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Countdown to club rugby kick-off. Part II: The capital challenge

Phil Smith will never be mistaken for Travis Bickle, but the Heriot's coach is fed up with critics carping at the alleged weaknesses in Scottish club rugby and believes it is high time to talk up the BT Premiership, an environment where players are putting their bodies through the wringer, as they gear up to this weekend's launch of the competition.

Heriot's celebrate after winning the RBS Cup at Broadwood in April. Picture: SNS Group/SRU/Gary Hutchison
Heriot's celebrate after winning the RBS Cup at Broadwood in April. Picture: SNS Group/SRU/Gary Hutchison

In recent years, it has become easy for detractors of the grassroots scene, accustomed as they are to being pampered in the professional milieu, to suggest the sport should focus exclusively on the elite at the expense of those who turn out on Saturdays for the love of the game. Smith doesn't just disagree with this opinion, but vehemently argues that the opposite should be true, in an attempt to promote rugby beyond a small coterie of devotees.

And he should know. After all, ever since he picked up the reins at Goldenacre, he has been one of the most honest figures in a milieu where platitudes normally reign.

"When we played Melrose at The Greenyards last weekend [and triumphed 36-28 in a thrilling tussle], it was a terrific effort from both sides and a great advert for the clubs and it was refreshing that so many Leicester Tigers fans told us later how impressed they had been with the standard of the match," said Smith. "I think we need to get that message out there, because there is a definite buzz around the clubs and it's just nonsense to claim that we should only concentrate on the professional teams. Many of the people who express that view never go anywhere near a club fixture, so how would they know?

"I have heard plenty of folk trying to decry our game, and yes there are some crap matches, but that is absolutely true of the Aviva Premiership or any other tournament. You get more mistakes in our league, but you also have players who are prepared to take more risks, attack from anywhere on the field, and not be obsessed with percentages about possession won and territory gained.

"You also have lads who want to be part of the club international squad. In fact, there are so many talented players in and around the latter that I reckon they would do well if they were chucked in at a higher level somewhere else.

"I am not saying we have all the answers. I am saying the standard is bloody good and it does nobody any favours in Scotland to ignore the clubs' efforts."

Smith is confident that Heriot's will be in contention during the imminent campaign, but expects the battle for play-off places to ratchet up the event's competitive edge.

As the mentor of the reigning Scottish Cup holders, he is aware his men are occasionally described as being big-occasion personnel, yet bridled at the suggestion they might lack consistency.

What he does admit is that they were undercooked at the start of last year's Premiership, hence the arrangement of the Charity Shield-style contest at Melrose.

Another potential pitfall for Heriot's revolves around the number of east of Scotland-based sides in the current top tier, with Boroughmuir, Edinburgh Accies and Currie also among the highest echelon. But Smith can't afford to fret about what others are doing. Better, from his perspective, to leave opponents to worry about his own charges.

"You never really know how things will pan out at this stage of the season. There is lots of chat about what might or might not happen, but I think the top four from last time [Melrose, Gala, Ayr and Heriot's] will be strong again and I fancy Glasgow Hawks to challenge us harder - they have recruited well in the last few months, and are the only side from their city in the competition, which has to help them," said Smith.

"I have also heard that Hawick are quietly confident, with a new coaching team and the return of some quality players to Mansfield Park, so that could be a interesting development, since we come up against Hawks and Hawick in our opening two matches. But we are on the right track."

Boroughmuir have a new-look triumvirate of First XV coaches in Bruce Aitchison, Ben Fisher and Steve Bates, while Phil Leck has swapped the Borders for Edinburgh Accies, and Ben Cairns has stepped into the hot seat at Currie.

There is a sense of transition as these proud organisations aim to raise their ambitions in the new campaign. But, for the moment, it is Heriot's who appear to be the main contenders.

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