McKillop U-turn adds spice to league opener

THE prime movers in Scottish club rugby have been working overtime to throw off the favourites tag as a streamlined Scottish Division 1 kicks off this afternoon, but there are reasons to expect today's clash at Goldenacre to produce a fiery start to the season.

Heriot's, who won back-to-back championship titles in 1999 and 2000, have long vied with the contenders without threatening to repeat the feat. In their place have come Glasgow Hawks, the club formed in 1997 as an amalgam of GHK and Glasgow Academicals, with a three-year supremacy in the first division.

There is added interest in the meeting of the clubs today, however. Just over a month ago, Stirling's Bob McKillop was poised to join David Wilson at the Hawks' helm in a new, young partnership seeking to take that dominance into a fourth year. Now, however, Wilson and McKillop will face each other along the touchline, the latter having been persuaded against joining up at Anniesland by the offer of becoming his own man, as head coach at Heriot's.

Both strived to play down the turn of events which stunned Hawks in the summer as they prepared to meet on opening day, but Wilson admitted: "It was a blow, I won't try to deny that.

"Bob is a good coach and when his club, Stirling County, were relegated last season I thought it was a good chance to get him on board and give him the chance to remain at the top level in the club game. He was very enthusiastic and agreed to join us, but then he changed his mind. I won't pretend I wasn't shocked, to be honest, because I felt he had given me his word. Of course there are no contracts at this level, but it was disappointing for me and the club.

"But these things happen and I bear Bob no grudges. I've now got Dave Cockburn on board to help me with the forwards, which is the area I felt we needed work on last season. Dave is a very experienced coach and someone I can trust to manage them and help our lads develop."

McKillop, whose work in Edinburgh was a key factor in the decision, was at pains to deflect attention from the move. He said: "The last thing I want is for me to overshadow the clubs and the players. It is about them and what they can achieve this season. I am looking forward to a new role with Heriot's and I don't think there will be any bad feeling."

The challenge for both men essentially is to create a pack which can dominate others in the new ten-team league, something which became synonymous with the Hawks and which Heriot's have been striving for since the turn of the century. There are a host of talented youngsters coming through the ranks from the much talked-about Hawick teenagers to new faces at league newcomers Dundee HSFP, but key will be how quickly they knit together and form the kind of backbone needed to dig out victories on dreich days, a feature of Hawks' successes.

Wilson said: "We have a reborn pack and we have to wait and see how it copes. You couldn't say we were favourites. We have lost Mark Sitch, our player/ forwards coach, Richard Maxton has gone to Hamilton, Steve Begley has retired, Neil McKenzie has hung up his boots for this season, Eric Milligan gone to the Glasgow pro side and Scott Forrest to Hawick - that's the heart and soul of the pack which took us to the three championships really."

Like all the clubs chasing that elusive championship crown much will depend on how well new faces blend with the existing players. That is pertinent even more so this season where the top league has been cut from 12 to ten teams - it will return to 12 next season and so only one team will be relegated - and is due to finish in mid-January before a new 'Super Cup' is launched.

Currie may be the real title favourites, coaches Ally Donaldson and Graham Hogg well-known and respected, the bulk of the cup finalists remaining and Ally Warnock and Mark Blair returning from the pro ranks. What they do not have, and Hawks do, of course, is the experience of success and while Glasgow supporters may bemoan the players gone, over the next few weeks they could become more interested in the likes of John Fitzpatrick, Ross McCallum, Alistair Dale, Euan Smith, Neil Cadell, Murray Wiseman and 17-year-old, 6ft 7in lock Richie Gray.

Wilson, clearly, wants to be written off and he was tight-lipped on other supposed signings, but do not be surprised if Andy Dunlop, Biggar's excellent flanker, turns up in Hawks colours this season. The coach will also be aware that if his forwards can secure decent possession the return of Kenny Sinclair at scrum-half and a potential back three featuring ex-pros David Millard and Rory Kerr would give opponents much to fear.

Today's opening clashes are intriguing with the young Hawick awaiting a Boroughmuir now with new Meggetland facilities to inspire; Melrose face the tricky trip to Division 2 champions Dundee HSFP; Currie are away to the hardy perennials Aberdeen GSFP; Cammy Mather's Watsonians host Craig Redpath's Ayr.

Back at Goldenacre, title credentials should be tested immediately. Former Hawick captain Roddy Deans now skippers Heriot's and the gutsy flanker is determined to push his new side to the championship-winning success he enjoyed at Mansfield Park in back-to-back successes in 2001 and 2002.

McKillop added:

"I think this is going to be a very tense season for everyone. I don't think I'd be any more relaxed playing someone other than the Hawks in the first game of the season, for example, because everyone seems quite closely-matched. There will certainly be no days you can afford to take things easy and I expect the level of commitment and intensity will be very high week in, week out. And it will be over so quickly, so getting a good start will be important. For me that simply means Heriot's beating Hawks."

Three former Scottish internationals recall their club careers and reveal hopes for the new domestic season

GARY ARMSTRONG (Jed-Forest)

First game? On the wing in a friendly against Gateshead Fell - can't remember if we won or lost.

Club highlight? Getting picked for the 1st XV with Roy Laidlaw moving to stand-off to let me in, after a season in the 2nds.

Worst memory? Suffering knee ligament injuries twice, against Currie the first time chasing a high kick ahead. The second time was when I wrecked the whole knee in training and was out for 18 months after that, missing two seasons.

Hope for 2006-7? Promotion for Jed back to Division One and I would like to see more clubs playing local players, giving them a chance, which would encourage more lads to come along and play, and more people to turn up on Saturdays and watch.

Why is club rugby still worth paying to watch? I'd say to anyone in Jed: 'Come and watch a game that involves everyone on the park - we will try to entertain you.'

GORDON BULLOCH (Hutchesons Aloysians, West of Scotland)

First game? Can't remember much, though clearly remember being stuffed by Kevin McKenzie in first game for West against Stirling County. Happy memories!

Club highlight? Definitely winning promotion to the second division with the last kick of the game against Dundee at Burnbrae.

Worst memory? Just the lack of facilities on Tuesdays and Thursdays and refereeing standards.

Hope for 2006-7? West will win the third division, I will get sympathy for my 'old man knocks' from new employers Colliers CRE, that I'll just enjoy being back playing rugby.

Why is club rugby worth paying to watch? It could be entertaining to see some old has-beens trying to keep up with young bucks, but it's about community, isn't it?

CRAIG CHALMERS (Melrose)

First game? v Harrogate in pre-season friendly, September 1986.

Club highlight? So many good ones. The 1996-97 year, where we won our own sevens, the league, cup and Border League was tremendous, but my best was winning the league for the first time in 1989-90, against Jed-Forest in front of a big crowd.

Worst memory? Not many thankfully, but I remember losing 49-3 in my first visit to Mansfield Park and losing to Ayr at the Greenyards when I played, stupidly, with an injured knee.

Hope for 2006-7? I want Melrose to be back up there among the top Scottish clubs and, generally, I just want to see teams go out and play rugby, express themselves and try to enjoy their rugby.

Why is club rugby worth paying to watch? Club rugby is still the lifeblood of the Scottish game. Pro teams are important, but the young talent still comes from these clubs - this is where you will see the stars of tomorrow.