Highland Rugby Club pleased league structure has returned to normal for 2021/22 season
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Competitive rugby almost feels as though it has become a pipe dream over the last 18 months, but it will finally return to the calendar this weekend.
Saturday, March 7 2020 was the last time the Scottish Rugby club pyramid was in effect, although there were attempts to bring the sport back in one form or another during the pandemic.
Plans for a regionalised set-up that would have foregone the familiar national leagues with promotion and relegation in favour of getting some semblance of competition back even went as far as fixture lists being released in the latter part of last year, before Covid case numbers rocketed again.
That meant that the season was eventually scrapped, with the focus instead turning to getting things back to as close to normal as possible for the upcoming season.
Thankfully, that has proven to be the case. Where other sports continued to alter plans and structures, rugby played the long game hoping to return as they left off 18 months ago – and now the national leagues and real stakes for winning and losing are back as hoped, much to the relief of Highland Rugby Club's director of rugby Brian Bell.
"I think we're very fortunate in rugby," he said.
"There was talk last year when the game might have come back, before Covid kicked in worse, that we might go to a regional structure.
"That doesn't do us any favours. Our regional structure would have been going to Aberdeen, Dundee and Stirling, so for us that's no different from playing in a national structure.
"We're very pleased to be playing nationally with the opportunity of getting promotion. We're very ambitious, we want to have success, and we're prepared to work very hard to hopefully achieve that success.
"The regional structure wouldn't have done us any favours. We would have fulfilled the games to be playing rugby, but it wouldn't have been the same.
"It would have been an existing, treading water year that wouldn't have inspired our players to go and play I don't think, whereas the competitive league structure that we've got does inspire our players to want to be a part of something."
Highland also have a second and third team this year, competing further down the pyramid in the regionalised Caledonia North Two and Caledonia North Four leagues respectively.
While the third XV are newcomers, the second team – knows as the Raptors – have had plenty of success in the highest tier they are allowed to participate in.
There have been whispers in the past that Highland may push to change the rule preventing the Raptors from progressing into higher divisions, but for now Bell believes the league is a good match for the squad.
"The Caley North Two is a good league to be in," Bell reasoned.
"It suits our players at the moment. Okay, we go to Aberdeen and Ross Sutherland and all the parts in between, but it's a good, competitive league for us, so I'm delighted that it has panned out this way for them.
"We are in a position now where we hope to have a strong second 15 that has a target to win the Caley North Two again. One year in the future, they might decide to allow the team that wins that league to get promoted into Caley One, and if that's us then we will take that opportunity.
"We've got players in that group who may well feel as if they should be playing for the first team. Again, that comes down to player management, but to have a team of that strength as our second team where players are capable and competent enough to play for the first team – and have done in the past – that shows the strength that we're developing over the whole club."