It’s a different Premiership – but expect a battle royal

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If the 2014-15 Premiership generates the exciting finish of last season, then rugby fans should already be salivating at the thought of great matches to come.

Last campaign’s competition went down to the wire, both at the top and in the relegation zone, providing compelling viewing, not to mention anxious moments for the clubs involved.

This season, a number of changes will affect the league, perhaps most notably the absence of British and Irish Cup representation.

While that denies players exposure to higher levels of competition, it nevertheless slices the physical price that so many players pay for mixing it with fitter and stronger professionals, often resulting in teams being below par when they resume playing in the Premiership.

The offset, however, is the introduction of play-offs, the merits of which will split opinion. Does it add to the excitement at the end of the season? Does it ask too much of players? And then there is the vexatious issue of a club finishing top at the end of the league season and then losing out in the play-offs.

Another factor is the reduction in the size of the playing squads at Edinburgh and Glasgow. Effectively, this will mean that pro players are much less likely to turn out for Premiership clubs.

So how will the Borders clubs fare? Melrose and Gala finished first and second last season, while Hawick, with a strong finish, were sixth. Melrose and Gala will again be vying for top spot, but the former, in particular, know from their narrow defeat to Heriot’s last Saturday that the city challenge will be strong.

The Greenyards side have recruited Fijian winger Tito Mua, flanker Neil Irvine-Hess and the former Gala prop Ewan McQuillan, who is now with Edinburgh, and they have a crop of talent emerging from their Wasps under-18 side.

Gala have winger Sean Law back in their squad and will be hoping that their Scotland under-18 cap Ruairi Howarth, and EDP with Edinburgh, will be available. But the Maroons have resisted bringing in overseas players and will rely mainly on home-grown talent.

At Mansfield Park, the appointment of Nikki Walker as player/coach has had the effect of pulling back a number of players, among them back row Michael Robertson and promising stand-off/centre Matthew Douglas, from Kelso.

And of the other sides? Heriot’s, who finished fourth last season, have an astute coach in Phil Smith, who is committed to playing an expansive game and they will be dangerous in the drier autumn conditions.

Former Hawick coach Phil Leck is in charge of Edinburgh Accies, who played some excellent rugby last season, only to finish second bottom and having to fight for survival.

Expect, too, a challenge from Boroughmuir, who coasted to promotion last season. They will have former Jed stand-off Chris Laidlaw in the pivot position and former Kelso back row Ian Moodie equally influential. Currie, under Ben Cairns, will be an unknown quantity, but are unlikely to repeat the catastrophic start of last season.

Stirling County may have to look to new talent to fill the void left by the departure of several key players, while Glasgow Hawks produced some terrific rugby last season, even if that was not reflected in their finishing position.

And then there is Ayr. Much will depend on how deep the pockets of the club’s backers are, but such has been the standard of rugby that the men in pink have produced in recent seasons, few would bet on them suffering a decline.