Carson sees no reason why Highland Rugby Club's remarkable rise through the leagues cannot continue
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Highland Rugby Club today is a very different entity to the one Dave Carson joined almost four decades ago.
In his last year at school, he would play rugby in the morning and then join up with a Highland fourth team to turn out for them in the afternoon.
After 15 years as a player, he moved into coaching, helping out at youth level with the short-lived Caledonia Reds and taking over first the under-18s side at Canal Park, and then the first team at the turn of the millennium, when he also helped set up possibly the first micro’s system in Scotland under the advice of Scotland international Nairn McEwan.
Carson’s first spell as head coach would last three years before stepping away, but a decade later he would return to the role.
Already the club was a different entity. There was no second team, never mind a fourth, but Carson had changed too – his extra experience off the pitch had taught him to take a new approach.
“Nairn, having been a professional coach in the early days, I spent a lot of time with him, hours chatting with him and I learned so much off him,” Carson explained.
“He said I needed to get a good team around me, where everyone had specific jobs. You need a team manager, you need a physio, you need someone to look after all the kit, and you need to just concentrate on coaching and looking after the players.
“Let other guys do other things, so that you’re 100 per cent concentrating on that.
“That was probably my biggest lesson from the first time around. I was doing the strips then, the transport, everything. Now everyone does a little job and does it really well.
“Nobody is overloaded, everybody is just looking after their own wee bit at the club. It has proven to be very successful.”
With a coaching team of Alister Wemyss, Bruce MacGregor, Morris Dillon, Roy Dinnes and Geoff Begg behind him, Carson set about achieving immediate success second time around at Canal Park.
To do that, he needed to rejuvenate the playing squad, which Carson did by integrating youth players desperate to make their mark and impress.
That did not always make him popular but with four promotions in six years and more national cup finals on top of that, it certainly paid dividends.
“We went back to the basic thing that if you don’t train twice a week, you’re not playing rugby for Highland, end of story,” he recalled.
“That season we probably lost five or six senior players who didn’t like being dropped because they weren’t training, and eventually they just drifted away.
“Luckily the season before we had a very successful under-18s side, and eight of them stayed in Inverness. It was the perfect opportunity down at a lower level in Caley Two North to throw these guys straight in.
“We had a great coaching team, great new ideas that the boys hadn’t seen before, everyone bought into it and it worked really well.
“It was a good blend of youth and experience, and the committee guys at the club basically sat down with them before and said this is what we need if you want the club to be successful.
“They backed myself and all the other coaches from day one, and you just can’t do what we did unless the whole club is pulling in the same direction.”
Many of those players Carson threw into the mix seven years ago are still there today, including the club’s current co-captains Scott Fraser and Carson’s son Callum.
They have seen big changes at the club too, with the new clubhouse at Canal Park opening two years ago, to help push Highland on to the next level with better facilities.
Highland are still looking up – a place in the top tier of amateur rugby, the Premiership, is only one promotion away, and it feels within reach after a third-place finish in National One last season.
It seems like the sky really is the limit for Carson and the club, but one of the things that has made them so successful is a willingness to keep adapting and learning from their own players as much as other coaches.
“Boys coming back with experience up here is critical,” Carson insisted.
“Stuart MacDonald played a spell in Edinburgh, Andrew Findlater and Rory Cross both went away then came back, and we’ve had a few imports coming in as well.
“Guys come in, especially experienced guys, and they teach us as coaches.
“They’ve tried other things before, and if you’re keen to grow your horizons and learn from anyone in rugby, then you take little bits on board that you think are going to help your team.
“All these guys have come in at different times and really helped us get where we are. Hopefully we can go on even further.”