Scottish title comes first for Melrose captain

Fraser Thomson tries to break the defence of his hometown club Gala during a cup game. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Fraser Thomson tries to break the defence of his hometown club Gala during a cup game. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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WHEN Gala last won the Scottish Championship, their captain was Taysider David Leslie, and so there is something strangely apposite that a born-and-bred Maroon has led Melrose’s charge to deny Gala their long-awaited return to the top.

Fraser Thomson has not been an ever-present in the Melrose side this season due to debilitating calf problems that have severely limited his game time. So, though captain of the club bidding to claim its third league title in four years, he will be watching from the sideline as his club seek to overhaul Gala’s two-point lead on the final weekend.

One place he will not be, however, is back in his home town of Galashiels and the club he left for their near-neighbours as a 19-year-old.

“I’m born-and-bred Gala, and came through the club from a wee kid to making my debut for Gala when I was 17 and then leaving when I was 19-20,” he explained. “So it’ll be very strange this weekend with so much going on at Gala, but that’s up to them.

“My focus is only on Melrose and all we can do is go out and win the game and see what happens. We’re playing against an on-form Currie side so we can’t allow our focus to drift to any other game. It will be tough and we want to finish well and make sure we give our fans a good performance, and a win. But, if we win and Gala do, too, I’ll be delighted for them, but I don’t think I’ll be going out in Gala on Saturday night.”

The mention of Leslie at the top of the article was deliberate. Thomson has been roundly abused by some in Galashiels for making the short trip along the road to Melrose, although most recognised his reasons for doing so. Gala were hopping between the third and second divisions at the time he was coming through, one of the brightest attacking talents in the Scottish game at age-grade level. He was taken on by the Edinburgh pro academy and then came a difficult choice.

“I had gone to Australia for a bit and, when I got home, I just really wanted to be a professional rugby player, and Edinburgh wanted me playing at the highest level I could week in week out,” he said.

“I played with Gala in the third division and they were in the second when I had to make that decision, and Melrose offered me the chance I felt I had to take of regular rugby at the top of the club game. At that stage I saw it as a stepping stone, hopefully, to the pro game with Edinburgh, one of the things you have to do in the modern game to get to the top.

“I’ve never regretted the move, even though my shot as a pro didn’t last long, and it’s been really enjoyable at Melrose, which is why I’ve felt I have to be loyal to them now.”

That famous Gala skipper of 1983, Leslie, made a similar move, from Dundee to Gala. Before him, East Lothian man Jim Aitken led the side and the club’s golden age at the start of the 1980s owed more than a little to others such as Tom Smith (Tranent), Nairn MacEwan (Inverness) and Derek White, who came to Netherdale from Dunbar via Haddington and would go on to London Scottish.

So, it is hardly new, players leaving clubs in the lower reaches to improve their hopes of playing for Scotland. Thomson has received offers to return to Gala and must have considered it on occasion, but insists that he feels he would be turning his back on the club that gave him his professional second chance.

That came after he quit Edinburgh, insisting that he could not marry the demands of college, daily gym work and rugby training without the release of actually playing on Saturdays, which was not the priority of academy coaches at that time. Pros became renowned as “professional trainers” and it was not for him at 19.

However, he had joined Melrose and coach Craig Chalmers told him that he could help find a way back to the pro and possibly international arena while under the eye of the coaches at the top of the club game, and they succeeded as Sean Lineen eventually called Thomson up for Glasgow, was impressed, and handed him a two-year contract.

Lineen moved on after a year and Gregor Townsend took over, and Thomson struggled to find a way past Stuart Hogg, Sean Maitland, Peter Murchie, DTH van der Merwe and Tommy Seymour, among others.

Last summer, he returned to Melrose and was made captain and continued where he left off, adding to a haul of silverware that now includes two league championships, the Border League trophy and medals from the Kings of the Sevens and Melrose Sevens. He remains a stand-out in the club game and, if fit, should be a candidate for Scotland’s Commonwealth Games sevens team this summer.

“It was always about playing rugby for me and, though I enjoyed it at Glasgow, I never got much opportunity to play, though injury means I’m not doing a lot of that right now.

“It’s great at Melrose but it’s been great to see Gala coming back and I watched Hawick last week and they’re coming back too, with a lot of talented young kids coming through, and that’s good for the future of rugby in the area. I get plenty of stick but rivalries are important because they show people care about their rugby, and it is going to be huge this weekend in the Borders.

“It would be great for Melrose to win it again, especially when last season we were a game away from relegation. Our aim this season was to get back in the top four and we’ve managed to do pretty well, and perform pretty consistently and push Gala all the way. But it’s in Gala’s hands and, if they win on Saturday, they’ll deserve it. They’ve been the most consistent over the course of the season so I take my hat off to them.”

Is it fair to say that Thomson cannot really lose?

“I don’t know about that. All my mates are still in Gala and I get on with them really well, and they give me stick and I give it back to them but, if Gala win the title for the first time in 31 years on Saturday, then nobody around Scotland can take it away from them.”