Contrasting fortunes for Borders clubs

Hawick's Dom Buckley takes advantage
Hawick's Dom Buckley takes advantage

This Saturday sees one of Border rugby’s most storied rivalries take-place between Hawick and Melrose, but in what was once a contest that decided national titles is now a stark reminder of the have and have not’s of Scottish club rugby.

Melrose, over the past decade, have firmly established themselves as the No.1 team in the Borders, if not in all of Scottish club rugby. They are a side routinely battling for league and cup honours, rarely finishing a season without silverware, four titles in the past five years.

Success at the Greenyards has never been far. Hawick, unfortunately, are at the other end of this border rugby-performance-success spectrum. The Greens, having dominated Scottish club rugby for the better part of three decades during the 1970’s,1980’s and 00’s, winning 12 league titles, have found themselves floundering in recent years, barely keeping their heads above the disaster level. Yes, Hawick are still in the BT Premiership, just, and did come close to a national cup title in 2014, but before that it was 2002 when they last tasted national success, and since then have battled relegation every season.

Hawick as a town has a larger population than Melrose, more local schools, semi-junior teams and lower league rugby clubs to help cultivate potential Teri stars, and has a larger fan-base both locally and nationally. With all that at their disposal, why then are Hawick trailing their smaller neighbours?

The widely used player shortage argument, which afflicts all clubs not located in the central belt of Scotland, is shared between both sides and, while it does play a role, fails to point to all the reasons for Hawick’s lack of success. Is it financial resources? Melrose generate an estimated £250,000 per year alone from their sevens tournament, allowing them to potentially supply players with incentives to play for the club, which helps but does not directly lead to wins. Is it the coaches and training? Since Craig Chalmers, Melrose have had a succession of former players turned coaches who have all progressed through the club ranks, whereas Hawick have had a number of coaches all of whom from outside the club. Or is it down to something different?

“The rivalry between the clubs is as fierce as it’s always been, but the big gulf in success between the two is not difficult to see,” said Hawick prop Nicky Little, who has played on both sides of the rivalry having starred for Melrose under Chalmers and Dalziel.

“When I was playing for Melrose, under Chick [Craig Chalmers] and John [Dalziel] there was a big push even back then to become more of a professional club. Strength and conditioning was a massive aspect of training and boys were given every opportunity to learn about things like nutrition, injury prevention etc. It was really a shift from the amatuer game to a more pro-style system.

“That helped establish a culture of winning and success which everyone fed off. Melrose, even back then, went into every game expecting to win. “

Hawick, whether through design or not, have trudged through a number of different regimes that have left them lagging behind in creating an identity youngsters hope to emulate and a culture of winning. From the youth academies to their semi-junior and senior teams, Melrose players know what the club expects, and the standards they are expected to maintain.

This pyramid of success, or “Melrose Way”, is a staple part of every player who dons the yellow and black and, above all the money, players and coaches, is a major contributor to the growth and dominance the club has managed to establish.

That streamlined pyramid of success is absent at Mansfield Park. While there are two semi-junior and lower-league club’s plus the Hawick Force to go along with the Greens in the town, no one side is playing for the betterment of the other. There is no “Hawick Way” that youngsters are indoctored into, nor is there something players can call a pathway to success.