STEWART’S MELVILLE head for Biggar tomorrow in rugby’s National League Division One knowing that earning another crack at the Premiership is in their own hands.
Another victory could even see Stew Mel leap into the runners-up spot behind unbeaten leaders Selkirk, who can extend the gap at the top by defeating second-placed GHA.
The following weekend GHA visit Stewart’s Melville so the business end of the campaign is fast approaching.
“The next two weekends are obviously important to us and we are in good shape,” says Stew Mel’s long-serving coach Bruce Macnaughton, who is now in his fifth season at the club and 21st year of coaching commitments, starting with Currie in 1994 and moving on through Murrayfield Wanderers and Peebles. “Last weekend’s 47-15 win over Kelso was the most points we have scored in a game this season and while we expect the pitch at Biggar to cut up we had experience of those conditions earlier this month when going to Selkirk and only losing 3-8.
“We’re equipped for all surfaces with a blend of old and young players.”
New faces in the Stew Mel team this season are scrum-half Andrew Manson, winger Angus Rennie, back row Fraser Christie and second row Calum Hunter-Hill, of whom big things are expected.
“Calum is still a teenager but the authorities are keeping a close eye on him to the extent he has already turned out for Edinburgh A,” Macnaughton adds. “At 6ft 7in he still has some filling out to do but he has proved his worth in the senior game.
“Some of our players are likely to be withdrawn for Scotland age group rugby over the next few weeks but that’s something to be encountered by a lot of clubs and we do have depth, as gauged from 45 turning up to train on a frozen pitch the other evening.”
A fixture in the Stew Mel team in recent seasons has been former New Zealand provincial stand-off, Nick McCashin, who continues to be influential.
But Macnaughton notes: “We are far from a one-man band and when Nick was back home late last year we managed to beat both Peebles and Aberdeen Grammar with a try bonus point.
“Outside centres Neil Bowie and Seb Trotter continue to give stalwart service, with Matt Morrell showing no sign of losing his eye for a gap on the wing.”
All three of those three-quarters were in the Stew Mel team that last season lost a play-off 13-23 to an Edinburgh Accies side who survived partly on the strength of greater intensity.
Macnaughton says: “The play-off system inevitably gives an edge to the side finishing second-bottom of the Premiership because their players have been mixing in higher company including some professionals.
“But it was a great occasion at Lasswade last spring when our team gave their all. Who knows what would happen if we can get there but it is a long run-in featuring a break between the final two games so we take nothing for granted.”
In fact, the two extra teams in the National League compared with the Premiership makes for a more attractive competition in many ways and Watsonians, although lying fourth and five points behind Stew Mel having played a game more, are still in the hunt, especially with a likely banker tomorrow when they travel to a Hillhead Jordanhill side still to win a match.
The only scheduled Premiership game sees Currie hoping to repeat their 2012-13 home victory over second-placed Melrose but a late pitch inspection is likely.
Currie coach Ben Cairns says: “We are desperate to play, having already suffered three call-offs. The snow is being left on the pitch to try to prevent freezing and if the temperature goes up then an appeal will go out to help clear the surface on Saturday morning.”
Currie recall Jamie Gray, son of former Scotland grand slammer, Chris, in his dad’s old position of lock along with centre Robbie Nelson and Glasgow pro Kev Bryce. Cairns says: “Robbie Nelson worked his way into the side then got injured at Hawick but is well worth another opportunity.”
Melrose recall Joe Helps and Grant Runciman.