In the Borders rugby is a significant part of the region’s rural makeup. In almost all rugby clubs down there you will spot a wall with a framed mural on it, commemorating glorious years gone by. There is a rich heritage of match-ups between boroughs and towns bursting with civic pride. For many years these small towns have defied logic as they continually produce teams of rugby players from small groups. This ‘Us against Everyone’ feeling that all the clubs have is one that perpetually regenerated their own league, the oldest in rugby history, the Borders League.
Now that competition, although still holding some significance, is a more minor part of the Borders rugby calendar. It is sometimes played in tandem with the Scottish cup so as to keep the schedule uncluttered. The bigger teams have an acute focus on the domestic national league that they take part in as the Borders fixtures serve only as a throwback to the days when reputation mattered most and local bragging rights served more purpose than a shot at silverware and a spot above all the other townies from ‘round Scotland.
I have vague memory of a time when Hawick were an unstoppable force in Scottish rugby, smashing away opposition on their trail to League and Cup doubles. There are plenty of murals in their sheds, anyway. Now they have become a team staving off ‘must-win’ headlines in a perennial bid to beat the drop.
I also remember being sent to a pre-season photo call at Murrayfield at the age of 18 to represent Dundee High because I was the only member of the first XV living in Edinburgh. We had just been promoted and it would be my first season starting in Premier One. I knew most of the guys there, and I recognised all of the badges on their shirts. As the interviews ticked over and journalists looked to make a headline out of clashes between familiar foes I had a Dictaphone placed in front of my face. Allan Massie smiled at me and asked, “What is it like for a club like yours to play one of the Grand Old Clubs in Scottish rugby; Melrose?”
I cannot recall how exactly I answered the question, but I remember thinking, “yeah. We are away to play one of the most famous clubs in Scotland.”
At that time Melrose were not the force they had once been as teams like Hawks had been dominating the club scene for a few years. Hawick were no longer a powerhouse, Kelso and Gala had fallen down the leagues and we had just kept Jed Forrest from achieving promotion to the top table. I did, however, know who all of these teams were and everyone I spoke to knew of the history of such clubs.
In recent years Melrose have climbed their way back to the top. Last season they celebrated Borders titles, King of The Sevens’ crowns, a Melrose Sevens victory, a B&I Cup place, a Cup runner-up spot and a Premier One title. They had a pretty good year!
In doing so they also distanced themselves from the other Borders sides. Every other Borders team wanted to take a shot at them in the Borders League because they were flying so high. Hawick and Selkirk were having to fight for their P1 survival in Premier B (post split) and in the end Selkirk dropped down. Following this the prediction was that Melrose would consolidate this year whilst Hawick and Gala, newly promoted from that Premier B, would be fighting to avoid relegation.
How wrong we all were…
Melrose are indeed near the top as we approach the halfway stage, enjoying more bonus points than anyone else and occupying a B&I Cup place. So far so good. The problem is, though, that since influential flanker-come-coach John Dalziel injured himself playing for The South Melrose have been underperforming. They have still scraped by a few times but for them it is not good enough. Particularly since, much to the chagrin of the ‘Rose faithful and the shock of everyone else, Gala are occupying the top spot.
As it stands there are 2points between these famous Border clubs. Gala have come a long way to challenge Melrose and have done well in the first half of the season but there is only one game left before we all take a break from P1 proceedings. Both of these teams face each other at Netherdale this Saturday, 3pm, to see which side could be top come the split.
Suddenly any heat that may have dissipated from Borders league fixtures, any spark missing from cup games or any fire drawn out of local rivalries have just been stoked up again. No more perceptions of grandeur and assumptions of underdog status. Both of these teams will be duking it out to see if they are the best in the South, at least as the New Year rolls in.
We already know at this stage which sides are to fall away into Premier B. For Heriot’s, Accies, Hawks and Hawick it is a case of starting again after the festive break. For The quarrelling neighbours of Gala and Melrose, though, it is more of a culmination of ongoing tensions. Both teams may be glad of a wee league break, because on the 5th of November there may be fireworks going off at Netherdale long before anyone has even thought about mentioning Guy Fawkes.
Here are the final Premier One fixtures before the split:
Aberdeen Grammar v Boroughmuir, 14:00
Dundee High v Heriot’s, 14:00
Edinburgh Acads v Currie, 14:00
@ Raeburn Place
Gala v Melrose, 15:00
Hawick v Glasgow Hawks, 14:00
@ Mansfield Park
Stirling County v Ayr, 15:00