Aberdeen Grammar are approaching new horizons with a band of familiar faces.
After a Premiership season beset by setbacks, Grammar are preparing for life in the second tier of Scottish rugby and have moved quickly to put the pieces in place.
But rather than clean house, Grammar have recognised the valuable base of knowledge they already have at the club. Long-serving players Greig Ryan and Nat Coe have stepped up to be co-lead coaches, while Ali O’Connor, head coach for the last six years, will be retained as an attack coach.
Craig McLeod continues in his capacity as a development coach, while Iain Stanger, a former forwards coach, will look after the pack.
The one major change comes in the form of the captaincy. Jack Burnett steps into that role after spending his entire senior career with Grammar.
“The importance of that consistency can’t be overstated,” said Burnett. “Although we were relegated, Ali and Iain offer an awful lot and it’s hard to find guys who know rugby the way they know rugby. Keeping them is a big boon for us.
“Greig and Nat – you talk about strength in depth in the playing squad, they’re going to provide strength in depth to the coaching staff.
“Both of them have got Scotland club 15 experience and both have played a lot of rugby. They know the players and know rugby really well.
“I hadn’t been expecting the captaincy. Doug (Russell) and I are the same age and he had been the club captain for years. I wasn’t sure he’d step down, so it was a bit unexpected.
“It’s definitely a privilege. It was the first club I came to as a boy and I’ve never been to any other club. It’s a big thing at any rugby club, especially at one of the bigger rugby clubs.”
Looking for the silver linings
Grammar signed off a difficult season with victory in their final game against Musselburgh and Burnett feels it is important to pick out positives now their campaign is at an end.
“There were definitely some silver linings in the season,” he said. “It’s obviously really disappointing we didn’t manage to stay in the Premiership and we would have liked to have done that for a number of reasons.
“There’s not many clubs from the northern part of Scotland in there and it’s important for any club that wants to get to the Premiership to stay there.
“We had a lot of injuries and we lost a lot of players after the pandemic, which I think a lot of clubs did. Some of the positives were there as well and I think it’s important to highlight that.
“Some of the second 15 players were playing first 15 rugby towards the end of the season and that’s when we got two of our wins. To see guys progress and move through into the first 15, proving they can win games at Premiership level, stands us in good stead for years to come.
“A lot of young guys got exposed to a high level of rugby and held their own well.”
‘My dad has coached me since I was a boy’
Rugby has always been a big part of the Burnett family and it will have another chapter added to it next season, with Jack’s father Kevin stepping in as director of rugby.
“I had no idea about it,” said Burnett jnr. “My dad has been around the club for a while and been involved in rugby in the north-east of Scotland.
“We talk rugby a lot; he often makes a joke at the table if we’re having dinner as a family that the conversation has turned to rugby again and apologises to the rest of the table.
“My dad has coached me since I was a boy. He never pushed me into rugby as a kid but once I decided I wanted to do it, it didn’t take him long to help out with the lads on a Sunday morning.
“It’s been a part of my childhood and a part of my adulthood – him working at the rugby club. There’s nothing new or unusual about it for me.”
There are always intangibles that come with trying to orchestrate a rebuild. No-one can tell how long it will take, whether all the pieces are in place or what further challenges may come down the road.
‘We’ll have a lot of different goals in place’
Grammar retain a firm ambition of returning to the Premiership but the timing has to be right. They will be in an ultra-competitive National One, with derbies against Highland and Dundee to come, and a playing squad which may look a little different when the season kicks off.
“Promotion is the million-dollar question,” added Burnett. “It’s hard to say.
“We’ll have a lot of different goals in place. We will have long-term, short-term, medium-term goals.
“The sooner we get back to the Premiership, the better. If we can do that in one season, that would be great.
“But the league we’re in now is incredibly competitive and there are some big clubs in there. It’s really hard for us to say one season is the way to do it. It might take us two or three.
“Getting back to the Premiership is the ultimate goal and we’d like to do that in as few a seasons as possible. It is a period of transition for the club and sometimes when these changes happen, you have to see through these bumps in the road.
“When you make changes it doesn’t always go smoothly and we have to trust the process.”