Chalmers says the going will get far tougher for champions

CRAIG Chalmers has experienced life as the top dog in Scottish club rugby before, if some time ago, so the former Scotland stand-off heads to Aberdeen with his Melrose side today knowing just how hard the men from the Granite City will fight to mark their return to the top flight with an opening day scalp.

Aberdeen GSFP, Edinburgh Accies and Gala were the three clubs to win promotion back to the top flight and, with the Scottish league structure undergoing a major revamp next summer, clubs in Premier One and Two will this weekend begin the scramble to be part of the new ten-team national leagues from 2012-13.

The three newcomers to RBS Premier One join nine others in bidding to reach the top eight by 5 November, which will secure their spot in the new RBS Premier League heading into the play-offs. The bottom four will join the top four from Premier Two in vying for the two remaining places, while Premier Three clubs have no promotion before splitting into East/West or North/South leagues next summer.

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Chalmers was part of Melrose’s golden era when they won six championship titles from 1989-90 to 1996-97. Now in the role of coach, Chalmers helped to steer the club back to the top last season and, after a summer overhaul in which replacements were needed for a clutch of players who have left the Greenyards mainly for work opportunities elsewhere, he is warning his players to expect an even tougher campaign this term.

“It’s always harder to defend it than to win it the first time,” he said. “We did really well in the 90s, but it got tougher every year. But that’s the challenge that we always enjoyed at Melrose when I played, and it’s a challenge that you want your players to rise to.

“This season I know is going to be tough and I think we’ll see another step-up in the quality of rugby. We finished well last season and it was a great achievement by all the players and the club, but that means nothing now. We start again and we’ve had to rebuild in certain areas again to maintain the strength in depth you need to be competitive.”

Melrose are not alone in indulging in some serious summer recruitment, with every club welcoming new faces in their bid to strengthen, and Aberdeen are among them, their most notable capture being Melrose winger Calum Anderson who made his mark with a hat-trick in a thumping 58-5 pre-season win over West of Scotland.

Chalmers’ counterpart, Alex Duncan, who turned 50 last month, earned great respect in the coaching world by leading Ellon through seven successive promotions before Aberdeen stepped in over four years ago and took him to Rubislaw, initially as assistant and now head coach.

“We couldn’t have asked for a better start to the club’s return to the top flight than having the champions coming to our place,” said Duncan. “We had a crowd of around 1800 for our last play-off game against Watsonians at the end of last season and we’re hoping to attract them to games this season and create a real buzz in the North-east.

“I’d rather have Melrose first-up than in week 11, because it allows us to set our bench-mark right at the start.”

Duncan admits he is pleased with his recruitment, but added: “Some of it was by design, some not!

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“Calum coming up was great news, and we have Cambridge University ‘Blue’ lock forward Ed Nimmons also coming here to work. We targeted players like Greg Ryan from Dundee and Lawrie Seydak from Heriot’s as players with Premier One experience who could help us, and we have overseas boys Sean O’Connor, a hooker from Manawatu, and Warwick Percival, a centre from Eastern Suburbs in Sydney.”

“But what I’ve said to the guys is that this season is going to be really tough and we’ll need the same character that we showed last season to get here. It will be a mix of talent and real character that will keep us up here,” added Duncan.

“The players are excited but they’re not naïve and know that Melrose will be expecting to go through the season unbeaten. We will see how this weekend goes and work from there.”

The newcomers will all have to find their feet quickly, with Gala heading to Currie’s Malleny Park and Ayr welcoming Edinburgh Accies to Millbrae. Hawick head north to Heriot’s with Derek Armstrong’s men hoping to swiftly dispel supporter fears in the wake of a handful of player departures over the summer, Boroughmuir host Dundee in the capital and Glasgow Hawks and Stirling County meet at Old Anniesland in something of a Glasgow district derby.

This season will also see the advent of the new cup competitions in each district, which clubs are hopeful will spark new interest in local derbies, and Melrose, Currie and Ayr will again be flying the Scottish flag in the British and Irish Cup. Chalmers acknowledged that it was proving difficult for clubs to displace that trio.

“It is going to be a very competitive league but there is still the nucleus of clubs that have built up that experience of being in the title race and cup runs over a few years, and it is tough for teams to break into that,” he said.

“But the B&I Cup gives you something else to think about. There are just four B&I games this season, which is good because we’re really looking forward to trying to qualify, as are Ayr and Currie.

“But the RBS Premier One title is the most important thing for us this season and right now everything is focused on starting well. That’s the key to defending titles, and we’ve got Aberdeen away, Currie home, Ayr away and Hawks at home, so it’s a tough start.

“But it’s a great start and it’s great to see the geographical split with Aberdeen back in. Now everyone just wants to get playing.”