IT was a dark day at The Greenyards last Saturday as Southern Knights, the Melrose based Super6 franchise which finished runners-up in the competition last year, slumped to a humiliating 62-12 defeat at the hands of Ayrshire Bulls. However, Rob Moffat – the former Edinburgh head coach who is co-director of rugby at Melrose – is determined to take a glass half full view of the team’s current predicament. 

It was the Borderers’ fourth defeat in four games played so far in the 2022 Super6 Sprint Series and having lost nine senior players to other franchises during the winter break with a half dozen more stepping back to club rugby or retiring, there is a very clear vulnerability about the Knights at the moment which doesn’t bode well for the league. 

That thorny question of whether Super6 is the right device to close the gap between the top of the club game and the professional tier in Scotland has not gone away, with last weekend’s one-sided contest adding grist to the mill for those who doubt the long-term sustainability of the league. 

“It is interesting times,” is Moffat’s understated assessment. “We did lose a few players and the squad is probably younger than we want it to be, but the way we’re looking at is that we are here to develop players. While nobody want so see results like that because it doesn’t help anybody, we’ve got belief in these young guys to learn from their experiences and come back stronger. 

“It sounds like an excuse, but there was a lot of boys not involved against the Bulls – we had about a dozen players out – so we were really lightweight and young,” he adds. “In the three weeks before that, we didn’t win but there wasn’t much in it.  

“So, I think circumstances were against us, and that could happen again because we don’t have the experience in there that we could call upon last season, which means if we lose two or three of our senior guys then it gets very difficult fairly quickly.  

“But I’ll also point out that we came up against a good Ayrshire Bulls side who played very well on the day. We just have to take our medicine and come back stronger against Boroughmuir Bears next weekend – although there are no easy games in this league.” 

Moffat concedes that the pre-tournament player exodus was more than simple bad luck. After Rob Chrystie moved on as head coach at the end of November (to become academy manager at Edinburgh), the decision was made to have a moratorium on contract renewals until a replacement was appointed, and this had an unsettling effect on the player pool.  

However, he stresses it was the correct decision by the club to take stock at that moment. While Covid has inevitably impacted the finances of every club in Scotland, the bite was deeper at Melrose than perhaps anywhere else given their traditional reliance on their world-famous sevens tournament which had to be postponed twice. 

“We needed think seriously about whether we could do this, so the financial guys went right through everything, and it didn’t take long but we lost 10 or 12 players in the process,” explains Moffat. “We ended up offering them contracts on virtually what they were on before, but they’d had that period of uncertainty and made the decision to go elsewhere. Good luck to them – that’s the modern game – I’m not going to criticise anyone for doing what they decide is best for their own career.

“The positive for me is that we’ve managed to keep a nucleus of guys like Grant Shiells, Fraser Renwick, Dalton Redpath and Harry Borthwick, although we could have done with two or three more.” 

The initial plan for the Southern Knights was that it should share the Greenyards but operate as almost an entirely independent entity to Melrose rugby club. Moffat acknowledges that this was a divisive mistake and is now keen to encourage a one-club ethos – although balancing that with trying to make the Knights an attractive proposition for ambitious players elsewhere in the Borders is not an easy challenge. 

“For me, it is 100 percent about the player, so we want to offer guys from Hawick and Selkirk as well as Melrose a way to take the next step, and similarly if the best Southern Knights player this year is good enough then we’ll be pushing him on to hopefully Edinburgh or Glasgow,” he reasons. “Now, I know that isn’t easy for a coach, because he wants to keep his best players – and it is the same for supporters who want the best players in their team – but the system has got to be like that. 

“And if someone from Selkirk or Hawick comes to the Southern Knights and it doesn’t work out, then Melrose shouldn’t be looking to keep him, he should be heading back to Philiphaugh or Mansfield Park, because it has to be a two-way process. 

“I understand why the other club need persuading. All we can do is try to be as good as our word, and hope that the message gets through.”