Element of journeying into the unknown for Highland head coach Dave Carson ahead of National One kick off
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Highland Rugby Club head coach Dave Carson is looking forward to the new National One campaign – even if he does not know exactly what to expect from rival clubs.
For Highland's part, they have done as much as they could do to prepare for the season ahead.
After months of training without being able to play matches, two Premiership clubs visited Canal Park in pre-season in the form of Edinburgh Academical and Aberdeen Grammar. Both of those games proved to be tough tests to sharpen Highland's players up 18 months after they last played a match.
Ayr, one of the clubs in National One with a Super 6 side affiliated to them, will make the long journey up to the Highland capital for the 2021/22 opener, and while Carson is very much looking forward to ending the lack of competitive rugby he is wary that the absence makes it difficult to scout and judge other teams at this stage.
"It has been a long, long time, we've done a lot of training with no games when you think about September to Christmas last year," Carson said.
"Then we got locked down again, but we were back in March and April and then we started pre-season on July 1.
"It has been a long time coming, but it was great to get those two pre-season friendlies in against Premiership opposition to get us in the right place.
"We still probably don't know what to expect. You think about your Super 6 sides, they are going to be strong – maybe even stronger than the last time we played them.
"I've heard rumours of a few guys leaving the Super 6 sides and going back to the club to play more rugby, so they might be stronger than when we played them for the first time, which was the first time the Super 6 was on the go.
"I reckon the league will be stronger as a whole, without a doubt with the players coming into it."
Much as it may take a few weeks to gauge the strength of other sides, though, there have been a couple of changes at Canal Park since they were last in league action.
One nice change is that the sore bodies that came with pushing each other to the limit in a full contact sport became a thing of the past when preparations really began for the season, but there are some personnel shifts as well.
Development officer and first team regular Iain Chisholm left the club to switch jobs, while Oscar Baird has gone travelling after coming through Highland's youth set up.
Those losses have been offset by a couple of players who have been waiting a long time to make their debuts though, as well as a small tweak to the coaching team.
"I suppose it's the first time some players are going to play for us, but they have been training with us for 18 months," Carson reasoned.
"They joined ahead of the start of last season which never happened.
"We've got Owen MacDonald who has moved up from Oban, he played against Grammar and did very well, so he will be starting in his first competitive game for the first team on Saturday.
"Benn Morris too, who is originally from Elgin but went to uni down in Bath and played there at a high standard, he will be starting as well.
"We've got the army boys out at Fort George as well, a few of them have been coming down to train and one of them is actually helping us coach as well, Junior Bulumakau.
"He played for the Glasgow Warriors and played professional rugby in England before he got a knee injury, but he's been helping us with the backs training which has been absolutely fantastic. He has brought some new ideas, and he will bring a bit of flair hopefully.
"We're all ready to go, and everybody is just buzzing for this weekend."