Rugby: Exciting end to league divides experts

Graham Wilson, left, of Heriot's, who are in sight of a landmark. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
Graham Wilson, left, of Heriot's, who are in sight of a landmark. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
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Heriot’s will become the first rugby club to complete 600 Scottish top-flight league fixtures when they head for Currie in the RBS Premiership on Saturday.

It is a notable milestone in a run stretching back to October 1973, for the only club never to have been relegated.

However, even such an achievement will be overshadowed by a remarkable dogfight about to take place this weekend.

Only three of the ten Premiership clubs – champions Ayr, runners-up Gala and relegated Boroughmuir – are not immune from having to struggle either to avoid the drop or reach the top four that would guarantee a place in the top four, offering inclusion in the prestigious British and Irish Cup.

Watching every move has been Iain Milne, former Scotland grand slam and 
Lions prop, whose role is now 
vice-president of Heriot’s.

Is the competition the sign of a good league or an indication that there are too many ordinary teams unable to get the better of each other?

Milne, 56, is in no doubt: “There are some very, very good players in every team nowadays and the standard of Premiership play is higher than I have known it.

“What the intensity signifies for me is that the Premiership is increasingly capable of giving players a leg-up to the professional level. That will include the inevitable late developers who are deserving of a chance to train or maybe play with 
Edinburgh and Glasgow as well as the youngsters.

“What is needed now – and I think it is happening – is extra investment. I’m not a great advocate of paying players and by investment I mean contributing to the cost of running clubs so that they are more of a springboard to the pro game.

“Teams are preparing their players so well in terms of training methods, video analysis and so on. The coaches, in particular, are putting many hours devising programmes.

“So, the next step is to find the finance that will further bridge the gap between club and professional rugby. The authorities want Premiership clubs to take things more seriously but the commercial market is very difficult with sponsors hard to come by.”

Milne and Heriot’s president Donald Gray were architects of a scheme called “Fill the Stand Day” which drew a crowd of 2500 for the final home league match at Heriot’s against 
Boroughmuir recently.

Milne adds: “One of the biggest challenges has been to get supporters to come back and see for themselves what entertainment is on offer at club level. If ever there was an incentive to get along to a rugby club it is this weekend where there is so much at stake for so many.”

Not everyone is in agreement, though, about the format and former internationalist Ian Barnes, who has coached several top flight clubs, says: “I have long felt a ten-team league is too small with only nine home fixtures on offer. A 12-team league would offer the same intensity.”

Barnes’ view is echoed by close friend Graham Hogg, who helps coach Currie.

“It is not just because Currie are caught up in a relegation struggle that I have long been arguing for a bigger league,” says Hogg, adding: “The structure is too compressed and the quality has suffered a bit. There is too much of a muchness between teams and I don’t know how some clubs are surviving on just nine home league fixtures plus a cup competition that badly needs restored to a knock-out format. That is especially the case with some matches having to be fitted in at noon on an international match day. That said, there are some outstanding young players to be seen in the Premiership with Jonny Gray at Currie being 
a good example this season 
when he has been made 
available to us.

“Having pros drop back into the Premiership can, however, leave clubs feeling almost dependent on their availability and that can cause problems.”