On the eve of another season we preview the comings and goings and the prospects for all the BT Premiership clubs. Key changes during the summer within Scottish Rugby will see the introduction of a play-off amongst the top four clubs to decide the title and also the scrapping of Scottish clubs competing in the British & Irish Cup.
There has also been a large influx of money from the BT Murrayfield deal and a complete change in support structure from the SRU. We have also seen 101 professional players drafted amongst all 10 clubs too including Sevens players and those on EDP contracts. However, both pro teams have also announced that there will also be eight Edinburgh and Glasgow reserve team games (each) this season which will further restrict squad player availability to Premiership clubs. There is also the view, held by some, that these reserve fixtures may also provide a platform for some of the better club players to shine and therefore actually deplete club sides at crucial points of the season.
Whatever the external factors that may come into play there are a host of new (and often young) coaches at the helm and some exciting new faces on the pitch too. As always the top tier of Scottish club rugby will be a fascinating contest.
At first glance it is easy to be underwhelmed by Ayrs signings this summer. Ex-professional player Rob McAlpine aside, the acquisition of Will Bordill and George Hunter is tempered by them both picking up EDP contracts with Glasgow Warriors and thus reducing their availability significantly. They’ve also lost their Zimbabwean prop Denford Mutamangira and replaced him with Fraser Watt of Currie. Add that to the departure of Finn Russell and Murray McConnell to Glasgow and Peter Jericevich to GHA and it looks like something of an exodus at Millbrae. However, when you dig deeper into their squad it is still full of British & Irish Cup hardened club players such as Grant Anderson, the Gossman brothers, Dean Kelbrick and the outstanding Nick Cox at prop. If they can keep this squad fit and motivated there is no reason why they shouldn’t be in the running for another tilt at the title.
Drafted Players: Murray McConnell, James Eddie, Jerry Yanuyanutawa, Jon Welsh, Dougie Hall, Ryan Grant, Finn Russell, Henry Pyrgos, Pat MacArthur and Sean Maitland (all Glasgow Warriors)
Prediction: 2nd – Still strong enough for a shot at the title.
Despite bouncing back from relegation last season to storm back into the Premiership, Muir have taken the opportunity to strengthen their squad significantly ahead of what will surely be a challenging season ahead. Irishmen Max McFarland and Mike Entwhistle as well as Kiwi centre Adam Laititi and Chris Laidlaw (formerly of Jed) catch the eye out of a list of new faces including Sam Bingham, Craig Keddie, Grant McConnell, Jonny Hamblin and Scott Rogers. Much will also depend on luck with draft player availability and their ability to win their home games if survival is to be assured. This starts with a huge game against Stirling County on Saturday.
Drafted Players: Carl Bezuidenhout, Simon Berghan, Sam Beard, Neil Cochrane, Tom Brown, Stuart McInally, Nick McLennan, Andrew Turnbull, Matt Scott and Tim Visser (all Edinburgh Rugby)
Prediction: 8th – Will be lucky to avoid the relegation dogfight but should have enough.
After 11 years at the helm, Ally Donaldson, and Graham ‘Greco’ Hogg have finally moved onto backroom roles at the club. Undoubtedly their experience will be missed, as will that of the talismanic Mark Cairns, who has retired from playing. The new coaching team of Ben Cairns and Fergus Pringle have a job on their hands to rebuild the young squad. George Horne and Fraser Watt have left but they still have Ross Weston to steer the pack, a host of young backs to hopefully add some sparkle at three-quarters and Richard Sneddon directing traffic at nine. This could however be a tough season for the Malleny Park faithful.
Drafted Players: Richie Vernon, Tom Ryder, Duncan Weir, James Downey, Peter Murchie, Mike Cusack, Kevin Bryce, DTH van der Merwe, Stuart Hogg, Tim Swinson and Jonny Gray (all Glasgow Warriors)
Prediction: 10th – Young coaching team have big boots to fill and have lost some key personnel on and off the field.
Edinburgh Academical FC
After flirting heavily with relegation last season Accies have put their faith in new coach Phil Leck to galvanise what is an, undoubtedly talented (if relatively inexperienced) squad. Having used more centrally contracted players than any other team last season their reliance on assistance from Murrayfield shows no sign of abating with their drafting of (first season pro automatic picks) Alex Allan, Alex Toolis, Chris Dean, Jamie Farndale and the signing of ex-pro Lewis Niven. They may be the club affected most by the Edinburgh Rugby reserve games this season and will need to establish a Plan B if their pro-contracted players become unavailable, otherwise they may again struggle.
Drafted Players: Alex Allan, Alex Toolis, Chris Dean, Jamie Farndale, Roddy Grant, Mark Robertson, Michael Fedo, Phil Burleigh, Ben Atiga and Cornell Du Preez (all Edinburgh Rugby)
Prediction: 7th – Good enough to avoid relegation, not strong enough to make a real impact.
Gala were so agonisingly close to glory last season one cannot help but wonder if their chance has passed them by. It is difficult to see past the enormous holes that the departures of Ewan McQuillin and Rory Sutherland will leave in the Gala front row. They have sought contingency by the return of Paul Stewart and Callum Mackintosh but the preseason injury to Craig Borthwick is another big blow. On the plus side, the mercurial Opei Palepoi has signed on for another season, George Graham Jr is back from injury and in Ruairi Howarth they have an exciting talent for new backs coach Chris Dalgleish to work with. However, achieving parity with last season will be hard for the men in maroon.
Drafted Players: Brett Thompson, James Hilterbrand, Fraser McKenzie, Gregor Young, Sam Hidalgo-Clyne, Lewis Young, Grayson Hart, Anton Bresler and David Denton (all Edinburgh Rugby)
Prediction: 5th – Some rebuilding required but still a force.
Glasgow Hawks RFC
Quietly and studiously Hawks have had arguably the best summer of recruitment of all the top tier teams. Ex-Glasgow Warrior Fin Gillies is a huge coup, Scotland U19 player Lyall Archer, George Horne(brother of Peter) of Currie, the talented Brendan McGroarty of Greenock plus (and it is a big plus) the devastating finisher that is Erland Oag from Aberdeen Grammar make up an impressive roster of new faces. Gregor Hunter has however signed professional forms and will be missed but in Jamie Dempsey they also have one of the best coaches in the league too. After finishing runner up in last seasons cup final I expect them to be potential dark horses for silverware this term.
Drafted Players: Alastair Kellock, Alex Dunbar, Colin Gregor, Tyrone Holmes, Peter Horne, Mark Bennett, Gordon Reid, Sean Lamont, Chris Fusaro, Euan Murray and Niko Matawalu (all Glasgow Warriors)
Prediction: 4th – This years surprise package.
To hear talk of ‘sustainability for all of Hawick rugby’ and of ‘bringing Hawick players back to Hawick’ is music to the ears of the rugby purist. For too long fractious, bitter infighting and the lure of wages at other clubs has restricted the success of all the Hawick teams. With new player/coach a Hawick native Nikki Walker at the helm and school friend and Newcastle Falcons player Scott Macleod advising him there is a homely feel about Mansfield Park. So far they have welcomed Michael Robertson, Gary Lowrie, Hue Scammell and Matty Douglas back into the Green Machine but how well they fair this season will depend (as always with Hawick) on the fighting spirit in the camp.
Drafted Players: Joaquin Dominguez, Ollie Atkins, Tomas Leonardi, Allan Dell, Tom Heathcote, Michael Tait, John Andress, Jack Cuthbert, Mike Coman and Grant Gilchrist (all Edinburgh Rugby)
Prediction: 6th – Mansfield Park will be a (more) difficult place to visit this season.
Often the ability to retain top players at a club is a true marker of success. Heriots have demonstrated this by confidently embarking on the new season with their Scottish Cup winning side still intact and their draft players carefully and cleverly chosen. As they showed in the recent Charity Shield over Melrose at the Greenyards, their settled approach and solid squad featuring players such as Russell Nimmo, Jason Hill, Graham Wilson, Jack Turley, Liam Steele, Max Learmonth, and Harry Boisseau is very much still a force to be reckoned with. Add to that the ‘automatic’ draft pick of George Turner, Struan Cessfords return and the arrival of a number of Scotland Under 18 caps and the Nails will be there or there about again this year.
Drafted Players: George Turner, Ben Toolis, Jamie Ritchie, Hamish Watson, Struan Dewar, James Fleming, Alasdair Dickinson, Scott Riddell, Greig Tonks and Russell Weir (all Edinburgh Rugby)
Prediction: 3rd – Another solid season for The Nails.
There’s been some high-profile recruitment work at the Greenyards during the off-season. The headline grabber is the acquisition of prop Ewan McQuillin from rivals Gala (who is also confusingly contracted to Edinburgh Rugby in some capacity too, go figure), former Clermont Auvergne academy player Murdo MacAndrew and former Edinburgh EDP lock Neil Irvine-Hess from affiliate club Watsonians. They will also have the exciting young duo of Blair Hutchison and Rory Talland to bolster the backs and to offset the serious preseason injury to Joe Helps they are bringing an (as yet unnamed) Australian winger in as cover. They may also feel the loss of backs coach Ciaran Beattie to Loughborough University but nevertheless, all going well, expect them to finish in the top four at the very least.
Drafted Players: Damien Hoyland, Scott Wight, Wicus Blaauw, Sean Kennedy, James Johnstone, Dougie Fife, Willem Nel, Ross Ford and Andries Strauss (all Edinburgh Rugby)
Prediction: 1st – Champions
Stirling County RFC
Rumours of a squad overhaul at Bridgehaugh seem to bear weight with the sheer volume of new players announced as arriving at the club this summer. Former Edinburgh scrum half Alex Black along with new players Jamie Urquhart , Matteo Minari, James Couper and Cammy Hughes are augmented by a number of players stepping up from the Under-18s including forwards Matthew Smith and Lewis Wynne, who were both called-up to the Scotland Under-19 squad recently. The loss of Will Bordill is a big blow though. Much will depend on Countys ability to gel their new look squad this season; don’t be surprised if it takes some time.
Drafted Players: Adam Ashe, Rory Hughes, Lee Jones, Fraser Brown, Leone Nakarawa, Ryan Wilson, Rossouw de Klerk, Robert Harley, Tommy Seymour, Colin Shaw and Josh Strauss (all Glasgow Warriors)
Prediction: 9th – Overhaul may take time to work.