Shetland’s rugby players are entering the spring very much in contention for promotion having taken their performance levels up a notch or two this season.
Although manager Bryan Leask says close rivals Kinloss Eagles are the favourites, the men in Fair Isle-patterned shirts are targeting a trio of victories from their final three league matches. That would give them a chance of going up from Caledonia Regional League Division Three North for the first time.
Leask has detected a “steady improvement” in the fortunes of Shetland rugby in the past couple of years. The team’s third-place finish last season followed two consecutive seasons finishing sixth, and there is every chance of bettering that achievement in 2012/13.
One of the team’s two league defeats has been declared null and void after the team which inflicted it, Huntly, dropped out of the division. That has left Shetland in second place with eight wins from nine league games.
They are five points adrift of leaders Deeside, who are one of their opponents later this month. But Leask says the biggest threat is likely to come from fourth-placed Kinloss, who Shetland also still have to face. They have won all six of their matches to date and would comfortably leapfrog Shetland by winning their other outstanding fixtures.
“They are the favourites to go up, there’s no doubt about it,” he said. “Even if we beat them, we’re still relying on somebody else to take points off them for us to go up. But win the three games and we’ll be there or thereabouts.
“[Kinloss] have got three games in hand – they’ve called off quite a number of games, which I think the SRU are looking into to see whether they were valid call-offs, or whether or not they should be docked points.”
The coach, who took over the team at the beginning of last season, puts Shetland’s improved performance down to improved fitness levels and being better organised defensively.
In previous seasons the team was shipping up to 40 points a game on average, conceding too many “silly tries”, but only 91 points have been conceded in nine league games so far.
“Defensively we’ve improved massively,” Leask said. “That, to me as a coach, is probably what I’m most proud of. If you defend well and you’re fit, tries will come.
“It’s been a good season, lying second, fighting for first, and to get to the semi-final of the cup. It’s a big stride forward for the club from even two years ago, where we got knocked out in the preliminary round and finished sixth in the league and were losing 30-40 points a game.”
With eight trips to the mainland for away fixtures each winter, the club has again had to call on a large pool – 46 players in all.
The squad’s depth has been bolstered by the addition of youngsters from a flourishing junior scene. Teenagers Harry Morton and Sandy Cluness have been “outstanding” and have “improved so much through the season”.
Leask says that if a steady stream of two or three youngsters can be fed into the senior squad each year, it “bodes pretty well for the future”.
With that in mind, Daniel Meadows was employed as a rugby development officer last year with the aim of improving youth participation in the game.
“We’re seeing 70-80 kids turning up on Saturday mornings for training seasons, whereas two or three years ago you were lucky to get 20,” he says. “If we can just keep that level of interest in rugby, there’s fairly good-sized crowds coming to the games.”
He said the team’s resounding recent 86-0 home victory against Inverness Craig Dunain highlighted the importance of gaining promotion in order to continue progressing.
“We’ve shown we can compete against the teams above us in the league with the run we had in the cup – we beat Banff, who are in the league above us, and just lost to Moray.”
The rugby team’s three remaining fixtures see them take on Kinloss on Saturday 23rd March before hosting Deeside the following weekend. The campaign will be rounded off with a trip to Aberdeen to face Grampian Police on Saturday 6th April.