“I suppose it was the end of an era but we didn’t realise it at the time.”
That is how Rowen Shepherd reflects on the events of 20 years ago when his hat-trick won the Scottish Cup for Melrose in what, even by the high standards of their 1990s golden age, was a particularly glorious year for the Greenyards club. They won everything on offer that season, including their own Melrose Sevens, the championship and the Border League.
The national knockout tournament was only in its second year and 23,000 showed up at Murrayfield to watch Melrose beat Boroughmuir 31-23 in a final that was sprinkled with international stars.
As well as full-back Shepherd, who won 20 caps for Scotland, the Borders side boasted a half-back pairing of Bryan Redpath and Craig Chalmers. Wing Derek Stark and prop Peter Wright also faced their former Meggetland club, who had Doug Wyllie at stand-off and Grand Slam centre Sean Lineen playing his last major match before retirement.
“Professionalism had started and I was contracted to Caledonia but we were still playing the majority of our rugby with the clubs,” recalled Shepherd, who started his career with Caithness and Edinburgh Accies before teaming up with his old Scotland Schools coach Rob Moffat at Melrose.
“After that year we started to play less for the clubs and then the Welsh-Scottish League came in and had all those lovely bus journeys down to Wales and back!” he added.
Shepherd remembers that 1997 final as being a closely-fought affair, with Boroughmuir leading at the break. He responded to an early try by the Edinburgh club and, after Mark Moncrieff also crossed for the Borderers, his two late scores sealed the deal.
“I kicked some points as well as missing a few too that day,” he said. “It was a great occasion. The cup was still a novel thing. Myself and a few other guys had experienced playing in the old Alloa Brewery Cup but for the Borders boys it was new as they had always had the sevens instead and didn’t take part in those knock-outs.
“I remember the Boroughmuir captain Stuart Reid had them pretty fired up and, although I wouldn’t say there was needle, it was quite a tasty encounter and the pitch was quite stacked with big names. I seem to remember they took the initiative quite a bit but we always seemed to respond whenever they did something and then finished strongly.
“That was a great season for the club and everyone was delighted to get Melrose’s name on the cup after Hawick had won the first one the year before. But I think of all the things we won that year it was the Melrose Sevens that meant the most. I remember that night and all these people having tears in their eyes. It was the first time there had been a home win for 22 years and it meant so much to the club and the town.”
Shepherd, who runs his own sports management company Red Sky, retains a strong affection for the Greenyards club and hopes to get along to BT Finals day today, when his sister Rhona, pictured, will be part of the Murrayfield Wanderers coaching team for the women’s final, and see Melrose win what would be their third cup success since his heroics of two decades ago.