SUCCESSFUL Premiership teams tend to operate in cycles, and, having reached the zenith in that process last season with a league and cup double, it is hard to escape the feeling that this will be a year of transition for Melrose. They certainly still have the firepower to go all the way in both competitions once again, but it will be much more of a battle than it was for long periods of the 2017-18 campaign.
The Greenyards outfit have lost five key players to the pro ranks [Jason Baggott, Nyle Godsmark, Ross McCann, Josh Pecqueur, George Taylor], one to retirement [Nick Beavon] and one has moved to Australia [Austin Lockington]; and while some of their rivals in Edinburgh have been frantically recruiting this summer, Melrose have looked mainly within for the players to carry on the good work of recent years.
Tight-head prop Conor Young has arrived from Southern Districts in Australia, South African utility back Michael Muelace-Julyanhas moved north from Blackheath, and Iain Sim has joined as a dual registered player with Kelso, but that is about it.
“We’ve won that reserve league now three years on the bounce and there’s some young players in there who need to get an opportunity, so this is their chance,” reasons head coach Rob Chrystie. “We believe that, given time, they can get to the level of the guys they are coming in to replace.
“There’s a little bit of a balancing act this year because we took four first year pros in the draft and you never know how much you are going to see of those boys, so you don’t want to go out and recruit too many new players in case you create problems in terms of not being able to give opportunities.
“We’re just looking at it a little bit differently. Winning the Premiership is still the end result we’re after, but we know we’ve got a lot of work to do as a group to get to a level where we can start talking seriously about that. I think this season will be a slow-burner for us.”
Looking to the future
Flanker Rory Darge and centre Patrick Anderson – who were both involved in Scotland Under-20s’ World Championship campaign this summer – are two young players worth keeping an eye out for.
“We’ll find out in the next couple of weeks if Rory is ready to be a Premiership player but going by his performances this summer he deserves his chance – he was one of Scotland’s stand-out players,” says Chrystie. “He’s still only 18 so we can’t expect too much, but his work ethic is phenomenal. If any young player in Scotland wants to find out how to approach the game then they should be looking at him.
“Patrick has been really unfortunate over the last couple of years, he’s never really got a string of games going through injuries and little niggles, so I’m quite excited to see him get on a roll because I think there is a lot of growth in him.
“Then we’ve still got some senior players as well, like Craig Jackson, Fraser Thomson and Russell Anderson – even though he is only 24.
“You can’t lose five players to the pro game and think that it won’t have an impact, unless you are buying in everybody – but we’re pretty comfortable with where we are at. They’ve trained well. A lot of boys are saying that has been one of the toughest pre-seasons.”
A defeat at home to Stirling County in the Charity Shield last weekend reinforced the message that the champions will not have it all their own way this year, but Chrystie is not losing too much sleep over what was – in reality – a warm-up match for the commencement of real hostilities against Hawick this weekend.
“Credit to Stirling, they’ve obviously had a decent pre-season and prepared well,” he shrugs. “It was good for us to have a look at a couple of boys and at a couple of combinations. We were pretty poor in the first half, there is no glossing over that, then we managed to get ourselves back into the game in the second half and we were maybe a little bit unlucky not to get over the line – but Stirling deserved it in the end.”
The Ford factor
There has been changes off the field as well at the Greenyards, with Ross Ford coming on board as strength and conditioning coach, having turned out a couple of times for the club at the tail end of last season as he made his way back to full fitness from the pectoral injury which side-lined him for several months.
“I was involved with him when we were at the Border Rivers together so we had a chat and he said that strength and conditioning is something he can see himself having a future in but he needs a bit of experience, and with Bill Noble retiring after 30-years of outstanding service to the club we had a vacancy,” explains former scrum-half Chrystie. “To have somebody of the calibre of Ross coming in is excellent for the club. He has spent a lot of individual time with the players, and if you’re a front-rower then he has a wealth of knowledge to impart.
“There is a lot of talk at this time of year about how clubs have strengthened their team, but it is just as important for a club like us that we strengthen off-field so that we create opportunities for players to come in and get better.”
Chrystie will almost certainly be head coach of Melrose’s Super 6 franchise when that new tournament kicks off at the start of the 2019-20 season, although he is determined not give anything away before everything is signed, sealed and delivered.
Keeping an eye on the prize
“I’m speaking to the club, speaking to the SRU and speaking to the college [his current day job is as director of the rugby performance course at Edinburgh College]. I’m definitely interested in how it will all work,” he said.
“I’m 40 now so I’m not a young coach when you look at some of the guys out there like Pete Murchie, Fin Gillies and Stevie Lawrie. I’ve been involved as a coach at the club for eight years so if ever there was a time to dip your toe in then this it.
“I enjoy coaching, I like seeing people developing and getting better, and I like developing and getting better myself, so it obviously appeals.”
With so much change going on now, and even more about to come over the horizon, is it hard to focus on the task in hand?
“Players are pretty straight forward,” replies Chrystie. “A lot of our guys have expressed a lot of interest in Super 6, the prospect of a cross-border competition really excites them because they want to test themselves at the highest level possible. But the main thing is they are excited for this season – they don’t look too far in front – so Hawick away on Saturday is all that really matters at the moment.”
We live in a rapidly changing world, but Saturday could be a best from the past in terms of producing a good, old-fashioned, no-holds-barred Border derby.