BY THEIR own high standards, Heriot’s have had a disappointing couple of seasons. Cup-winners in 2014, champions in 2015 and then double-winners the following year, they have since missed out on the play-offs twice, being edged out first by Currie and then by Watsonians. It is a relative decline which has led head coach Phil Smith to examine his own approach, from practical details like how to conduct pre-season training, to the far broader question of how to treat the league campaign as a whole.
More or less since the play-off system started, Smith has argued that the regular season is about simply getting into the top four, not trying to finish first. On paper he is right, of course, because as long as you are in that leading quartet you still have a chance to become champions. But being pipped twice for a play-off place has made him think again.
“I’ve always said it’s not about finishing first, it’s getting into the top four, so don’t worry about losing some games,” he explained. “But I’m of the opinion now that we want to finish top two. That’s what our aim should be: try and get a home semi-final, because it makes a difference.”
Always the bridesmaid?
The extra pressure generated by that ambition could make all the difference. Given how close the club came to the top four, there would certainly seem to be no need for a major overhaul at Goldenacre. Instead, Smith has tweaked his approach to pre-season, in the hope that the narrow margins of defeat in the opening encounters a year ago can be overturned.
“That’s two seasons running that we’ve missed out by a game. So you start reflecting back, and in the first game of the season we had a chance to score a fourth try that would have won the game against Stirling and given us five points as opposed to one.
“The second game was down at Marr, we had a chance to score a fourth try to give us a 10-point lead with two minutes to go. We blew it, and they scored at the end. That changed what would have been a five-point win down to one point. So there’s eight points without even looking at other games.
“I was probably to blame for the fact that in our pre-season we tried something different and it didn’t work. This pre-season has been different: a bit more game-organised. I’m hoping that will make the difference.”
Making the fine margins pay
At least two other factors will make a difference this time, according to Smith. The first is the extra experience accrued over the past couple of seasons by what was a relatively new and untried squad in the autumn of 2016, and the other is the addition this summer of a couple of players who could add that vital bit of quality.
“The three seasons where we won leagues and cups, there was a huge turnover at the end of the last season of that. We maybe just didn’t recruit well enough, but that’s a problem when you’ve got success – players decide not to come because they can’t get a game.
“Now we’re in the position where I think we’ve recruited well, and we’re on the back of two seasons where the boys who were new are now fully involved and ready to have a crack at it. And also there’s a bit motivation this year with it being the last championship, and we’ve kind of stressed that. We want to be up there saying let’s try and win it.
“[Back-row forward] Jason Hill is back, which is great, and he’s bringing everything from the two years of pro rugby that he’s had. Jack Turley has left – he’s finally gone home.
“We’ve picked up [No 8] Ruaridh Leishman from Stirling County. There’s no doubt that he’ll be a key player – he was probably their best player. He lives up the road from Goldenacre, so it was a travel thing for him, and I hope he feels we give him more opportunities to get a medal.
“[Scrum-half] Andrew Simmers is back. He has no ambitions to be a pro rugby player – he’s very fixated on getting his engineering degree and going into that line of employment.
“And [centre] Scott Robeson has come out of school. The bits I’ve seen of him have been pretty exciting.”
Progress on and off the park
As well as being enthused by those new recruits, Smith has also been reassured by the off-field activities at Goldenacre as Heriot’s prepare for life in the Super 6. “The club has improved massively over the last few years off the field. The Board are excellent at picking up sponsorship and all the extras that they try to attach to the club. They’ve definitely improved, and they know that to go to Super 6 they need to do it again and do it better. We’ve got great people to make it happen.”
Smith himself looks sure to be one of the people helping to make it happen next season, though almost certainly not as head coach. Currently head of rugby at Glasgow Academy, he considered applying for a Super 6 coaching post but has now accepted it will be more realistic to assist whoever comes in at Goldenacre – with Finlay Gillies of Glasgow Hawks one name that is in the running, while former Border Reivers scrum-half and current Scotland Women’s assistant coach Ciaran Beattie is also believed to have been interviewed.
“I asked the rector and he said ‘I can’t replace you – where do I go and find a head of rugby for a small amount of time? I just can’t do it.’
“That’s fine. It was just a question.
“So the intention, I think, is that I’ll hang around and assist the guy coming in and be his assistant coach for a season. And if it works out that he’s happy and I’m happy with it, then we’ll just continue it.
“There’s a part of me that feels it would be great not to have all the stress of running everything, for a season at least. Let someone else do it and just be told what to do. Or be there just to help.”
Hawks are first up for Heriot’s at Balgray on Saturday, then comes the first home game of the season, against Watsonians. Two demanding fixtures, they should be the ideal test for Smith’s new-look side.