THE run-in to the climax of the regular section of the Premiership season starts in earnest this weekend with all ten teams in club rugby’s top flight back in action after the Christmas break.
A titanic struggle beckons at Malleny Park where fourth placed Currie Chieftains host third placed Heriot’s with both teams knowing that that a win would be a massive step towards consolidating their play-off credentials while a defeat will, in all likelihood, leave them playing catch-up during the three remaining matches of the regular season.
Watsonians are breathing down that pair’s necks in fifth place, and will be desperate to win at home to a Glasgow Hawks side which showed great fighting spirit in rescuing two bonus points against Chieftains last weekend.
Top of the table Ayr face a tricky assignment when they welcome a Boroughmuir side riding high after a 73-10 drubbing of Edinburgh Accies last weekend, and who are bolstered by the return to the starting XV of talismanic captain Chris Laidlaw, who is fit again after an injury ravaged 2018. There will also be a couple of very familiar faces to the Millbrae faithful within the visiting ranks, in brother Craig and Kerr Gossman, although Archie Russell – another former Ayr player – is injured.
Second in the table Melrose will also know they need to be on top of their game at Bridgehaugh, when they take on a Stirling County side which bettered them in the Charity Shield at the start of the campaign.
At the other end of the league ladder, Edinburgh Accies are drinking in the last chance saloon. They really need to pick up their first win of the season at home to third bottom Hawick if they are to have any chance of climbing off the foot of the table. With it still not clear whether relegation is on or off the cards, it is vital that they conjure a performance and a result from somewhere.
HOW IT STANDS –
THE LOWDOWN –
EDINBURGH ACADEMICALS v HAWICK
VENUE: Raeburn Place @ 2.00pm
Edinburgh Accies: H Paterson; C Gray, R Kent, N Armstrong, T Brown; V Hart, M Love; C Imrie, R Simpson, M McGinley, M Badenhorst, R Seydak, J Mann, J Sole©, L Seydak. Subs: C Black, C Taylor, N Stephen, M Sinclair, R Mill.
Hawick: A Weir; K Ford, A Mitchell, G Walker, L Ferguson; L Armstrong, G Welsh, S Muir©, M Carryer, N Little, D Suddon, D Redpath, D Lowrie, S Graham, B McNeil. Subs: C Renwick, D Johnstone, G Lowrie, D Davison, K Davies.
TEAM NEWS –
Edinburgh Accies: A lot of changes after last week’s mauling by Boroughmuir. Another new centre partnership with Robbie Kent moving in from the wing, to joint Neil Armstrong in his first start after being injured on a tour with the Waterboys at the start of November. Vincent Hart replaced Richard Mill at stand-off, and Tom Brown is released by Edinburgh this week to play on the left wing. Rory Simpson comes in for Callum Black at hooker, while brothers Ronan and Lawrie Seydak also join the pack after returning from Australia and illness respectively.
Hawick: Kirk Ford and Lewis Ferguson come back into the side after impressing in the recent Border league matches. Back-row prospect Drew Davison returns on the bench after several weeks out injured.
KEY BATTLE: Lawrie Seydak versus Bruce McNeil
WHAT THE COACHES SAY –
“I am not concerned with us trying to be better than Hawick come the weekend – ability counts for nothing against Bruce McNeil and his ever-improving team. Heads down, sleeves up, and hands dirty is the only way we can approach the game; focussing on anything else is simply redundant …” – Derek O’Riordan (Edinburgh Accies)
“Massive week for us. We’ve have had a long break since Boxing Day so it is vital that we get into gear immediately. Accies had a tough time last week against Boroughmuir. We have been there before and there is no doubt that they will be very much up for this match and will come at us hard. We have had good sessions this week and we know what we need to do …” – George Graham (Hawick)
VERDICT: Derek O’Riordan has called this one right. There is still a chance that Accies could avoid the bottom (automatic relegation?) slot – but it is a dog’s chance – and to take advantage of it, they will have to play with a lot more commitment and spirit than they mustered against Boroughmuir last week. Hawick still have some way to go – but George Graham has at least got them playing for the jersey. It was tight when they met at Mansfield in October – but Hawick have moved on – and should have enough hard-nosed nous up-front to see them home.
CURRIE CHIEFTAINS v HERIOT’S
VENUE: Malleny Park @ 2.30pm
Currie Chieftains: J Forbes; B Robbins, J Reynolds, R Nelson©, S Hamilton; G Hunter, C Shiel; A McWilliam, F Scott©, M Argiro, V Wright, K McDonald, M Vernel, T Gordon, T Tameilau. Subs: G Carson, F Watt, M Sinclair, M Hooks, R Frostwick.
Heriot’s: C Simpson; R McMichael, R Jones, R Kay, C Robertson; S Edwards, A Simmers; M Bouab, M Liness, S Cessford, A Sinclair, C Marshall, I Wilson©, J McLean, R Leishman. Subs: A Johnstone, J Scott, C Jupp, S Dewar, A Ball.
TEAM NEWS –
Currie Chieftains: Mike Vernel returns from holiday at blindside flanker, and Joe Reynolds is back outside centre after his his wedding in New Zealand. Charlie Shiel is released back to the club after his first competitive appearance for Edinburgh last week, as one of three pros in the team alongside Glasgow Warriors pair Kiran McDonald and Tevita Tameilau, with Scott McGinley unfortunate to miss out Rhys Davies being the week off to rest a shoulder injury.
Heriot’s: Callum Marshall joins the engine room with Charlie Jump dropping to the bench. Struan Dewar, returns after an early season injury, to bolster a strong bench.
KEY BATTLE: Joe Reynolds versus Ross Jones
WHAT THE COACHES SAY –
“January is a massive month for the club if we are to achieve our goal of reaching the play-offs for a fifth consecutive season. With two games on the road to come against Watsonians and Melrose, it is vital we get a win at Malleny against a really strong Heriot’s team. We have had some fantastic contests against Heriot’s in recent seasons and I am sure this one is going to be no different, and will probably come right down to the final whistle. With some decent weather forecasted and the pitch in good condition, I am sure it will be a very entertaining game …” – Mark Cairns (Currie Chieftains)
“It looks like we are playing a Chieftains side full of confidence. This means we must quickly get back into our stride and not use the winter break as an excuse not to perform to the levels we were at pre-Christmas. With not one of the top four positions yet secure, all sides involved are aware of a slip up at this stage of the season being very costly. This should see a highly charged affair with both teams giving their all to secure the win …” – Phil Smith (Heriot’s)
VERDICT: This is a huge game in terms of play-off aspirations. Chieftains did as much as they needed to do against Hawks last week – but having Joe Reynolds, Charlie Shiel, Mike Vernel and Kiran McDonald back on board changes their dynamic. Heriots have good players who were going really well before the Christmas break – and they will see this as a game that they simply cannot afford to lose. It was a tremendous, keenly-contested game when they met in October with Chieftains claiming the spoils 27-23 thanks to a late Robbie Nelson try – and this could be similar.
Narrow home win.
WATSONIANS v GLASGOW HAWKS
(for the Bill McLaren Shield)
VENUE: Myreside@ 3.00pm
Watsonians: J Rowland; A Chalmers, R Hutton, D Innes, A Guthrie; L Millar, M Scott; G Jackson, R Graham, J Stanley, J Hodgson©, C McKill, J Miller, C Boyle, M Fedo. Subs: F Renwick, F Hobbis, C Fenton, E Fox, R Steele.
Glasgow Hawks: J Couper; L Masaga, M New, C Harrison, J McCready; L Brims, K Baretto; G Strain©, A Fraser, L Skinner, F Hastie, A Kirkland, C Thompson, M Smith, B Flockhart. Subs: P Cairncross, P Henderson, G Wilson, P Boyer, R Thompson.
TEAM NEWS –
Watsonians: Club captain Craig Borthwick us still out so second-row comrade Jamie Hodgson takes charge, with Charlie McKill alongside him in the engine room. Angus Guthrie comes in for Lomond MacPherson on the wing. Cammy Fenton is released by Edinburgh and is on the bench.
Glasgow Hawks: Lelia Masaga, Bruce Flockhart and Matt Smith are all released by Glasgow Warriors, with Masaga reverting back to his regular position on the wing after cameoing at inside centre against the Chieftains last week. Callum Harrison come in to take over the number 12 shirt. Kaleem Barreto’s impact off the bench last week earns a starting spot at scrum-half.
KEY BATTLE: Murray Scott versus Kaleem Barreto
WHAT THE COACHES SAY –
“It’s nice to get back into league action this weekend and we welcome a tough opponent in Glasgow Hawks. They will pose us many challenges and in particular we have highlighted the strength of their offloading game which they use to great effect. With the Bill McLaren Shield up for grabs and vital league points at stake this should be a cracker …” – Stevie Lawrie (Watsonians)
“A much better second half performance last week against Currie Chieftains and it was pleasing to pick up two bonus points in the fight to avoid relegation. However, the first half was extremely disappointing with a lack of discipline being the root cause of many of our problems. Watsonians are very much in the fight for top four and Stevie will be targeting this game as a home win to keep the pressure on Heriot’s and Currie. They had a good hit out against Heriot’s last week so there will be no rustiness from them and they are always extremely difficult to breakdown at Myreside. I hope that we have gained a bit of confidence from our second half performance last week and we can start at that level and maintain it for 80 minutes …” – Fin Gillies (Glasgow Hawks)
VERDICT: Watsonians have a confident settled look about them – and a powerful bench. Hawks mounted an encouragingly brave fightback against Chieftains last week – but it is difficult to see them jeopardising Watsonians play-off prospects or carrying the Bill McLaren Shield away from Myreside – though another couple of losing bonus points are not beyond the realm of possibilities.
Comfortable home win.
STIRLING COUNTY v MELROSE
VENUE: Bridgehaugh @ 3.00pm
Stirling County: J Hope; L Trotter, E Magarvie, C Robertson, R Tagive; A Goudie, P Jericevich; R Chies, A Orr, M Walker, R Bundy, C Henderson, G Arnott, H Burr©, A Mackie. Subs: B Robertson, A Nicol, S Yarrow, C Turnbull, C Lineen.
Melrose: F Thomson; G Wood, P Anderson, C Jackson, I Sim; S Hutchison, M McAndrew; G Shiels, R Ferguson, C Young, J Head, I Moody, N Irvine-Hess, R Darge, G Runciman©. Subs: F Scott, R McLeod, A Runciman, R Knott, D Colvine.
TEAM NEWS –
Stirling County: James Pow, Grant Hughes and Craig Sorbie are injured so Jonny Hope and Ross Bundy start while Charlie Dineen comes on to the bench
Melrose: James Head returns to the second-row and Under-20s prospect Rory Darge comes in at open-side. Finlay Scott, who is dual registered with Jed-Forest, and the explosive Ruardhi Knott, who returns from injury, are on a powerful bench.
KEY BATTLE: Hamilton Burr versus Rory Darge
WHAT THE COACHES SAY –
“Melrose is a a huge match for us at Bridgehaugh this weekend, and having played them in two matches already this season with one win a piece, the players understand fully the need to be fully focused and prepared for matches against the champions. Melrose offer challenges all over the field and nothing short of an 80 minute performance will suffice if we are to take full points from this fixture against a talented side …” – Eddie Pollock (Stirling County)
“Stirling County at Bridgehaugh is always a hugely challenging fixture. They are playing an exciting brand of rugby and have the ability to strike in a number of ways. It will be key that we defend well and take our opportunities if we are to get the desired result this weekend …” – Rob Chrystie (Melrose)
VERDICT: Stirling will be keen to impress their new Super-6 coach, Ben Cairns, at the first time of asking – but they will have to go some to get any change out of a Melrose side who will be anxious to bounce back from their disappointing defeat against Ayr last time out – and who will know full well that a place in the play-offs is by no means a ‘given’.
AYR v BOROUGHMUIR
VENUE: Millbrae @ 3.00pm
Ayr: G Anderson; P Dewhirst, P Kelly, D McCluskey, R Hughes; F Climo, H Warr; R Sayce, P MacArthur, S Longwell, A North, L Morrice, T Spinks, P McCallum©, B Macpherson. Subs: A McGuire, C Miller, D Corbenici A Rademaker, O Smith.
Boroughmuir: C Gossman; G Parker, W Wardlaw, G Cannie, J Edmunds; C Laidlaw, T Wilson; D Robertson, J Matthews©, R Montgomery, W Inglis, C Atkinson C Keddie, M Walker, R Drummond. Subs: T Gracie, S Smith A Mcnube, J Johnson, K Gossman.
TEAM NEWS –
Ayr: Three changes to the team which defeated Melrose before Christmas, with Tommy Spinks returns from injury in the back-row with David Corbenici dropping to the bench, Rory Hughes released by Glasgow Warriors and replacing Kyle Rowe on the wing, and fit again Grant Anderson coming back in at full-back for Scott Lyle.
Boroughmuir: Will Wardlaw and Greg Cannie come into the centres for the injured Jack Steele and Archie Russell. Chris Laidlaw starts at 10 with Gavin Parker moves on to the wing, and Kerr Gossman drops to the bench. In the pack Dale Robertson starts at loose-head for the injured Ross Dunbar
KEY BATTLE: Frazier Climo versus Chris Laidlaw
WHAT THE COACHES SAY –
“Boroughmuir arrive off the back of good form and have a number of dangers spread throughout their team. We will need to hit the ground running on Saturday to achieve the result we are looking for …” – Peter Murchie (Ayr)
“After a good win last week we know that this game is going to be one of the toughest of the season. The players have trained well and are excited and looking forward to the challenge …” – Peter Wight (Boroughmuir)
VERDICT: Live bullets for Boroughmuir at Millbrae after their walk in the park against Accies last week. They were well beaten in the corresponding fixture at Meggetland back in October – and even though they have enjoyed a good run of form through November and December – and have Chris Laidlaw back pulling the strings at ten – winning this one feels like a huge ask. Ayr are strong all over the park – they are at home – and Frazier Climo has rediscovered his mojo.