Rugby’s coming home, as clubs get set to rock the Premiership

Gala vs Hawick RFC in a friendly at Netherdale. George Graham tackled by Hawick.
Gala vs Hawick RFC in a friendly at Netherdale. George Graham tackled by Hawick.

It is only comparatively recently that there were concerns over the number of Edinburgh teams in club rugby’s Premiership.

It seemed that four clubs in the top tier represented an unwelcome concentration of rugby power in the capital.

This season, the centre of gravity has shifted to the Borders where the quartet of Melrose, Gala, Hawick and Selkirk now account for 40% of the Premiership.

Rugby in Scotland, it seems, has returned to its spiritual heartland. In practical terms, the financial impact of having four from the ‘sooth’ means less travelling costs and bigger gates when traditional rivals are matched together.

So what are the prospects for Border outfits in the Premiership this season?

Melrose came within seconds of winning the play-offs after narrowly losing to Heriot’s, and will start as one of the favourites to take the Premiership title.

The Greenyards club boasts a big squad, strengthened by the recruitment of Scotland under-20 back row Ally Miller, Scotland under-20 prop Dan Elkington, both from Watsonians, back row Ally Grieve from Kelso, backs Sam Pecqueur and Nyle Godsmark from Edinburgh Accies, prop Jamie Bhattie from Stirling County, lock/back row Harry Borthwick from Berwick and Englishman Jason Baggott for the stand-off position.

In addition, centre Bruce Dick returns after injury and Sam Chalmers after a two-year suspension. Melrose, however, will be without Scotland under-20 lock Lewis Carmichael, who will miss the first three Premiership matches after being handed a ludicrous nine-week suspension during the under-20 World Cup for a dubious offence.

Along the road, Gala have not got the same intake of players and will, for the most part, rely on home-grown products.

New to Netherdale this season are the former Kelso duo of centre Frankie Robson, a Scotland age-grade cap, and lock Callum Rowlandson.

Coach George Graham has also recruited at hooker following the loss of Russell Anderson to English championship club Jersey.

Gala have a good reservoir of young players ready to step up to top-flight rugby, among them centre Andrew Mitchell, fresh from Gala Wanderers.

Also in the senior squad is flanker Liam Scott, who has been playing alongside Cameron Pate and Kris Mein, and the exciting stand-off Rex Jeffrey.

At Mansfield Park optimism is evident. For a start, the vexed issue of Hawick’s second XV has been resolved with the dissolution of Hawick YM to become the Greens’ reserve team. Then there is the return of a number of former players, among them Craig Charters after a spell in Melbourne, prop Nicky Little and flanker/wing Lewis Mallin from Melrose.

Hawick, in common with most Premiership clubs, have recruited from abroad, bringing in No. 8 Dalton Redpath, and South Africans Wiaan Griebenow, at centre – who played last season with National Two side Aberdeenshire – and loose-head prop Jacques Stierlin. A further signing at centre is expected to be announced.

For Selkirk, the challenge of returning to Premiership rugby cannot be overstated.

Sadly, they will be without their inspiring stand-off Callum McColm, who is recovering from a cruciate ligament injury.

To fill the gap Selkirk have recruited Englishman Cameron Gregory-Ring and South African Dashton Wellman.

Also new to Philiphaugh is front row Damien Byrne from Australia.

But for Selkirk it will be a matter of building on the success of last season, when their brand of high-tempo rugby proved a winner.

If they can replicate the form they showed in their last return to the top flight then they will shock a few sides.

But the Souters are only too aware that they face sides boasting immense physicality in the forward battles and that will be the big question mark over the Philiphaugh club’s chances of survival.

See story, left, for a preview of this weekend’s Borders rugby games.