Heriot’s rugby club are aiming to fill their grandstand for the first time in more than 30 years when Boroughmuir visit on Saturday for a crucial RBS Premiership clash.
Admission prices have been halved to £5 for adults with under-18s going free and an ambitious marketing campaign has targeted fans both at home and in Ireland, whose national side face Scotland at Murrayfield in the RBS 6 Nations the following day.
The brains behind a scheme that would fill 1846 seats is former Scotland and Lions prop Iain “The Bear” Milne, who, coincidentally, gained the first of 44 international caps against the Irish in Edinburgh 34 years ago.
Now vice-president of Heriot’s, Milne is dedicating himself to helping revive the club game, while insisting there are green shoots of recovery at Test level too. Said Milne: “When president Donald Gray suggested last summer that it would be good to fill our grandstand for the first time since a friendly with Cardiff in 1981, when Heriot’s lost by a point, there were some guffaws, but the club game is providing a lot of entertainment and we are going to be helped this weekend by not only hosting a derby, but the fact stakes are high for both teams.”
Boroughmuir are battling relegation, while Heriot’s lie fifth in their quest for a finish inside the top four that would bring a British and Irish Cup slot.
Leaving aside, for the moment, the fact Milne’s personal view is he would rather see B&I places allocated to resurrected district teams, he acknowledges the fates have been kind so far as “selling” Saturday’s fixture is concerned.
“It is a different type of rugby crowd who attend club games as opposed to Edinburgh fixtures and they have been enjoying great spectacles.
“Club crowds have been building to the extent that when we began hosting pre-match lunches at Goldenacre this season some 60 people attended. On Saturday we are catering for 280 and could have sold 400 places.
“An improved fixture structure has helped provide club followers with a routine, whereby they have known we’d be at home every fortnight and, on the pitch, from struggling to putting out a second team last season we now field a thirds.
“That second team, incidentally, is top of their league and contributing to putting the fun back in to a Saturday of club rugby. The game has changed in that players are more inclined to drift away if they think they are not going to reach the top, but retaining them is the challenge we have set ourselves at Heriot’s.”
According to Milne, there is a case for persuading the professional teams to invest more in club talent, with Heriot’s forwards Kevin Bryce, Jason Hill and Craig Owenson cited as examples of late developers.
“Rather than over-relying on journeymen pros from abroad, I’d prefer to see Edinburgh have three or four top-quality players from overseas and the majority of the squad made up of aspiring young Scots.
“Many of them could gain experience through the B&I Cup, which I think is stretching existing club teams too far in the physical sense. Another change I’d introduce at club level is the return of a knockout cup because initially playing in groups isn’t nearly as competitive or attractive.”
A visit from Ireland will inevitably bring back memories for Milne and a host of his international contemporaries, including his British Lion brother Kenny along with Jim Aitken, Norrie Rowan, Finlay Calder, David Leslie, Iwan Tukalo, Alan Tomes and David Johnson, who are also invited on Saturday.
On the international front, does he envisage Scotland following up their morale-boosting win over Italy last time out?
“I felt Italy were trying to change to a more open style and it cost them to an extent.
“Saying that, Scotland are scoring tries and that is bound to have produced a confidence boost. Ireland coming off the back of a defeat to England in a relatively uninspiring match is another factor in Scotland’s favour and I’m beginning to identify a few candidates for this summer’s Lions tour of Australia, including Ryan Grant, who has been a find at loosehead prop.”
Milne, who was named earlier this season by fellow 1984 Grand Slammer John Rutherford as the most influential player of his era, added: “If we can fill the Goldenacre stand once, we can do it again and again.
“Since becoming Heriot’s vice-president I have been struck by the commitment and while, yes, there are sometimes mistakes, these can add to the excitement as opposed to the relentless way the ball is often driven up at professional level.
“Rather than staying in the centre of Edinburgh, I hope Irish fans turn up at the club, including some from (Dublin-based) Lansdowne, whom we revived a relationship with at youth level last year. The next step is to develop reciprocal arrangements with other clubs throughout the Six Nations.”