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Green shoots at the Greenyards as play-offs add spice to league

John Dalziel is one of life's indefatigable characters, on and off the rugby pitch.

Melrose, under the stewardship of John Dalziel, are favourites to retain their title. Picture: SNS Group/SRU
Melrose, under the stewardship of John Dalziel, are favourites to retain their title. Picture: SNS Group/SRU

During his playing career, he used to nag away at opponents like the toothache, charging forward on behalf of his team without any regard for his own body. And now he has moved into coaching, there is the same restless quest for improvement and ever-higher standards, as he prepares his Melrose charges for the defence of their BT Premiership crown.

It helps, of course, that The Greenyards organisation provide a model template of how to transcend the village's small population with one of the hardest working committees and rafts of volunteers you will find at any Scottish sporting club. For the last 25 years, under the tutelage of Jim Telfer, Rob Moffat, Craig Chalmers and now Dalziel, they have hoovered up titles, cups and Sevens medals with a Bunteresque appetite for honours, but one never detects a shred of complacency in their ranks.

Indeed, if anything, their coach seems determined to toughen up his personnel and increase their physicality. "We have always been an expansive side, committed to playing a fast, exciting brand of rugby, but my aim is to make life harder for visitors than it has been in the last couple of years," said Dalziel, whose side host Edinburgh Accies in their opening fixture.

"I know that teams relish coming here - and why wouldn't they, given the quality of the venue? - but we have to turn The Greenyards into a fortress again and be a bit stronger and more ruthless. We were pushed all the way last time round, and only won the league on the last day of the season when Gala went down to Ayr [34-33] in dramatic circumstances.

"So we know we can't rest on our laurels and it will be even more competitive this season."

Nonetheless, Dalziel admits he is savouring the challenge and has noticed a fresh vibrancy around the club circuit, which can only be enhanced by the introduction of play-offs at the climax of the campaign. For several years, the grassroots scene was virtually on a life support machine and there were some afternoons where Shergar and Lord Lucan could have been in the stand and nobody would have noticed them because there was nobody there, but the likes of Ayr and Gala have raised the bar and joined Melrose in displaying an innovative approach to tempting spectators to sample their fare.

"There are more clubs with a dynamic attitude these days and I am expecting this to be a vintage Premiership battle, given the quality of the squads and the sense of the unknown you get with so many new coaches in the mix," said Dalziel.

"Ayr will be contenders again, Heriots will be dangerous, Hawick appear stronger with [former Scotland winger] Nikki Walker now in charge and Edinburgh Accies are looking powerful, but, to be honest, I don't think there will be any easy matches as the winter kicks in.

"I reckon that Heriot's will be a real threat this season, because they are the kind of side who come to the fore on the big occasions as they demonstrated in winning the Scottish Cup. The play-off system will suit them and we have to be ready for that, but it all adds up to a positive atmosphere. The launch of the club international team has paved the way for guys to increase their work rate and train harder and it has shown them they can progress from an amateur set-up into the professional game, as plenty of lads have done. Basically, we are all ambitious, the mindset is changing, and that's a good development."

It will be interesting to see how Gala respond to being cruelly denied at the eleventh hour in the 2013/14 tournament after leading it for most of the season, but with the coruscating presence of George Graham still at the helm, it would be surprising if there was any prolonged hangover.

Hawick, meanwhile, have another redoubtable Test star at the helm and Walker has no intention of the once all-conquering Green Machine simply making up the numbers. "There are long-term plans in motion, not just at Hawick, but involving the whole town, to build a better and more sustainable future for rugby in the community," says Walker. "That is something I really want to concentrate on and I am in this for the long haul."

Dalziel has too much knowledge of the sport in the Borders to discount the possibility of a renaissance at Mansfield Park.

But, for the moment, it is Melrose as usual who are flying the flag most conspicuously for their region.

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