THE PAUL CHALK COLUMN
SOMETHING is stirring at Canal Park these days. Highland Rugby Club is welcoming to all, apart from opposing players for 80 minutes who know by now that they have to show something special to depart from Inverness with a victory.
Two successive promotions sitting alongside its move inside the pristine new facilities born from the West Link road project put the club in a position many would love to be in. Four costly away defeats at their superbly-earned new level of National Division One this season has prevented another title tilt.
Those losses will be analysed by head coach Davie Carson this summer as they seek to become genuine title contenders in 2020-2021. Right now, they are within the top 20 clubs in Scotland. Five years ago they were winning Caledonia North Two. Think of that for a moment. Their only home league reversal has been against current second-placed side Heriot’s Blues, so it’s clear that home advantage helps Highland.
As a punter, it’s a fantastic place to take in sport on a Saturday afternoon. You can get a pint or a tea or coffee and take your place on the balcony for a wonderful view of the action or head downstairs to be inches from the drama.
On Saturday, Highland were firmly in the spotlight as they were hosting Marr, the Premiership leaders. The best amateur side in Scotland were in town and the young pipers were piping the fans inside on this bitterly cold January afternoon.
Nine Marr players are part of Scotland’s Six Nations pool who will be in Ireland for the curtain-raiser this coming weekend. Outside the pro duo of Edinburgh and Glasgow, Marr are the benchmark, with only one league loss as they lead the way in the Premiership.
It was a grand occasion, a proud day for all at Highland to test their progress against the best in the business. There were concerns that this last eight tie would be a mismatch, given that Marr won here at an absolute canter in pre-season, which failed to provide any kind of spark that day from the Inverness side.
Saturday was a million miles away from that as Highland were brilliant to a man from minute one to 80. They got in Marr’s faces, made sure they knew this was going to be a match in every sense of the word. Highland deservedly led 12-7 at half-time and the Marr contingent here were far from enjoying the very real threat of a Scottish Cup upset.
Marr took their chances in the second half to post a 17-12 victory, but Highland were on a few occasions only a misplaced pass or wrong option on the front foot away from being so close to another try. Marr applauded their opponents off the pitch afterwards and the Inverness side were left to reflect on this defeat with a mixture of pride and regret.
To have tested Marr throughout a fascinating 80 minutes underlines how far this club has come. Under Davie Carson’s leadership, this seems like a group who learn from setbacks and I’m sure, like those sore league losses, they’ll use these fine margins between success and failure against such formidable opponents to kick on and progress further.
Highland return to National Division One action in mid-February away to lowly Boroughmuir and, lifted by their display against Marr, they’ll be determined to put pressure on Heriot’s for that second spot behind most likely champions, Biggar.
Just behind the main pitch on Saturday, Highland’s reserves, the Raptors, were in action while the first-team tackled Marr and their rousing 57-0 rout of Mackie Academy saw them bolster their position on top of Caledonia North Division Two. There is strength in depth clearly for Highland to call on, if and when required.
As an aside, Canal Park recently hosted a Highland Football League match between Clach and Fort William to help the Merkinchers as the clean-up from their Christmas Eve fire continued.
It drew an enthusiastic crowd of around 700 and indicated an appetite perhaps not only for more Friday night sport in Inverness but the suitability of this venue for more than just rugby. Plenty to ponder down at Highland Rugby Club.
Battle on for Caley Jags to finish ‘best of rest’
CALEY Thistle have been sitting pretty in second spot in the Scottish Championship for some time but Saturday’s 1-0 defeat at Ayr United weakens that position.
The Honest Men won only one of their seven games over November and December, but they’ve begun 2020 in style now with three successive victories.
The Saturday before last they followed up their league win against Dunfermline by knocking Premiership side Ross County from the Scottish Cup.
They completed a Highland double at Somerset Park as Stephen Kelly’s goal made the difference after ICT had twice struck woodwork but not the net.
Not only did that result move Ayr to just a single-point behind the Inverness team, but they are five ahead of wobbly Dundee and six clear of Dunfermline.
The upturn in form for Mark Kerr’s outfit opens the opportunity for Ayr to further turn the heat on ICT by overtaking them on Friday night if they beat Partick Thistle, who fell to bottom place by losing 2-1 at Arbroath.
The Caley Jags host a dangerous Alloa Athletic team on Saturday, who tested them to the full in a 3-2 outcome in the Scottish Cup just over a week ago.
The Wasps followed up that cup loss last week by beating Arbroath at home and Queen of the South away to climb off the foot of the division. Only five points split Dundee in fourth and Alloa in ninth as there’s little between promotion play-off contenders and relegation sluggers. ICT must hold off the fresh Ayr power to finish second and avoid the additional two play-off at the end of the campaign.
Champions-elect Dundee United needed a late Lawrence Shankland goal to salvage a 1-1 draw at home to Morton to preserve their unbeaten record. Allied with Caley Thistle losing, it means the Taysiders are now a whopping 18 points clear at the top and the Tangerines winning the league in March becomes a depressing possibility.
- Paul Chalk’s Alive and Kicking sports show is on North Highland Radio every Friday from 7pm. Listen via the station’s website, the Tune In app or your smart speakers. You can also follow Alive and Kicking on Facebook.