor, K Utterson, N Walker, T Walker, D Weir.