After two months spent in virtual hibernation, Howe of Fife Rugby Club emerged into the cold January air on Saturday and started in earnest the long climb back to respect.
“The legacy has started again”, said club president Chris Reekie as no-side came – eventually – in a nailbiting finish against the Hamilton Bulls at Duffus Park in BT National League Two, the Howe first XV barely holding on for a backs-to the-wall 17-11 win to start 2018.
But it felt like more than just a win. Howe hadn’t had a game due to weather since November, and this was also the first home fixture since the conclusion of the SRU’s investigation into the “initiation” incident on the first XV bus in September 2016 and the severe sanctions – the club’s former president and retiring head coach banned from all rugby for a year, two players suspended for two years, and 12 more players banned for shorter periods – were made public.
Reekie, a lifelong Howe man who played for, coached and took on the presidency of the club in the wake of the scandal, is also a hugely respected figure in Midlands rugby. He’d planned to start a photography business in his retirement but instead has answered the call of the club he loves.
“It tarnished the name of the club, there’s no avoiding that,” he said. “But we’ve overhauled everything, the committees, the management structure and we’re changing the culture.
“We’ve still got scores of kids playing at micros, minis, juniors, now an Under-15 girls team started. People are coming back to the club I thought would never return.”
Indeed, despite the freezing chill, the Duffus stand was pretty full with club worthies, the usual crew leaned on the fence along the east side of the pitch grumbling at the ref in their traditional fashion, and former SRU president Ian Rankin was in his customary sentinel position behind the posts at south end of the ground.
Howe always seemed to be an exemplary community club and it seems the scandal won’t change that. One of the reasons why the game kicked off at 2 pm on Saturday instead of using the Duffus floodlights was to get it finished in time to let the crowd into the new stand bar to watch Glasgow’s PRO14 game against Zebre on TV.
Chris Fusaro and George Horne (the scrum-half was man of the match) were starting for the Warriors, and George’s elder brother Peter, a Scotland regular, was on the bench. On Friday Cammy Fenton came on and scored for Edinburgh against the Kings while Jamie Ritchie has starred for the capital side this year.
They’re all products of the Howe system – no other club can claim so many players directly developed by them in professional rugby in Scotland right now.
That’s the legacy the president was talking about. The current crop of players in the first XV are for the most part very young and inexperienced, but as is the Howe tradition all from the surrounding area.
The exception is Ryan Milne, formerly of Dundee HSFP who with another Mayfield fixture Dougie Gray has come over the Tay to assist young head coach Chris Martin.
Milne is also playing and lending experience to the pack, and it was definitely necessary as the Howe struggled to finish off the game. The lock made a left-footed clearance kick that didn’t quite get off the ground but somehow made touch to finally convince referee Michael Todd that enough rugby had been played after seven added minutes.
Howe did all their scoring in the second quarter of the match, with three opportunistic tries based on their tenacious defence, which had held a powerful-looking Hamilton team to just a 6-0 lead despite early dominance.
A quick tap penalty by Will Wardlaw led to the first, a long looped pass from Milne giving No 8 Andrew Steven just enough space to wrestle his way over at the corner.
The other two were real gifts. Hamilton tried to run out of their own 22 against the freezing wind, but an ill-advised long miss-pass went to ground behind its intended recipient and Graham Thomson has never had an easier try among his many for the Howe, simply picking up and cantering over the line.
Just before half-time, another spill further out was seized on by the home midfield, and wing Eden Cruickshank stretched out to finish when it seemed he would be held short. Fraser Ellison converted the last try from the touchline.
Hamilton got a try back in the second half from Andy Wilson from another ambitious move starting from their own 22, but it was the only time they really held on to the ball with the Howe defence constantly in their faces.
Martin has had to shuffle the SRU suspensions to those still with the club in his first season, but he’s getting rave reviews from his president and also from Rankin, who coached at pro, district and club level with distinction.
“It was a huge challenge throwing a team together after six weeks off, so it was a great performance,” said the rookie coach, at just 26 surely the youngest in league rugby. “We’ve got a heck of a lot of work to do though, we missed so many attacking chances from good setpiece positions, but this is exactly the result we’ve been needing to really get our season started.
“Every day I’m learning something new. I think the actual coaching sessions are the easiest part, it’s the organisation, seeing who we have available weeks in advance and trying to form a team.
“But we’re getting more players coming in. Last year around this time the IIs ended up in the papers for losing 172-0 to Blairgowrie, today they beat Bo’ness 100-0, and the first XV beat Hamilton. It’s a positive place to be right now.”
You can’t dispute that. The Howe have drawn a line under their recent past, and are now looking to the future.