THE grin on Steven Longwell’s face, as he stood up after another devastating scrum had shunted the Currie Chieftains pack ten-yards backwards and off their own ball, said it all. With less than ten minutes to go in a match which had been played at breakneck speed, the big man – who had started at tight-head and switched to loose-head before half-time without missing a beat – was still going strong.
“It’s all in the hips, Stevie,” came a tongue-and-cheek shout from the touchline, as his team-mates slapped his back in recognition of his giant contribution to Ayr’s set-piece dominance. Longwell heard the praise and couldn’t resist a nod and a slightly self-conscious thumbs-up. Proud as punch.
Quite right, too. We love to celebrate the fleet-footed winger who can dance past five defenders as if they are caught in quick-sand, and the maverick stand-off who can cut defences wide open with a devastating pass or precocious cross-field kick, and the ferocious flanker who knocks opponents down like a sledgehammer blasting through plywood. Well, a prop capable of more than just standing his ground and perhaps milking a few penalties – but can generate the power and control to turn a scrum into a dynamic source of possession – is deserving of just as much praise.
But there is more to Longwell’s game than just the dark arts of the set-piece. He played the full 80 minutes of Ayr’s victory over Edinburgh Accies in round one of this Tennent’s Premiership campaign, then 78 minutes of Saturday’s clash against the Chieftains, and although he was blowing a bit by the end of both encounters, his endurance stands testament to a truly modern approach to propping.
“It [playing all, or at least the vast majority, of a match] is something I have come to expect now,” says the man who scored six tries for Ayr during the 2017-18 campaign, who was named the club’s player-of-the-season, and who started both of the Scotland Club XV’s matches against Ireland. “I’ve worked really hard during pre-season – I like to make sure I am doing my all for the team, which obviously includes scrummaging, but I also want to get my hands on the ball.
“There are a few young Ayr guys coming through so maybe I’ll end up getting a few more minutes off in the next couple of week,” he adds, although you get the distinct impression that this is an eventuality which he would not really welcome.
There has been a real changing of the guard at Millbrae during the close-season, with front-five stalwarts George Hunter [relocated to London], Robin Hislop [joined English Championship side Doncaster Knights], Lewis Anderson [relocated to Hong Kong], Scott Sutherland [retired], Rob McAlpine [London] and Jonny Agnew [London] all moving on.
The pack on Saturday included: homegrown 21-year-old Ruairidh Sayce, making his second competitive start for the 1st XV, at loose-head; Robbie Smith, who captained Scotland Under-20s during last season’s Six Nations, at hooker; Euan McLaren, who was also involved in the Scotland Under-20s set-up last season but struggled with injury, coming on at tight-head; Marshall Sykes, who was born and raised in England but qualifies for Scotland through his grandfather, and who was a minor revelation during the national age-grade side’s Junior World Championship campaign this summer, in the second-row; where he packed down alongside Australian David Corbenici, a 24-year-old summer recruit from GHA.
Chuck in the influence of a new head coach in the shape of former Glasgow Warriors and Scotland full-back Pete Murchie, and there is a real sense of something new and different about this Ayr outfit.
“It’s becoming increasingly apparent to me that I am no longer a young aspiring prop, but the old boy who has seen it all before,” chuckles Longwell. “It is good, because I can hopefully pass on some of the stuff I have learned over the years to the academy boys, and vice-versa, because I’m still learning, even at 28.
“Pete has come in at the same time as a lot of new faces and he’s really just freshened up the whole approach,” Longwell continues. “He’s not long out of the professional game and you can see that in the way he wants us to move the ball at pace, and the responsibility he is giving us to play what is in front of us.
“In the play-off semi-final against the Chieftains last year, it became a war of attrition for us up front, with the forwards grinding out the win, and while I was obviously delighted that we got the result we needed, I was also completely knackered afterwards. It was a really tough afternoon and maybe we didn’t show all that we are capable of. I’m sure it was gripping to watch because it was so tense but I don’t suppose it was that entertaining.
“It is a lot more enjoyable mixing it up so that the forwards lay the platform for our backs to have a go, and there are some pretty handy players out there who can do some damage for us if given half a chance.
“As a tight forward, there is nothing better than lifting your head after a scrum or a ruck to see your centre or winger darting off down the field. And from my point of view, it’s good to get your hands on the ball in open field and have a bit of a gallop from time to time, rather than just tramping from scrum to ruck to line-out.
“We still want to be the dominant pack in the league, but we want to be able to mix it up as well because, as we’ve learned on occasions over the past few years, you can’t rely on just bulldozing your way to victory every week. There are a few other good packs in this league, and if they know what is coming then they will be ready to stop you – I think we are going to be better at keeping them guessing this season.
“They are a young guys [who have come into the pack], but a lot of them are involved in the professional environment at Glasgow, so they know what is required and they have that belief in what they need to do.
“Our scrum is getting better, our line-out is getting better, and we’re developing all over the park. I’ve been here for four years and been in three Premiership Grand Finals – hopefully this year we can push on and get to another one,” added Longwell, who started out playing junior rugby at Hillhead Jordanhill, and had four years with Dundee HSFP whilst at university in the city, before joining up with Ayr.
It is early days, but two bonus point wins from two outings is a pretty good way to start a serious assault on the last ever Premiership title. Thereafter, Scottish club rugby will take a step into the unknown with the launch next season of the elite Super 6 league which will sit above the traditional domestic structure.
Ayr were one of the successful franchise applicants and Longwell, who is currently a development officer for the Ayr Community Rugby Trust, is definitely keen to be involved in the new competition.
“I’m the Gary Holborn of Ayrshire rugby! I’ll keep going as long as I can,” he quips, referring to another great Scottish club rugby character, who turned out regularly for Stirling County last season in his 40th year. “As long as I feel fit enough to do a job, I’ll keep playing. At the moment I definitely feel fit, I feel good, I try to go to the gym as often as I can and train well – so long may that continue.
“We’ll see what happens. I love it here – I’m in it for the long haul. If that opportunity [to play Super 6] comes, I’ll grab it with both hands.”
Ayr play Stirling County at Millbrae this coming Saturday. You can count on Longwell being in the thick of the action.