WITH their picturesque Myreside base in the upmarket Edinburgh suburb of Morningside, and their commitment to playing an attractive, expansive style of rugby, Watsonians have built a reputation over the years as being a nice team to watch – and also a nice team to play against. It is perhaps a lazy stereotype, but there has been enough truth in it to have gained traction.
So, when Stevie Lawrie left Heriot’s last summer (after a successful stint as forwards coach which included two league titles and two cup successes) to take over the reins at Watsonians, high on his list of things to do was to create a more cohesive culture in which everything about the 1st XV squad is geared towards pushing the club forward both on and off the park.
“Perception is everything,” says the former Edinburgh hooker who was capped for Scotland against Samoa in 2013. “If you look at the consistency that teams like Melrose and Ayr have shown over the last couple of seasons, there is a perception about them which they work really hard to live up to, because it is a perception – as professionals doing things properly – that they are rightly proud of.
“I’ve spoken quite openly with the players about there being a disconnect between the 1stXV and the club traditionally, and we’ve probably under-achieved given the resources we have. The committee are so supportive, if you ask for things and have good reasoning then you will get them, so I know I’m really fortunate to be in this position at club which has huge potential.
“Watsonians finished sixth in the Premiership the season before I joined, so they had cemented their position after a couple of years away from the top flight, which was great,” he continued. “But I really wanted to make sure that they were grounded – that they understood that it is not just about Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, it is about something bigger because that’s what gets you over the line in tight games.
“Whether it means helping out with the minis, attending social events, meeting sponsors – all the things you’d expect from a semi-professional organisation we need to be doing – and I have to say that the guys have bought into that.
“And you kind of suss out the guys who are buying into it because you are hitting them with a [proverbial] stick, and the guys who buy into it because they actually see the transfer of doing those things to the perception of your club.
“It’s a club that I played for, that I know and love, but ultimately it was for the guys to get on board with that. It has been a bit forced culture, but I feel like it is getting embedded now.”
After a slow start to the last Premiership campaign, which included a painful 54-22 mauling by Melrose at the Greenyards on the opening weekend, Lawrie’s team began to build up a head of steam in the lead-up to Christmas and were arguably the form club in the country during the second half of the season. Ultimately, however, they did not have enough gas in the tank to get past Melrose in both the Premiership play-off and BT Cup semi-final at the end of the campaign.
In theory, the challenge is to go one hurdle further this year, but Lawrie – whilst optimistic about what the future holds – is not going to allow his team to get ahead of themselves.
“At Heriot’s, it took a year for Phil Smith and I to really get there in terms of what we expected from the team and what they expected from us, and the second season went really well, so I hope it is a similar situation for myself, Richard Snedden and Neil Cochrane [his assistant coaches] this year,” he says.
“I think we are a wee bit further ahead than we were 12 months ago in terms of how pre-season has gone, so from that point of view it is quite exciting – but looking at last season, and at the activity of all the clubs over the summer, I think it is going to be another one of those years when anybody and beat anybody.
“From my point of view, we’ve retained what we wanted to retain which was really important,” he continued. “That’s not saying anything against the guys who have left because if we could have kept all of them we would have loved to have done that. It would have been good to have that continuity – we’ve had a slightly bigger turnover than we would have liked – but having said that we’ve got a really coachable group, and that’s quite exciting for me.”
Perhaps the most notable departure is of number eight Rory Drummond, who has nipped across Colinton Road to join near neighbours Boroughmuir.
“Rory had a couple of suspensions and a few injuries as well so I think it was a frustrating season for him. He decided to move on for various reasons and he was straight up and down with the way he dealt with that so there are absolutely no issues there,” says Lawrie. “He wanted to go to Boroughmuir for his own reasons and that’s absolutely fair enough. He left on good terms and we wish him all the best, except when we play against them!
“As coaches we have to take the emotion out of it. It is about managing speed bumps. We’ve got to have constructive conflict and, ultimately, guys have left for different reasons – clash of personalities, rugby reasons, work reasons. That’s life. All I can say is that I really believe in the group we have here.”
It has not been all one-way traffic. Former Scotland Under-20s hooker Fraser Renwick has joined the ever-growing Hawick contingent at Myreisde, which already included Ross Graham [also a hooker], Scott McLeod and Rory Hutton. Lawrie also selected Hawick’s Darcy Graham as his first pick in the pro player draft.
“I don’t think I’ll be hanging around Hawick for too long after our game down there,” he smiled, almost sheepishly, before fighting his corner when it is pointed out that it might be perceived as slightly greedy to have two Hawick hookers at his disposal. “You know what? It’s not a case of actively poaching them, but if there is a discussion to be had then we will have it. Fraser joined us this year after he had a conversation with his academy manager down there and decided this was best for his career.
“There is a lot of good hookers in this league. He is going to have competition for places wherever he goes, but Ross is somebody I believe is good enough to go pro and might well do that sooner rather than later. Fraser will get plenty of game time.”
In fairness, Hawick is not the only town in the Borders represented at the club, with Craig Borthwick – formerly of Peebles and Gala – retaining the captaincy this year.
“That creates a bit of continuity because we can complement his leadership – which is very straight-down-the-middle and honest – with guys who will really pick up the positive stuff as well, in Rory Hutton and Jamie Hodgson.
“I really like coaching Borders players. It is a total generalisation, but they are a bit of a different animal. It is more ingrained in the rugby culture than it is in Edinburgh, there is an industry associated with them, and that’s something we tap into in terms of the DNA of this team. It’s about making guys aware of what we are made up of, not shying away from it, and being 100 percent loyal to the team you are with at that moment. It is great that we have all these guys who have had different rugby journeys because it enriches the squad, I believe.”
Lawrie has also picked up two of the most exciting youngsters to come out of last year’s Scotland Under-18s programme in Merchiston Castle wing/full-back Rufus McLean and Stewarts-Melville flanker Conor Boyle.
Tight-head prop Jack Stanley – a former Exeter Chiefs prospect – has arrived on a partnership deal with Edinburgh Rugby; and former Gala stand-off Lee Millar has returned north after a fairly frustrating spell playing for London Scottish then Rotherham Titans in the English Championship.
“I’m really excited about the season ahead,” says Lawrie, as the interview draws to a close. “It is the last one in the current form and there is a lot of people with a lot to prove. I hope it is a spectacle this year because I’ve really enjoyed it since the play-offs came in four years ago.
“The stress on players and coaches is underestimated. It is all very well saying that it is not fit for purpose, but I can assure you that when you are in it and watching people’s reactions, it means the world to the people involved – and that’s what club rugby should be.
“We’re pretty guarded about what outcome goals we have set ourselves as a group,” he concludes. “We can look at processes in terms of how we train and our behaviours on and off the field quite subjectively, but I think in measurables such as where we will finish we want to be keep that to ourselves at this stage.
“But we did make two semi-finals last year, so you have to be looking to kick on from there.”