HAWICK HARLEQUINS 6-24 ST BOSWELLS
THERE was good football on television on Wednesday night with Manchester City snatching a thrilling 2-2 draw away to Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League. But who wants to be stuck at home in front of the box when there is a Border derby under the floodlights at one of the iconic grounds in the traditional heartland of Scottish rugby to watch?
Hawick Harlequins and St Boswells may never have been categorised as powerhouses of the Scottish game, and in truth the crowd at Mansfield Park was some way short of the full houses we used to witness in the glory days when the Green Machine packed with household names would take on and defeat challengers from across the country – but this remains a story worth telling all the same.
It is about two clubs who have bucked the trend of modern grassroots rugby to find themselves presently enjoying purple patches in each of their respective histories. St Boswells sit top of East League Division One having won all 14 of their games so far (ten of those wins secured alongside four-try bonus points).
Harlequins, meanwhile, have played all 18 of their matches, and are almost certain to end up fifth – although Forrester still have three games in hand and could theoretically usurp them if they pick up bonus point wins in each of those encounters. Whatever happens, it will be the club’s highest ever league finish.
The score-line on the night was no great surprise, with St Boswells running out 24-6 winners – thanks to tries for Ross Nichol (twice), Michael McVie and Adrian Donoghue, plus a couple of conversions from Dean McCracken, which eclipsed two first half penalties for Scott Peffers.
However, home coach Gary Murdie says that his players should hold their heads high after a gutsy performance.
“There were plenty of positives because the backs created a lot of chances. The defence – especially the cover defence – was really good, and there was a lot of heart out there. They couldn’t be faulted for effort. St Boswells are a good side and if they do end up winning the league then they will be worthy winners,” he says, before turning his attention to a few of the youngsters in his own team who have really stepped up to the plate this year.
“Peff [Peffers] at inside centre is still relatively young but he’s got experience of senior rugby playing for Hawick last season. He had an operation earlier in the year which meant he had some time out, but over the course of the season you can see he is maturing into a really good player. Hawick tended to use him on the wing, but he’s helped us out by filling in a role at twelve which he isn’t that familiar with, and he’s been excellent when he has played this season,” Murdie explains.
“And the great thing is that he is one of a group of players in their early twenties – such as Graeme and Ross Lothian, Sam Bandeen, Bryan and Adam Hall, Neil and Scott Anderson, Jordan Hislop, Ali Pretswell and Bryan Hall– who are all young and can all get better and better. If they do that they will probably have a fair degree of success in the game, whether it is with The Quins or if they move up to a higher level – hopefully with Hawick.”
The self-styled ‘Cinderella’ club of Hawick rugby, Harlequins have traditionally prided themselves on their underdog status – but they have slowly moved out of the shadow of their fellow ‘junior’ sides in the town [the Linden, Trades and YM] during the last decade and a half.
The Trades went to the wall in 2002. There was initially brave talk of regrouping and starting over again the following season but that was always fanciful. Hawick Linden also played in East Division One this season but having lost all 15 games played so far, they are facing relegation and an uncertain future.
Hawick YM, meanwhile, charged up the leagues a few years back and got pretty close to the sun when they finished 5th in Championship League B at the end of the 2012-13 season. At that point they were effectively only one division below Hawick who had briefly been relegated out of the Premiership, but then came their Icarus moment and they have ended up playing this season as Hawick’s 2nd XV in the second tier of the national reserve league.
There is little doubt that the key to the Harlequins’ continued prosperity is the unwavering dedication of a long-standing committee, who have continued to promote traditional rugby club values such as hard-work, fair-play and camaraderie – even when it must have felt like all those around them were looking for quick fixes and easy ways out.
Bolstered by a cabal of proactive senior players who have moved back down the ranks after being involved in the Hawick squad which dominated the Scottish club game at the start of the century, Harlequins have a thriving social scene and are one of the few Scottish sides still making the biannual pilgrimage to Wales for the Six Nations weekend.
This year marked the 50th anniversary of their fixture against Bargoed RFC in South Wales and a dinner to mark the occasion was held on the night before the international match, which was attended by 200 players (past and present), committee members and supporters.
“The playing environment is exactly what you would want. We’ve got good numbers, the guys are competitive and their effort on a Saturday is brilliant, but as soon as the game is finished they all want to socialise and go out together. In our league there are quite a few trips to Edinburgh and they all enjoy each other’s company on the bus, and that’s something we’ve managed to keep going which I don’t think happens so often elsewhere these days,” says Murdie.
“There’s obviously the difficulty of having that competition with Hawick 2nds and other Border clubs, everybody is competing for players and if you have any level of success then other teams are going to look towards you, and we would never knock anybody for taking an opportunity to play at a higher level. But if we can help them retain their identity with the club, then they can go away and get a wee bit experience and hopefully they can do what the likes of Fred Stevenson, Neil Douglas and more recently Gavin Douglas have done with us, by coming back and adding their experience into what is already there,” adds the coach, who also had a few fruitful seasons playing for Hawick.
St Boswells have taken a rather different route. Their strategy has not always pleased their near neighbours and closest rivals, who regard their recruitment policy as little more than grand larceny – but given where they have come from, you can’t help but admire their chutzpah.
A decade ago they were staring into the abyss. As a small village team surrounded by some of the biggest beasts in the Scottish game, they were in free fall through the leagues – so chronically short of player numbers that they were forced to field a front-row with a combined age in excess of 155 years, and had lost their alcohol license after being sanctioned for serving drink to under-agers.
David “Brick” Elliot and his son, Scott, seemed to be about the last men standing. They were publicly chastised for being part of the problem rather than part of the solution – but the dynamic duo stood firm in their determination to guide the club they love back from the brink.
And they were as good as their word. After weathering the storm, they came back shooting from the hip, winning two (soon to become three) promotions on the bounce – thanks to a posse of hired guns.
They also won the BT Shield last year; and reached the BT Bowl final the year before that, only to be disqualified from the tournament for fielding ineligible players.
St Boswells lost out on a chance to retain the Shield this year after going down 19-13 away to Carrick at the semi-final stage last weekend. That was their first loss in 56 outings, a record stretching back to the end of the 2012-13 campaign.
Nobody talks [openly] about where the money at St Boswells has come from and the whole issue of their nouveau riche status has stirred up a fair bit of resentment from those outside the camp. The irony of the fact that 12 members of the visiting squad for this match were products of the Hawick system, and that double try scorer Nichol used to play for Harlequins, was commented on more than once in the clubhouse after the game.
However, former Selkirk stalwart Scott Tomlinson, who is now part of the coaching team at St Boswells, provides a compelling case as to why the club’s story should be admired as a tale of triumph over adversity.
“It’s quite hard for me to comment because I haven’t been involved for that long but I know they [the club] had issues in the past. What I will say is that when we got to the Shield final last year … well … that really galvanised everybody in the village. And you can see that with the crowds we are now getting on a Saturday. A lot of the older fellas who had maybe drifted away are coming back down to watch. The clubhouse is doing really well,” he says.
“Most junior clubs struggle with committee numbers and we’re in the same boat. There are a couple of other fellas who come in and help out, but it really is the Elliot show. The work they put in is phenomenal and it’s because they believe in it,” he adds.
“The players see that as well. When they played in the Shield final last year, they wanted to win for the club and for themselves, but the big thing was they wanted to win it for Brick and Scott because they recognise how much time and effort those guys have put into it.”
Elliot senior is a colourful character who went to school in Hawick and now owns a successful fencing company based in Jedburgh. In 1990 he led a consortium which tried to buy Hibs in order to block Wallace Mercer’s takeover bid.
Tomlinson makes no effort to deny that money is a factor in players choosing to go to St Boswells, but he insists that other considerations are of equal, if not greater, significance.
“When we strengthened our team at the start of this season our main selling point was that we were offering the opportunity to play with your pals and maybe have a chance of tasting some success,” he says.
“The financial contribution isn’t very much – there is an awful lot of speculation that it is – but I can tell you now that all it is paying for is the players’ time and petrol money to come from Langholm, or Hawick, or wherever they are coming from, to train on a Tuesday and Thursday night.”
“A lot of boys have played a lot of rugby at junior clubs or 2nd XVs in the bigger Border towns and have not really got much out of it – and some of them are quite hard to manage – but if you work hard at it and you get it right then that can breed success. What we are able to offer is a bit of stability in terms of playing good, winning rugby.”
“I think we are punching way above our weight – that’s the bottom line. We are not the only club in the Borders who are financially rewarding players, it’s just nobody puts it out there. The amount of money that is spilled about senior rugby is just ridiculous.”
The rumour mill is already into overdrive about the possibility that the St Boswells bubble may be about to burst, that their financiers are beginning to lose interest, and that they are set to reject the opportunity to move into the National League set-up next year – but Tomlinson insists that forecasts of the club’s demise have been greatly exaggerated.
“I think we’ll lose a few players through retirement this year, and I suspect a few guys may get the opportunity to go play at a higher level in which case we would wish them well, so we really need to look at that and start proactively recruiting guys who fit into what we are trying to do here, because our ambition is to play at as high a level as we can possibly play,” he insists.
“If we are successful this year then we go into a league with the likes of Perthshire, and I notice Gary Holborn (ex-Melrose) and Rory McKay (ex-Glasgow Hawks and Glasgow Warriors) were playing for them last week, so we are going to have to make sure we do it right. It is not going to come from the youth section because there isn’t one at St Boswells.”
Two admirably resilient rugby clubs, treading very different paths – but there is a common bond which could serve as a valuable lesson to those who wish to emulate their success.
“In the short terms it’s about being competitive in the Sevens – we’ve been invited to Earlston the last couple of years, and this year we have been invited to Hawick and Langholm as well, so that’s a massive opportunity for the players to try and raise their game against senior sides. Beyond that, it is about just doing better next season – maybe have a Cup run and try to finish higher up the league. The big thing is we need to keep everybody enjoying their rugby, because if we do that then good things will follow,” says Murdie.
“No matter what way you look at it, Border rugby is struggling for player numbers. The most important thing from our point of view is trying to make sure that the boys get a wee bit of enjoyment from it. That they come away on a Tuesday and Thursday night feeling that it was worth their while, and that they take a bit of pride out of being part of the team. You can believe what you want, but if we can’t offer them that then they’ll get pretty sick of playing here soon enough,” says Tomlinson.
Harlequins: Pens: Peffers 2.
St Boswells: Tries: Nichol 2, McVie, Donoghue; Cons: McCracken 2.
Harlequins: G Lothian; A Hall, R Anderson , S Peffers, S Bandeen; G Douglas, N Anderson; I Thomson, F Robb, I Elliot, A Stevenson, C Kyle , G Rogerson, S Desport, S Anderson. Subs: N Douglas, B Hall, L Martin, N Davidson.
St Boswells: A Haig; J Parker, C Ritson, G Wylie, I Dawtry; D McCracken, M McVie; B Lilly, G Douglas, C Fairbairn, B Gilchrist, A Baillie, B Hill, R Nichol, R Smith. Subs: A Donoghue, S Hardie, R Hogg, D Cassidy.