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‘No early slip-ups’ is call from Highland head coach Davie Carson, while Orkney relish national return

Highland head coach Dave Carson.
Highland head coach Dave Carson.

Highland head coach Davie Carson is urging his players to ensure they are perfect starters in National Division 1 – after slipping up twice at the start of last season.

The Inverness club continues to celebrate its centenary season with Glasgow Warriors v Ayrshire Bulls playing at the city’s Caledonian Stadium on Friday night.

The FOSROC champions were called in to face Glasgow after original opponents Worcester Warriors pulled out due to severe financial problems, including outstanding cash reportedly owed to the HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC).

That is the ideal warm-up for fans before Highland get going at home to Ayr the following day.

Highland finished fifth in the division last term, level on 61 points with their weekend visitors, so a close contest could well be in store.

Ayr scored a 13-12 opening day win at Canal Park a year ago and Carson’s team then lost 43-3 to Kelso in their second game before posting a 28-27 victory over Heriot’s Blues to make a move up the table.

A strong start this time, therefore, is the call from the boss, who is upbeat after a fine warm-up show against top-flight Edinburgh Accies.

He said:  “We lost a really tight game against Ayr on the first day of last season and we didn’t get off to a good start overall. We lost the first two games, so we will be ready.

“They’re a good team. You never know exactly what these sides will be like as their boys move around a lot more between clubs over the summer down in that area, but if we can take the performance we had against Edinburgh Accies and build upon that then we’ll be fine.

“One of our best away performances last season was down at Ayr (in an 18-10 victory in November) when we played really well. It’s the first game at home and we don’t want to slip up like last year.

“We need a win at home to get us going before we head down to Aberdeen the week after.”

Players shaping up for big kick-off

Carson is delighted by how his group are shaping up, with a couple of key returners also a boost.

He said: “We started back at the beginning of July. We had five or six weeks of really good fitness work with (the club’s strength and conditioning coach) Rory Cross and then started with ball work.

Rory Cross, Highland’s strength and conditioning coach.

“Edinburgh Accies, who finished fourth in the Premiership last year, came up and we had 25 guys have a go at them.

“We played well and scored four good tries and were pretty pleased with our performance.

“The week after that, we took a 22-man squad to Cupar to play Howe of Fife. There were ups and downs in a roller-coaster of a game, but that’s what you get in pre-season and you give boys the chance to put their hands up for the first 15 start.

“Everyone is pretty fit and fully back at training. We’re looking forward to it. I don’t think we’ve had any new additions, but Lewis Sinclair is back, having missed most of last season through injury, while Andrew Findlater is also back fit, so we’re looking good, although some of our army boys will be away for the first few months.

“But others will step up and be ready. This weekend, we will have three senior teams in action, which is fantastic.”

Orkney thrilled by national return

Orkney, meanwhile, are preparing for a return back to National Division 3 level after clinching the Caledonia Division 1 title in April.

President, and former head coach, Garry Coltherd explained that consolidation is the name of the game four years after the club were relegated from the national set-up.

He said: “We’re chuffed to be back at this level. We’re a club with ambition and we strive to play at the highest standard we can.

“The squad for the year ahead will involve more of our youngsters, so we will go with a mixture of youth and experience.

“We know it will be tough, but getting back into the national leagues is where we want to be. We’ve just got to try and dig in and see if we can stay there.

Orkney celebrate after winning the Caledonian Division 1 title following a 50-7 victory against Aberdeen Wanderers in April.

“We will be aiming to be as strong as possible in our home games and look to pick up as many points on the away trail, which we know will be a bonus.”

Early measure of league’s standards

On Saturday, they start their league campaign away to East Lothian-based opponents Royal High, who were crowned the East League Division 1 champions last season.

Two years ago, Orkney were set to host Royal High in a National Shield semi-final then the pandemic struck and sport across the country was stopped.

As a gesture of goodwill, the visitors, who had chartered a Loganair flight for the game, were thrilled when the airline agreed to the request that they transfer the deposit paid to Orkney Rugby Club.

Coltherd is sure both sides will be eagerly anticipating this weekend’s fixture between the two respective champions.

He added: “Royal High were due to come to Orkney to play us in a semi-final and the winner was set to play the final at Murrayfield.

“We were pretty confident of a good result, especially with it being a home tie. We both won our leagues last season and are both newly promoted, so I’m sure it will be an interesting game and will give us an early idea of where we’re at.”

National 3 is ultra-competitive

Derek Robb is the sole head coach this season, having shared the role in recent years with Coltherd.

And he underlined how the players and staff cannot wait to test themselves in this higher division.

He said: “The guys have been working hard to get up to a decent level of fitness.

“We’re looking forward getting back into National 3, playing some teams we’ve played before, and other we’ve not played against for a long time.

“Last time we were in National 3, it was one of the most competitive in the whole set-up. Every team was fighting hard and taking points from one another.

“There are a couple of teams who have already said they’re coming here for the weekend where they can sample Orkney hospitality. We try to look after teams when they come up.

“In terms of the competition, our home form will be important and we will be targeting those games. That is when we will most likely have our strongest squads available.”