Image by Bryan Robertson.
The first chapter of the return of The Co-Optimists concluded in Melrose this past Saturday as the new-look Co-Ops attempted to emulate the previous successes of the 1993 squad in a quest to win the famous Melrose Sevens.
As the coach drove away from Black Ivy in Edinburgh, littered with both international and local stars, there was an air of anticipation combined with smatterings of nervous excitement. Months of behind-the-scenes preparations were about to culminate at the home of rugby sevens – and spearheaded by legends Cecil Afrika (who was inducted into the Jackson Distillers Hall of Fame the previous Thursday), and try-scoring-machine Tom Varndell – all associated with The Co-Optimists were in high spirits ahead of their first round fixture against Kelso.
Tom Varndell set the precedent in the opening game, dotting down in the corner to settle some early nerves. Co-Ops captain James Johnstone claimed his stake in Melrose with a number of tries before Edinburgh speedster Freddie Owsley got his try-scoring streak off to a start as The Co-Ops made light work of a spirited Kelso side, finishing the game with 31 points to 5.
Round two saw The Co-Ops pitted against coach Scott Wight’s Selkirk side, who had previously triumphed over Ayr to book their place in the second round. Cecil Afrika expertly dictated the pace of the game, where The Co-Ops had the lion’s share of possession and territory. Ollie Melville’s early try was followed by a brace from Freddie Owsley. The finishing touches were applied by Jack Blain as The Co-Ops came out victors with a score line of 22 – 5.
The Co-Optimists quarter-final opponents, Currie Chieftains, had scored 67 points across their first two games showing both precision and attacking prowess. The first few minutes were an arm wrestle with both defences put under pressure, before the deadlock was thought to be broken by Freddie Owsley as he tore down the wing to dot down in the corner. However it was not to be, as (after a consultation with his linesman) the referee bought play back and issued Owsley a red card for an apparent swinging arm. This meant that The Co-Ops had to complete the majority of the matchup with a one man deficit. Currie capitalised on their advantage almost immediately, scoring twice before the half was up. Not to be outdone, the 6 men of The Co-Ops rallied together to produce a display full of heart and determination, clawing a try back, and setting up a final few minutes of epic proportions. On the ball, the Co-Ops looked dangerous – setting themselves up with a few good chances, but unfortunately just couldn’t apply the finishing touches needed. Ultimately, The Co-Ops’ spirited defence couldn’t hold out with the extra man and Currie came out victors 17 points to 5.
It was an unfortunate end to what was shaping up to be a promising tournament for The Co-Optimists, however the squad was gracious in defeat and dealt with the disappointment magnanimously – with many of the players joining in with the Melrose festivities and enjoying a laugh with the locals. Co-Optimists coach Stephen Lewis gave a pragmatic response, stating: “In some ways, losing in that manner galvanises a side – making them more hungry for the next one”. And hungry they will certainly be when they play their annual fixture against East Lothian at Stoneyhill, home of Musselburgh R.F.C. on the evening of Wednesday 27th April 2022.
The tournament final was played between two other invitational teams in The British Army and Samurai. After a tightly contested first half, the military team showed their class with two tries late in the game, triumphing over their fellow guest side 26-14 to be named the 2022 Melrose Sevens Champions.
The Co-Optimists’ 2022 Melrose Sevens campaign may have been marred by disappointment and controversy, however the positives certainly outweigh the negatives. Some positives include:
· Numerous young talents getting some much deserved exposure.
· Younger players starting out in their careers provided with the opportunity to learn from
those who have ‘done it all’.
· Legends of the game getting the opportunity to play at the home of sevens rugby.
· The successful relaunch of a much loved Scottish brand that is The Co-Optimists.
The goals surrounding the rebrand of The Co-Optimists have remained paramount: Reflect the roots and origins of The Co-Optimists within Scottish rugby, and provide exposure for some of the young, up-and-coming local talents. Putting the tournament result aside, this is the reason the rebranding was initiated, and on that notion, The 2022 Melrose Sevens has been a great success.
This success would not have been possible without the tireless work of Euan Kennedy and The Co-Optimists committee, Steven Casciani, Kyle Whitehill, coaches Scott Wight and Stephen Lewis, and the entire Co-Optimists squad. A very special mention too to all of our partners: Black Ivy, Innis & Gunn, Tsunami, and Kitchens International. Thank you for coming on this journey with us as we look to write the next chapter of the traditional Scottish heritage that is The Co-Optimists.