From RM Kinnear to the Super 6

27th January 2020

This season the Scottish Rugby Union (SRU) has introduced a new competition – the Super 6 – for elite clubs. As the name suggests, franchises have been given (for 5 years) to half a dozen clubs to play in their own league at a semi-professional level. The principal aim is to create a “pathway” for players to progress from the highest level of amateur club rugby in Scotland (the Premiership) to the two full-time professional teams in Glasgow and Edinburgh. At the end of the regular season, when the sides will have played each other twice, a play-off phase will decide the competition’s overall winners.

It is probably reasonable to state that the administration of club rugby in Scotland has traditionally tended towards the conservative. Accordingly, the new structure has not been without its critics, not least because three of the six selected clubs are in Edinburgh and none in Glasgow. On Saturday, I watched two of them in action, when Heriot’s Rugby played the Boroughmuir Bears.

The scrutiny of my collection of match programmes revealed that the last occasions on which I had seen these teams in action (in their previous guises) had been as long ago as November 2009 (Boroughmuir RFC) and October 2010 (Heriot’s FP) on their respective visits to the Burnbrae ground in Milngavie to play West of Scotland. Unfortunately, since then, the West club’s star has been on the wane; it now competes in National League Division 3, the fourth tier in the Scottish hierarchy (excluding the Super 6 level).

My contact with Heriot’s had been more recent, however. In 2018, when preparing a couple of articles for the Rugby League Journal on players who had played for both the British Lions (rugby union) and Great Britain (rugby league) – “Double Lions”, of whom there have only ever been 16 in total – I contacted the Administration and Events Manager, Shona Whyte, to enquire about the club’s perspective on RM (Roy Muir) Kinnear, who won 3 caps for Scotland nearly a century ago.

Roy Kinnear had an extraordinary rugby career. After playing for the British Lions in South Africa (as a 20 year-old in 1924) and Scotland (in 1926), he turned professional with the Wigan rugby league club. He subsequently played in the first Challenge Cup final to be held at Wembley (against Dewsbury in 1929, when he scored a try) and for Great Britain in a test match against Australia at Hull in the same year. He was the first “Double Lion”.

Ms Whyte had pointed me in the direction of the official history of the Heriot’s Rugby Club, published to commemorate the 125th anniversary in 2017, which noted of Kinnear that: “[H]is loss was a severe blow… [T]he rugby club committee felt obliged to seek his resignation as a member of Heriot’s, which was duly received”. Thankfully, the rift does not appear to have been permanent, as the official history also states that Kinnear “re-enters the Heriot’s story some years later”.

Roy Kinnear died at the age of 38 in 1942 when he collapsed during a Services rugby match. He is commemorated on the War Memorial at Murrayfield, alongside other Scottish international rugby players (including Eric Liddell). His son, also Roy Kinnear, was a distinguished actor, as is his grandson, Rory Kinnear.

Heriot’s and Boroughmuir entered Saturday’s contest having had mixed fortunes in the Super 6 to date. The former had won 5 of their 7 matches to stand in third place (behind the Ayrshire Bulls on points difference) with the third Edinburgh side, Watsonians, leading the table. By contrast, the visitors had won only one of their games – at home to Heriot’s, as it happened, last November.

The walk from Waverley Station to the Heriot’s sports fields at Goldenacre took me through Edinburgh’s New Town, the first part of which was set out by James Craig in the 1760s. The names of the streets echo with the confirmation of Hanoverian hegemony in the post-Culloden era: George Street, Queen Street, Cumberland Street, Great King Street… At the ground, from the concrete terrace behind the posts at one end, there is a fine view of the city skyline in the middle distance: Arthur’s Seat, the tower of the Balmoral Hotel, the Scott Monument… On this side of town are the playing fields of the famous public schools including, just down the road, the Edinburgh Academicals ground at Raeburn Place, where the first rugby international – Scotland versus England – was played in March 1871.

On this particular playing field, Heriot’s were too strong for Boroughmuir. The opening try was scored after only a couple of minutes and quickly followed by two more. The visitors’ most threatening period of play, when the score was 3-15 against them, saw Boroughmuir mount a prolonged attack on the Heriot’s line, but a loose pass was intercepted and the hosts were able to break quickly downfield. Their fourth try was scored shortly afterwards. The final score was 53-10.

I am not able to judge whether this Super 6 contest satisfied the SRU’s objective of providing a stepping stone on the pathway from amateur to professional rugby. It was clear, however, that both sides had an open style of play that made for an entertaining contest. The Heriot’s half backs – Andrew Simmers and Ross Jones – were particularly adept at providing the swift transfer of the ball to their outside backs, whilst the Number 8 forward, Jason Hill, was at the forefront of securing a steady stream of possession.

During the second half, as Heriot’s racked up the points and the earlier accuracy of the teams’ play was disrupted by the wholesale introduction of new players from the respective replacement benches, I took a walk down the far touchline. On the adjacent pitch, another Heriot’s team was engaged in a match that seemed to be more closely contested. I fell into conversation with a gentleman from Biggar, who informed me that this was the Heriot’s Blues 2nd XV – effectively the third team – who were playing Hawick’s 2nd XV. Meanwhile, he said, the Heriot’s Blues 1st XV was playing in a Scottish Cup tie away at Gala RFC.

During the course of our chat, I mentioned that I was intending to visit Leeds next weekend to take in a couple of games at the start of the new Super League season, noting that the Castleford Tigers and Leeds Rhinos were two of the sides on my watch list. More or less spontaneously, the man offered his views on the coaching abilities of Gary Mercer – the New Zealander who was a former player and/or coach with both those clubs – who had also held the reins at the Biggar rugby union club for three seasons. Such are the interweaving strands of the rugby spectating network.

My other conversation at Heriot’s was with Shona Whyte. I introduced myself to her at half-time, in the ground floor room of the impressive two-storey clubhouse, when the final tidying up after a clearly well-patronised pre-match luncheon was taking place. She mentioned that perhaps three or four players in the Heriot’s team had attended the school, but that it was generally difficult to retain playing contacts with ex-pupils once they had left the area for university or other reasons. I thanked her again for the assistance she had given me on the RLJ article.

On display in both the sizeable rooms in the clubhouse is a plethora of items commemorating the history of the Heriot’s rugby club: trophies, jerseys, programmes, and so on. It is an impressive collection. The team photographs of the George Heriot’s School First XV date back to before the First World War, whilst those of each year’s Heriot’s FP team are all meticulously named and dated. Each of the club’s former international players has his individual picture on the wall. RM Kinnear duly takes his place in this proud line-up.

For those charged with managing the current entity that is Heriot’s Rugby, there is a double-edged challenge: to respect the traditions of the club that have evolved over a century and a quarter; and to deal with the requirements of the next phase of the professional era, with its sponsorship and social media and pathways. Tradition and professionalism: a tension that Roy Kinnear would have fully appreciated.

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