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Ian Rankin detects an optimistic outlook but laments lack of north-east involvement

There is one Ian Rankin who does not need to go searching for clues or reacquaint himself with Rebus when he casts his eye over Scottish rugby and looks back and forward at the amateur game.

Stirling County have been left flying the flag for their region
Stirling County have been left flying the flag for their region

The former Dundee HSFP and Caledonia coach, who steered the Midlands to Inter-District triumph in 1997, and is now SRU president, has always been one of the sport's good guys: a twinkly presence with a tenacity and persistence which might jar in other people, but makes him such engaging company.

Rankin has been meeting representatives from the grassroots organisations who will vie for supremacy when the BT Premiership commences on Saturday and it's clear he shares the general view there is a refreshing sense of optimism around the circuit. He was at the Charity Shield-style contest between champions Melrose and Heriot's at The Greenyards last weekend and was impressed with the entertainment served up during the visitors' hard-fought win.

"It was a great advert for the club game and if the rest of the season carries on in that fashion, few people will be disappointed," said Rankin. "I have to admit I miss not being on the touchline once these sort of matches are under way, because it was part of my life for so long. But nothing lasts forever. What I've noticed is how young many of the new coaches are in the Premiership this season."

The list includes Nikki Walker at Hawick, Ben Cairns at Currie and Calum Forrester, a triumvirate who will lock horns with other canny campaigners such as John Dalziel, Jamie Dempsey and Graeme Young at Melrose, Glasgow Hawks and Stirling County respectively. It is always difficult to predict how the championship race will unfold, but Rankin seems convinced both that it will be a close-run affair and that it will highlight improvements in the general standard among amateur players who recognise their opportunity to progress to the professional milieu.

However, it isn't all sunshine and smiles. The Premiership might be a national tournament, but with only one representative from the old North & Midlands among the 10 teams in the highest echelon, there is an imbalance. Some might argue it is nobody's fault except the personnel at Aberdeen Grammar and Dundee HSFP, who have suffered relegation in the last two years, but it leaves the County set flying the flag alone for their region.

"People might expect me to have this attitude, but I think we need at least one Premiership side from the north-east in the mix, if for no other reason than it helps stops all the young talent in Aberdeen and Dundee from going to the central belt," said Rankin. "But you have to earn your place in any sport and you can't argue with the strides forward which have been taken by Ayr and Gala and Stirling in the last 20 years. I remember the County guys [who won the league in 1994-95] and they had an incredible attitude and a chip on both shoulders. People such as Kevin McKenzie were remarkable: long before the days of strength and conditioning coaches and all the rest, he was practicing like mad to be the best he could be. You can't instil that in people, but that side was an integral part of the Caledonia squad which beat the rest of Scotland. They never asked for any favours, they had huge self-belief and, whatever the result, you knew you had been in a game with them."

As the current County mentor, Young is ideally placed to talk about the present Bridghehaugh brigade's chances in the months ahead and he was typically pragmatic in his assessment. "We need to be more consistent [than in 2013-14], but I can't criticise the lads for how they got themselves out of trouble last time, by winning four of our last seven games and getting bonus points in all the others," said Young.

"Making a good start is very important - it's difficult to play catch-up in this format - and we kick off away to [newly promoted] Boroughmuir, so that could go one of two ways. They will obviously be buoyed with excitement and performing in front of their home supporters and they will probably come flying out of the blocks at us. But we can't afford to let that worry us. Our priority has to be in concentrating on the things we can control and taking our chances. If we do that, we should be fine."

It promises to be a spicy launch to the proceedings throughout the land. As for Rankin, he had one final tip: "Watch out for Marr [in the second tier]. They have won three consecutive championships and are hunting down a fourth . . ."

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