Premier One new boys have recruited the ex-Scotland forward, but rely on a home-grown squad, says Iain Morrison
‘I thought this is not like Glasgow rugby. There was fur flying all over the place’
Lean on us: Beattie and Gary Parker team up at Biggar and hope the new season will be a happy one. Photograph: Phil Wilkinson
NEXT Saturday sees the start of the new club season and once again it is going to prove a testing one for Scotland’s leading lights as the spectre of an eight-team Premiership One for the following season inevitably casts a long shadow over proceedings, whether it ever becomes a reality or not.
Many clubs have strengthened their squads with a top-eight finish in mind and several familiar faces have dusted down their tracksuits to give something back to the game that they once graced as players. Despite the departure of George Graham and Andy Nicol from the club scene, the Premier One coaches this year still boast a combined tally of 272 international caps between them with 22 of those going to Welshman Rob Ackerman at Glasgow Hawks.
Craig Chalmers’ welcome return to his old stamping ground at the Greenyards adds 60 to that total and Iwan Tukalo finds himself in charge of Heriots backline this season after Phil Smith was forced to step down due to his commitments with Edinburgh’s Rugby Academy. But perhaps the most intriguing addition to the Premier One touchline this year is the return of BBC commentator, newspaper pundit and broadcaster John Beattie to top-flight rugby. He has teamed up with his old BBC partner Gary Parker at Biggar and, on the evidence of their test-match commentaries, he will be hard pressed to get a word in edgeways during training at Hartreemill.
Beattie had a rude awakening during his re-introduction to Borders rugby, a pre-season training match. "I came down to watch Biggar against Peebles recently and eight punch-ups later I thought this is not like Glasgow rugby. There was fur flying all over the place," says the man who was never renowned for turning the other cheek during his playing days.
The flying fur didn’t put him off taking up the role of forwards coach. Beattie declares that he has always been a student of the game and yes, thank you, he is aware that a try is now worth five points. "When I was a player I was part of the senior players group that determined the way we played, and I’ve always looked at a game in a more choreographed way than some of my peers at the time. I always wanted to examine the technicalities."
The big breakaway last played test-match rugby back in 1987 and there are some who might question his lack of recent experience, but Beattie points out that he has been hands-on with Glasgow Accies three days a week. Furthermore, the man is honest to a fault and disarms any critics by agreeing with them.
"I have to learn how to take a session from a teaching point of view," he continues, "and I’m still miles away from being 60% of a good forwards coach, but I’m learning that aspect all the time. I’d like to think I can think my way around some things. I know I’m not experienced and I know that that criticism will be levelled."
The arrangement almost came about by accident since the two were joking about and only when Parker followed up the banter with a firm offer after being impressed by Beattie’s "enthusiasm and commitment", which sums up what his team brings to the pitch.
The coach will need plenty of both those qualities since Biggar are the new boys of the top flight - in more ways than one. The club was only founded in 1975, fully five years after Currie, and this is their very first season in the top division. While the likes of Watsonians and Ayr have spent money chasing success, a quick look at the players in/players out ledger proves that Biggar will rely exclusively upon the squad that finished second in Premier Two last season, although they have lost the services of Kiwi Richie Guy.
Not one player, let alone an expensive foreign mercenary, was added during the summer and the club is proud of the fact that in a recent match 16 of the 19-strong squad had graduated from the club’s mini-section. Only two foreigners feature in the Biggar line-up, veteran breakaway of the Scottish club scene Eddie Manawatu and Samoan international Quinton Sanft who pulls the strings at fly-half.
Utilising local lads is partly making a virtue of necessity, Biggar’s budget is smaller than most, but Parker also insists that it is also a deliberate policy. "If we’re going down again it will be as Biggar ... not Biggar Barbarians." Should Biggar’s reliance on home-bred talent succeed it will leave an entire lorry load of egg on the faces of their wealthier Premier One rivals who resort to bolstering their squad from outside the country, with varying degrees of success.
But then Biggar Rugby is in a strange and perhaps unique position within the Scottish game and has suffered an identity crisis over the years. It is allied to the Edinburgh District while falling within the Glasgow region, but most people still perceive it as a Border club. Parker says it has been lost within the "Lanarkshire triangle" and claims that the club has been overlooked and unloved for too long. "We’re a bit like a Border club from 15 years ago," claims the man who made his name with the hugely successful Melrose side of the early 1990s. "There’s no politics, everyone plays for the jersey, everyone sees it as his club and no-one sees themselves as anything they’re not. "
When it comes to words, Parker is rarely found wanting and, warming to his theme, the diminutive coach paints a picture of his club as the unloved country cousins that have outstayed their Premier One welcome before the season has even kicked off. "To be honest nobody wants us in Premier One," he claims. "Last year was a great laugh for everyone. ‘Ho ho, look at Biggar, they might go up.’ Hullo, we’re here!
"Ask any Premier One coach this year and they see Biggar as an easy ten points. Ask anyone in Scottish rugby who will finish bottom … it us. Everyone sees us as the whipping boys. The Scotsman had us as candidates for relegation last season. I’ll guarantee you one thing. If we don’t succeed it won’t be down to a lack of organisation, fitness, commitment or attitude it will be because Premier One is simply a step too far."
Parker would love nothing more than the Scotland on Sunday to write his team off so that he can cut out the offending article and pin it prominently on the dressing room wall in time for the visit of Hawick next Saturday. But with a 12-team league it is possible for Biggar to survive - if not thrive - on fierce pride and more talent then they are given credit for.
The league looks like a fairly close competition once the big four, Boroughmuir, Heriots, Hawks and Watsonians, are taken out of the equation so, provided Premier One remains 12-strong, top-flight rugby is an attainable goal for Biggar.
And, as Beattie will confirm, his team always gives themselves a fighting chance.