YOU would be a foolhardy gambler to wager anything more than pocket change on the outcome of this weekend’s eagerly anticipated Tennent’s Premiership Grand Final clash between Ayr and Heriot’s at Millbrae [kick-off: 3pm].
In the pink (and black) corner we have Ayr, with home advantage after finishing top of the table at the end of the regular season. In their fourth Grand Final on the bounce and boosted by the release of three Glasgow Warriors professionals. After coming from behind to secure gritty victories over Melrose in league and cup semi-finals during the last two weeks, they are both battle-hardened and full of self-belief.
In the blue (and white) corner we have Heriot’s, who finished second at the end of the regular season after a strong run-in during which they claimed the scalps of both Ayr and Melrose on the road. The visitors have not had any pros released this week, which means they will go the entire league season without the help of any contracted players – but they are boosted by a clean bill of health for every member of their own 1st XV squad apart from back-up loose-head Martin Bouab (who broke his leg a couple of weeks ago), meaning that head coach Phil Smith has been able to rotate his personnel in recent weeks to keep players fresh and on their toes, and he has selected a squad for this match with some serious firepower coming off the bench.
The spoils have been shared equally in the two previous meeting between these two teams this season. Ayr got the better of Heriot’s at Goldenacre back in September [24-32], but the capital outfit got their revenge at the start of December when they returned from the west coast with an emphatic victory tucked into their back pocket [7-25].
There is no love lost between these two fierce rivals. The clubs have butted heads over several issues during the last decade – player citings, gate receipts and personality clashes – but the real festering sore is the last (and only other) time the two clubs met in a Grand Final back in 2016.
Ayr are still seething at the way they lost that match after finishing the regular season top of the log when Heriot’s came from behind at Millbrae to snatch the lead through a contentious penalty try.
Heriot’s, for their part, are unimpressed that Ayr still list themselves as ‘Premiership Winners’ for 2015-16 on their website, on the basis that they finished the regular season at the top of the table.
Heriot’s have three buses heading through for the game, while Ayr will expect a big home support. It is shaping up to be one of the great days for Scottish club rugby – will we ever see the like again?
THE LOWDOWN –
AYR v HERIOT’S
VENUE: Millbrae @ 3.00pm
Ayr: G Anderson; D McCluskey, P Kelly, S McDowall, K Rowe; F Climo, H Warr; R Sayce, R Smith, S Longwell, D Corbenici, L Morrice, B Macpherson, T Spinks, P McCallum©. Subs: A McGuire, E McLaren, A North, C Reece, J Preston, O Smith, R Tagive.
Heriot’s: C Simpson; J Blain, R Jones, R Kay, C Robertson; S Edwards, A Simmers; J Scott, M Liness, S Cessford, C Marshall, A Sinclair, I Wilson©, J McLean, S Dewar. Subs: A Johnstone, S Mustard, R Leishman, M Hughes, J Hill, A Ball,
TEAM NEWS –
Ayr: Stafford McDowall is released by Glasgow Warriors to team up with his pro team-mate Paddy Kelly in the centre, with Danny McCluskey switching to the wing. The rest of the starting team remains unchanged. Ratu Tagive is also released by Warriors and is on the bench alongside Scotland Under-20s player Ollie Smith, who comes back into the squad after being rested.
Heriot’s: Michael Liness, Callum Marshall, Jack McClean and Struan Dewar are recalled to the starting pack after head coach Phil Smith mixed things up for last weekend’s cup semi-final clash against Hawick, while Andrew Simmers, Stuart Edwards and Charlie Simpson return in the back-line, with Scotland Under-20s star Jack Blain moving from full-back to the wing.
KEY BATTLE: Ruaridh Sayce versus Struan Cessford
WHAT THE COACHES SAY –
“This Saturday presents the team with a huge opportunity, and one which I know the players will do everything to take. It has all the ingredients to be a great game, where both teams will throw everything they have at each other. Heriot’s are a very good team who finished second in the league and performed well in their semi-final victory, so we know the challenge that we will face on Saturday.
“Our players have come through two weeks of knockout rugby and that will stand the team in good stead going into this game. The last two weeks have also underlined the amount of belief this group of players has in each other.The chance to be at home in front of our amazing support is a huge boost for us and we are expecting a big crowd to get behind the boys, to help us achieve the result we are looking for …” – Pete Murchie (Ayr)
“The aim at the start of the season was to give us a chance to win the last Scottish Championship as we know it. Finishing second was a bonus and the semi-final win means we have the opportunity to fulfil our aim, though travelling to Ayr to achieve this is without doubt the most difficult route to take.
“The squad are playing well and are very focused on what we have to do to give us a chance of the win. Our two league fixtures are long in the memory now, and while we won the most recent fixture at Millbrae, we are fully aware that we are playing a team very much on the rise after two strong wins against reigning champions Melrose. However, our commanding performance in the semi-final win over Currie means we also feel we are raising our performance levels at the right time and this should see the top two teams in the country showcasing the Premiership.
“Our last play-off fixture against Ayr was three years ago in the Grand Final at Millbrae. This was a great occasion, with the sun shining, a big crowd and an exciting eight-try thriller, a real celebration of the club game. Let’s hope these two squads can produce something close to that again … and hopefully the same outcome, obviously …” – Phil Smith (Heriot’s)
VERDICT: It is going to be very tight. If Ayr can contain the Heriot’s pack then the home team certainly have – in theory – enough firepower out the back to get the job done. But that is a big ‘if’. Not only do the visitors have a formidable starting eight, but they have some serious grunt coming off the bench.
Heriot’s head coach Phil Smith is a master at pressing the right buttons to get his team in the right frame of mind for one-off matches, and a combination of that, the memory of 2016 and the fact that the pressure is slightly off as the away team, could give the capital outfit a decisive edge.
Heriot’s squeak it.