Rob Moffat repeatedly claims he is on a mission, a quest to revitalise the rugged Borders heartlands of Scottish rugby. The Borders have bestowed upon us so many rugby giants and so much rugby greatness. But the region that delivered John Rutherford, Jim Renwick and Gregor Townsend has grown alarmingly barren with the onset of professionalism.

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It’s not that the talent no longer exists. But for whatever reason, it isn’t emerging as prolifically as it did for decades. Those that do make it are consistently among the best. Greig Laidlaw and Ross Ford are modern-day titans of the Scotland team. Stuart Hogg is its new captain and the best chance of a Lions Test starter and, more recently, Darcy Graham and Rory Sutherland have taken the Six Nations by storm.

Moffat, like all of them, is a man steeped in Borders rugby. A hugely respected mentor, he coached at Edinburgh, Glasgow and the now-defunct Border Reivers, was an assistant with Scotland A and led the national sevens team. He guided Laidlaw, Townsend, Chris Paterson and a glut of other internationals, and is spoken of in glowing terms by many of Scotland’s finest players.

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Ex-Scotland skipper Gavin Hastings guests on Rugby World Cup Memories, the RugbyPass RWC documentary series

These days, Moffat is back in the Borders and back at the Greenyards for a second spell where he shares the director of rugby role with Colin Meager. He is determined to play his part in changing the narrative in this rugby land of plenty.

“The last Melrose player to play for Scotland is Kelly Brown,” said Moffat to RugbyPass. “Other Melrose players have been capped but they have come into Melrose later in their careers. Now, Kelly made his debut 15 years ago and there is something wrong if a club like Melrose hasn’t got an internationalist in that 15-year period.

“Darcy Graham, just a wee guy from Hawick, 5ft 9ins tall, but he’s got a huge heart. He has backed himself and he has come through. I guarantee there are two or three Darcy Grahams running about the streets of Hawick – there are. But some of them are a wee bit wary of leaving Hawick and moving somewhere else. It’s a mix of everything but for me, the talent is still there. I’m on a mission to do something about it.”

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Although Scottish Rugby runs an academy in Galashiels, only four Borders-based players were selected in the most recent Scotland U18s squad of 40. Five Borderers were included in a 29-strong U20s squad, but not all are still playing in the region. “There should be more Borders players in Scottish U18 and U20 teams – that’s the bottom line,” Moffat continued. “It’s no criticism of the academy down here, but we have to drive it a bit harder. 

“Rugby is for everybody, of course it is, and I’ll never be called elitist because I love working with anybody, but we need to push the really talented ones and get them through. It’s too generic. I don’t think they look at people as individuals. A lot of people would have looked at Darcy Graham two or three years ago and thought he was too small. That’s rubbish.

“Damian McKenzie at the Chiefs, if he was here, somebody would tell him, ‘Oh son, you’d be better playing scrum-half’. Seriously, that would happen. It’s crazy. There’s not enough individual detail.”

Since the demise of the Reivers in 2007, the Borders have had no professional team on its doorstep. What it lost, in the words of the towering Jim Telfer, were heroes. Jason O’Halloran, the departing Glasgow attack coach, said kids needed to be shown that flitting to Edinburgh or Glasgow to play professionally was “not like moving to Mars”. The pathway from clubland to the elite is blurred and distant to the local youngsters.

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“One coach I spoke to at Jed Forest thought some of the boys had lost the ambition and the drive, they just didn’t see the pathway,” Moffat added. “I was really surprised at that because, hell, three of the best scrum-halves Scotland have ever had are from Jed (Roy Laidlaw, Gary Armstrong and Greig Laidlaw), but I don’t know if that is maybe too far away from them. Greig’s not that old, but to the young boys there, he’s on another planet.

Moffat Borders rugby revival

Rob Moffat is seeking to revitalise Borders rugby (Photo by Danny Lawson/PA Images via Getty Images)

“Greig’s living half a mile from me and we’ll drag him in to help before he goes to Japan! Ross Ford is a Kelso boy coaching at the Southern Knights. I want to see the next internationalist from Melrose and other Borders clubs. That is great for the youngsters because they can then see that.

“Dan Gamble is a Kelso boy and he has just signed for Edinburgh; Rufus McLean is from just outside Melrose and Glasgow have signed him. It’s good to see that. And that proves to me that the boys are there, but it’s about giving them confidence and giving them a chance.”

In the absence of a third professional team or the money to form one, the role of Scottish Rugby’s Super6 tournament becomes all the more important. The semi-professional competition is designed to bridge the gap between the club game and professional rugby. The Southern Knights, who play at Melrose, are its sole Borders franchise. 

Although the league’s inaugural season was halted by coronavirus, and it is thus hard to gauge its fitness for purpose, there have been loud critics. Scotland prop Gordon Reid told the BBC’s Scottish Rugby podcast that the Super6 was not strong enough to prepare players for the professional game. 

Outgoing Glasgow coach Dave Rennie was frustrated at the red tape which prevented his fringe players from running out for Super6 teams when not involved with Warriors. “Because having two pro teams is very narrow, you have got to really drive that Super6. You want people to be thinking, woah, this is above watching a Premiership match,” reckoned Moffat.

“The whole aim of that should be not winning the league but driving the standards of the individual players. We want to have six props at international level instead of three or four. We want far more competition. The Super6 contracts are not worth a lot of money (maximum salary is £12,000 per season). They’re not enough to keep guys going, but that has to be pushed to a much, much higher level than the club game, not a nice, cosy bit for club players who are not going to go any further.

Borders rugby

Current Scotland coach Gregor Townsend in action during his Reivers days (Photo by Mike Egerton/PA Images via Getty Images)

“Someone has got to look at it and say, that player is not good enough. You put a lot of young boys in there and they kick on. Because otherwise what will happen, and Scottish Rugby will not like it, but the players will leave Scotland. It’s a big world out there. No wonder Newcastle Falcons keep sniffing around, quite rightly, and players will go.”

Since rejoining the club in the summer, Moffat has been hammering the phones, ringing over 100 Melrose men to gauge their interest in playing and lobbying those who aren’t sold – he wants the Borders clubs to help each other and tap into the deep well of rugby knowledge on their doorstep. 

“What happens down here is that Melrose tends to want to look after Melrose and Hawick want to look after Hawick,” he explained. “It’s the ‘it’s aye been’ syndrome. But actually, it’s not good enough, it’s not. A club like Melrose, who have got a 4G pitch and good lights, should invite other clubs in the middle of winter to come across and use that facility instead of training under poor lights in the mud.

“We’re on a mission to make sure we get two teams at every age-group at a club. I’m out and about a fair bit and if you go to virtually any club they don’t have the number of teams they used to. In a lot of ways, Scotland does really, really well for a small country. Scottish Rugby will say we are developing more talent and you would find that hard to argue.

“We’ve got the talent; we’ve maybe got to accelerate that talent. If you’re an All Black, you get better and better and if you don’t, you’re not an All Black anymore. We don’t have that sort of culture enough.”

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