HAVING beaten Melrose in the Charity Shield as well as recording resounding victories over Marr and Glasgow Hawks, Stirling County could hardly have hoped for a better start to the season. The aim now is to maintain that form consistently in the Tennent’s Premiership, avoiding the slump that saw them slip perilously close to the relegation zone last time round.
Back to help them do that – and to oversee the transition into Super 6 – is head coach Eddie Pollock. This is a fourth spell at Bridgehaugh for the club’s former director of rugby, and he expects it to be a brief one, with the aim being to appoint a new coach around the turn of the year and give him time to settle in under Pollock before taking over in the summer. Currie Chieftains head coach Ben Cairns has been linked with the job, but a public announcement must wait until the full Super 6 contract has been signed.
While Pollock will play a key role in helping the new coach integrate, his overall remit is a far broader one. “I’ve got to leave Stirling in a better place than I got it,” he explained. “My job is to look at things this year and try and get us in the best place possible for Super 6.
“We’ve got a lot of young players here, a couple of guys coming from Dundee, and two young Stage Three lads – Murphy Walker and Cammie Henderson. They’ve been allocated to us for the season.
“Apart from that, pretty much as we were last year, and things have been going really well so far. Before the Melrose game we played Marr and won eight tries to three, I think, then played Hawks and it was eight tries to two for us.
“The big thing this year is we want to get our squad to the stage where the maximum number of Stirling guys can get into Super 6 on merit. We’re looking to appoint a Super 6 coach early – hopefully he’ll come in about Christmas time and work alongside myself for the rest of the year, and that will give him an opportunity to see how the players are, rather than come in completely new and not know anybody.”
Peter Jericevich, who took charge of the first team last year, remains as assistant coach. Chris Faill will work with the second team, whose name has been changed this year to Stirling County Wolves, while the third team is called Stirling Accies, reflecting the club’s link with Stirling University.
So will the first team also rebrand when Super 6 begins? Certainly not, as Pollock explained. “Our team in Super 6 will be called Stirling County. We’ve always been a town team. If we called it something else there would be a danger that people wouldn’t understand what it was. We felt as a club it was really important to retain that identity. People come to watch Stirling County, and we wanted to stick with that.”
And when people come to watch Stirling County this season, Pollock’s aim is for them to see a team that works hard, that is able to adapt its style of play when conditions demand, and that plays with greater consistency than last season – above all in defence.
The case for the defence
“The players have been working really hard in training, and we’re certainly in a better state than we were this time last year. It was disappointing, watching a bit from the outside in, that after doing quite well before the break we only won one game in the second half of the league.
“To be honest, the guys went AWOL in November when we had a month’s break. We didn’t handle that right – I think their fitness levels dropped off, and also at the point teams probably worked us out a bit and how we were trying to play. I don’t think we adapted to that and were able to change our style, especially as the weather got heavier and wetter.
“So it was a mixture of things. We finished strongly with some real good performances in the cup to get to the final, and I think getting there has meant the players have got the bit between their teeth. They’ve realised ‘Hold on a minute, we can actually compete at a high level’.
“The club is very ambitious and always has been. The big thing for us is we always want to be competitive in the top half of the league and challenging for the top four all the time.
“We were disappointed that we didn’t make the top four last season, because we’d done most of the groundwork. The big challenge this year, to be honest, is not so much the ability of the side, it’s to be consistent.
“We have to improve defensively – we lost far too many scores last season. One of the challenges of the club is the success of the youth section: we win a lot of games by a lot of points – there’s not too many 12-10s – so if we lose a couple of tries we just go and score four. And at times some of our youngsters have grown up not really relishing defence. That’s something we’re aware of and will try to improve this year. That’s probably been our weakness over the last few years.”
Growing a professional attitude
County showed in their 28-26 win at the Greenyards last week that on their day they are a match for the best teams in the country, but Pollock knows that getting his team playing to that level week in, week out is a tougher nut to crack. “Ayr and Melrose, for me, have been the two teams that have been the most professional in the way they’ve gone about things. They’ve worked harder.
“I think if you look at the way a team defends you can tell what their attitude’s like. When you play against Melrose and Ayr there’s always a real effort to keep the scoresheet as close to zero as possible. They’re well organised as clubs, so for me they’re both already Super 6 teams. I think everybody else has got to try to get to that standard, off the field as well as on.
“We want to be challenging in the cup and in the league. Melrose have set a benchmark for everybody else, so it’s about closing that gap, and that’s going to be hard. We’ve got to go out and make every effort to do that.
“It is a big challenge. But it’s about maintaining the effort throughout the season, rather than for just a few weeks as we did last year.”