THE club season kicks off on Saturday and it will do so without several characters from the usual cast list because a good many teams boast new coaches.
Craig Chalmers has left Melrose to move to England. Edinburgh Accies’ Simon Cross has taken up a new post at Worcester Warriors alongside Dean Ryan and Carl Hogg. Kenny Murray of Ayr has also become a Warrior (Glasgow version). Aberdeen’s Alex Duncan has moved on and new SRU vice-president Iain Rankin has stepped down as director of rugby at Dundee as the club drops down a division.
If some high-profile coaches are absent, at least two famous clubs have returned to top-flight rugby. Glasgow Hawks give the city a much-needed premier rugby presence since the Warriors are leading the way in the professional ranks and, after besting Dundee in a play-off match, Hawick join Melrose and Gala as the three big Borders beasts all playing premier rugby this season.
The two newcomers come from opposite ends of the rugby spectrum. Having been formed in 1997, Hawks are mere teenagers and city slickers, Hawick are older by a century or so and Borders boys to the bottom of their boots. But the two clubs have one thing in common: both are hugely confident of flourishing in the top flight.
“We are not aiming to survive, that’s the wrong question to ask,” replies an indignant Hawick coach Phil Leck when asked if his side have the necessary arsenal to stay up. “No-one is talking about surviving, we are aiming to compete very well in this division.”
Mansfield Park purists will barely recognise the current side from the “Green Machine” of the glory days because this team play wide, expansive, attacking, ball-in-hand rugby that led to a healthy 608 league points last season. The coach is hoping this brand of running rugby will attract fans back to the old ground as he concedes that the club has not always worked as hard as it could have to put bums on seats.
“I am told that they had 10,000 fans here in the past,” says the English coach, “but I don’t like living in the past. I would pay to watch the rugby that this Hawick side is playing and I hope that we can get 1,000 folk from the town to back the team.”
No one denies that Hawick play a lot of attacking rugby but their problems arise in the set-piece exchanges, as was apparent to anyone who witnessed their play-off match against Dundee, when the Greens conceded three pushover tries.
Leck insists that the new scrum laws will favour his smallish pack, lessening the importance of the hit on engaging, but he has whistled up two additional props just in case. One is an Englishman, Kyle Manson-Kullin, and the other the “weel-kent” face of Willie Blacklock, who returns to Mansfield Park after a stint with Hawick YM.
Physicality is the main difference separating the top two divisions in Scotland, according to Leck, but the coach insists that, if his side can get parity in the crash-and-bang department, they have the weapons to trouble any team out wide.
If Hawick largely look to their own, Hawks have gone down a well-worn path and looked to eastern European players to do some of their heavy lifting by signing a pair of Polish internationals. According to the club’s director of rugby Kenny Hamilton, Matt Bartoszek is a very useful-looking flanker and Craig Bachurzewski a handy prop who was raised in Cumnock and attended Auchinleck Academy. The in-house joke is that, while Bartoszek speaks good English, no one can understand Bachurzewski because of his impenetrable Ayrshire accent. Both have played in Polish colours and so are sure to contribute to a long league campaign.
The east Europeans are joined by an old favourite from the Far East in the form of Ally McClay, who returns to Glasgow after a stint in Hong Kong and will give the club some much-needed go-forward in the midfield.
Promising full-back Aubrey Horton joins from relegated Dundee and several old stagers such as Rory McKay, Greg Francis, Mike Adamson and George Oommen are back in harness for one more ride around the block.
Oh, and look out for two centres at either end of their careers. Neil Herron has represented Scotland at age grade and has a Scotland sevens contract in his pocket, and Hawks are hopeful that former Scotland centre Graeme Morrison will be able to contribute to his original club in one way or another.
Hawks are captained by Ross Miller, left, and coached by the double act of Jamie Dempsey and Jimmy Sinclair, with Cammy Little as assistant, and the initial signs are encouraging. The club travelled to English National Two (North) side Caldy pre-season and won, albeit in a training game.
Last season was Hawks’ first outside of the top flight since their inception 16 years ago, and the fact that they bounced straight back suggests that they have a decent squad, while the quality of premier rugby is probably a little lower than it was five years ago.
Last season Boroughmuir were anchored at the bottom of the heap all season while Ayr and Gala slugged it out for the title at the opposite end of the table, but there was nothing much separating the seven sides in between, every one of which won seven or eight matches. Stirling County in third place won eight and will compete in the British and Irish Cup, while ninth-placed Dundee won seven and were relegated. For the majority it was a league of fine margins and this season is likely to produce something similar.
A few sides, Melrose and Heriots spring to mind, will hope to compete with Gala and Ayr at the top of the table but there will be little enough between the rest of the bunch, which is good news for Hawks and Hawick. The new boys on the block will have a fighting chance of re-establishing themselves in top-flight rugby.