The half way point reached in Premier 1 on Saturday and there is a sense of the standards having slipped back a little from last year’s outstanding season. I have no objective reasons for saying that – just a subjective sense that the games seen this season have not been played at the same level of skill and pace. The results in the British & Irish cup so far – 8 games played, 8 games lost – would seem to support that view.
If so, where might the reasons lie? Here are a few thoughts.
- Coaching Talent Drain
Premier One has lost 3 outstanding club coaches this season – Craig Chalmers from Melrose, Simon Cross from Edinburgh Accies, and Kenny Murray from Ayr. In addition Dundee’s relegation and Ian Rankin’s subsequent loss to them has meant the loss of another experienced coach. That’s not to say their replacements aren’t of the same quality; it’s simply to acknowledge that each of these men are hugely competitive and they had sides playing last year that they had developed over 3 or 4 seasons.
- Scrum changes
Watching GHA v Boroughmuir in National League 1 on Saturday, I had a definite sense of fewer collapsed scrums (a good thing), but there was still considerable dispute between players, coaches and referee as to how the scrum should be contested. There were loud ironic cheers from the GHA crowd in the 70th minute when the referee finally penalised Boroughmuir for a squint feed by the scrum half, when most of the home crowd reckoned Boroughmuir had been getting away with it every time until then.
- Natural Life-Cycle of Teams
Currie are the most obvious example of this. Having developed Brown, Fife, Johnstone, and Scott in recent seasons, all of whom now play professionally, they appear to be at the start of a new cycle of development with the likes of Rauridh Smith, George Horne, Reece Patterson and Karl Main all coming into their first XV this season straight from school.
- The Pressure of Pro-Rugby
Much has been made of the apparent short-term fixes by Edinburgh this season, with a raft of signings from overseas brought in to aid Alan Solomons transition of the team. I just wonder what the trickle down impact of that is, further down the ladder? For example, the signings of Du Preez, Coman and Leonardi – what does that do for the motivation of Richie McIver, Callum Reid, Andrew Nagle, and Gary Graham, who have been outstanding back row players in Premier 1 the last 2 years? With every average Southern hemisphere midfield signing the disappointment level in Rory Hutton’s Twitter account increases. In addition to that, the ‘attrition’ rate of injuries among young players trying to bridge the gap in terms of strength development seems increasingly high – the likes of Gavin Lowe and Andy Redmayne have hardly been seen on a rugby pitch this season since they signed EDP forms, likewise Bruce Dick last season and this season. Are the injuries that keep them out an inevitable consequence of having to build up muscle so that they are strong enough to contribute to the pro-game? This is not a criticism of anyone; it’s simply an observation. Callum Templeton spent most of his 2 years as an EDP at Glasgow injured; Murray McConnell likewise. Now Templeton is back playing every week at Ayr.
Undoubtedly it is difficult at an amateur level to sustain a squad to be competitive throughout the season on all fronts. Coaches have to decide on priorities. For example, Gala opted to rest the Graham brothers in the first week of the British & Irish Cup, Ayr left Finn Russell out of the second week, and Stirling rested the experienced Alex Moffat and Brian Archibald. In contrast Melrose, without B&I participation this year, have been able to field a relatively settled side every week as they have reached half way with an 8 win- 1 loss record.
So, there’s some possible reasons for a slight step back in standards. Nothing to say, that the clubs can’t or won’t step up again for the second half of the season. And there’s still plenty of exciting rugby out there on a Saturday afternoon. Boroughmuir on Saturday, with a new coaching team of Bruce Aitchison, Ben Fisher and Steve Bates, looked a well drilled and organised team. With Damian Hoyland having moved to Melrose to continue playing Premier One, Boroughmuir have unearthed another outstanding young prospect in his place on the wing in Jordan Edmunds. Alex Cox and Stevie Wilson had pace and creativity at centre, the match of any Premier One side, and young props Robbie Wilson and Angus Wallace had impressive mobility and stability respectively. GHA, finding their feet at this level after promotion last year, competed well for an hour either side of half time. Their outstanding young wing prospect James Couper, couldn’t have a better teacher beside him on the field than ex-Glasgow Pro Hefin O’ Hare, while Sean Fisher and Grant McDonald, both look capable of going further in the game with a bit more fitness work.
In Premier 1 Hawks are building an increasingly impressive pack, while Hawick’s surprise win at Heriots on Saturday suggests they may be getting the bit between their teeth. Stirling County, Aberdeen and Edinburgh Accies will all need to step up their game a bit to avoid getting embroiled in a relegation play off dogfight.