They don’t come bigger than this

Gala and Melrose captains Opeta Palepoi and Graeme Dodds look ahead to the weekend's game.
Gala and Melrose captains Opeta Palepoi and Graeme Dodds look ahead to the weekend's game.

IT didn’t take Melrose captain Graeme Dodds more than a millisecond to answer the question of whether this is the most important Gala-Melrose clash the 28-year-old has faced.

“This is the biggest,” the No.8 told TheSouthern ahead of Saturday’s top of Premier One showdown at Netherdale.

“We have had the Boxing Day games in the past, but they have either been Border League or friendlies.

“But for both clubs to be playing one another while in the top two spots in Premier One means it is a huge occasion.”

The rivalry, dating back 133 years, rarely needs further hype, but these two clubs, separated by four miles on the road, are just two points apart at the summit of Scottish club rugby’s top tier.

Local journalist Laing Speirs, who has watched many a tussle at Netherdale and the Greenyards, said: “Gala-Melrose games over the years since 1878 have served up some of the closest and most exciting games on the Borders circuit – and also one or two of the dullest.

“And the way that the pendulum has swung is, to put it mildly, dramatic.

“Personalities have had a lot to do with the way the games have gone.

“At one time, each side carried several current Scottish internationalists, whose presence did much to pull out the crowds of these earlier days.”

A slice of a bygone era will be seen on Saturday with a four-figure crowd anticipated, many of whom will admit to being highly surprised to see Gala sitting above Melrose.

Gala skipper Opeta Palepoi says his side are determined to remain in top place for the remainder of the season, under the guidance of George Graham.

He told us: “It comes as a shock to everyone, but we have worked hard since pre-season and we are very happy to be where we are.

“Hard work, effort and sacrifice [why Gala are in first position] – and I don’t mean just the players, but everyone at the club.

“We have recruited well this season and this has stirred up the competition.

“George is a different character. I have never known anyone as straight-up as him.

“He tells you when you need to work hard and what you are not doing right, and that is what you need from a coach.

“I played for the Borders and that is when I realised how tough it is to play against your close rivals here. I think this is what keeps rugby going in the Borders.”

Dodds added: “If Gala win on Saturday then we are two wins behind them, which is a lot to claw back.

“If we win, we go two or three points clear and it is all to play for.

“It is vitally important we win, or we have almost played ourselves out of it (title contention).

“We are looking to improve our performances, starting this weekend, because we have been really sloppy in the last five or six weeks.”

Speirs added: “Whatever this Saturday brings in the way of a result it’s going to be but a stepping stone to the increasing drama of the league competition after the split at the weekend.

“One thing that’s sure is that both teams will be in the high-octane mix that will mark the second half of the season.”

Meanwhile, Gala have announced that their annual sevens tournament, which kick-starts the Borders circuit, will revert to a round-robin format for the first time in its 121st year.

Twelve teams will compete in four pools of three, with the April 7 competition kicking off at 4pm.

Gala president George Marshall said: “We may well have our first-ever floodlit sevens final, depending on weather conditions. And we will have hospitality and entertainment events in the earlier afternoon.

“This is very much an experiment intended to liven up the formula which we have been using for more than a century.”

Elsewhere in Premier One, coachless Hawick host fellow strugglers Glasgow Hawks as both teams prepare for Premier B after the split, with Premier Two sides Jed-Forest and Selkirk hoping to join them.

Jed host fellow top four hopefuls Hamilton and coach Darren Cunningham, who is without Ross Goodfellow (honeymoon) and Robert Hogg (fractured eye socket), will include new Australian signing Andy McLean, a utility back.

A Jed win would secure their top four spot.

Cunningham said: “This is the biggest game I have been involved in.

“If we can get into the top four we will be frightened of nobody as I think we are capable of competing with anyone.”

Fifth-placed Selkirk have to beat table-toppers Stewart’s Melville in Edinburgh to realistically to be in Premier B after the split, while Kelso and Peebles, who are both at home to Whitecraigs and Falkirk respectively, are resigned to fighting for Premier League survival in Premier C for the remainder of the season.