The experimental evaluations of players, line-ups, styles and combinations are almost at an end as a new season of domestic club rugby dawns.
The BT National League programme for 2017-18 begins in Saturday – with some of the divisional contests already under way – signalling another season of hope and ambition for south Scotland clubs.
The BT Premiership features Melrose, who topped the table last season but were just shaded out in the championship play-off by Ayr – and Hawick, who only clung on to Premiership status after a play-off win over Edinburgh Accies.
Melrose, who defeated Ayr in last week’s Charity Shield encounter, and have many of last term’s faces still in the ranks, begin with a home game against Watsonians.
While the highs of last season might be expected again by some Greenyards regulars, head coach Rob Chrystie pointed out it was “a new year”.
He said this weekend would be really tough, adding: “Watsonians have recruited well and brought in some really good high-profile players, so it’s going to be a massive challenge – they have a new coach as well, so will be trying to put down a marker there.
“Our focus is on ourselves and trying to make ourselves better as a group this year. The boys have definitely worked hard throughout pre-season, so I am excited to see how they go this weekend.”
Hoping for a large crowd and a high-quality game, Chrystie added: “The big concern is to make sure we are not complacent in what we do.
“The amount of work and effort, and the performances the boys had to put in last year to get where we got to needs to be replicated – and some.”
Hawick welcome Currie Chieftains to Mansfield Park and, following their concluding pre-season tussle with Glasgow Hawks, captain Bruce McNeil said: “That performance has to be our base moving forward into the new Premiership season.
“We cannot allow our performance to dip any lower than that.”
Praising the Greens’ forward play and driving maul, he added: “If we want to make it into the top six this season, we will have to be better but, if we can make sure our performances never go any lower than that, then we have something to work with.”
Almost half of BT National League Division One is composed of Borders clubs – Jed-Forest, Selkirk, relegated Gala and newly-promoted Kelso – which many believe will be good for intensive local rugby and, hopefully, attendance figures.
Gala president Bob Sneddon believes the Maroons can make an instant return to the Premiership – starting with Saturday’s visit to Aberdeen Grammar.
Around 16 players moved on from Netherdale after the drop to League One curtailed payments, but Sneddon said he was highly impressed with the new-look squad and said there was an enthusiasm about the club which wasn’t there last season.
“Some of the lads we have are up from the Wanderers and some players stayed from last season,” he said. “I have seen them three times this season and they are very, very impressive.
“I really hope to go to Aberdeen and come back with a five-point win. That’s not false speculation.”
Sneddon said there were “mixed feelings” on Gala’s ability to escape from League One at the first time of asking but added: “My personal feeling is we have a squad which will take us back to the Premiership on a one-off straight. Then we worry about that once we get there – but I am quite sure the lads are able to do that.
“The coaching team is getting on very well with the lads. There is great enthusiasm and they are bonding well as players, and people, and that makes a big difference. It’s going back to the Gala of old days, when people played for the shirt.”
Kelso begin with a Borders derby at Jed-Forest, and the black-and-whites are confident after a 35-20 win in the BT National Cup against Cartha QP, who just pipped them to first place in Division Two last season.
A number of players had departed but there were some new arrivals, including coach Gary Stevens, from New Zealand.
Kelso’s Norman Anderson said: “We’re looking forward to it. Jed were a good side last year. They have obviosuly recruited and they had a good win last week at Peebles, so we’re expecting to have a tough game. It’s a local derby – form tends to disappear out the back door with local derbies.”
“It’s an important game because there are all sorts of changes in a couple of years’ time with the Super Six League. Everybody has just got to be as close to the top as they can possibly be, so they can finish in the right league that’s going to be suitable for their rugby.”