Tennent’s Premiership: play-off semi-final preview – runners, riders and verdict

Ayr host Melrose and Heriot's are at home to Currie Chieftains as the top four teams in the country fight it out for a spot in the Premiership Grand Final

Frazier Climo
Ayr stand-off Frazier Climo in action against Melrose earlier in the season. Image: © Craig Watson - www.craigwatson.co.uk

PROFESSIONAL players are like buses for Heriot’s. They wait all season for one and then three come along at once. The Goldenacre outfit are boosted for their Tennent’s Premiership play-off semi-final clash at home to capital rivals Currie Chieftains tomorrow afternoon by the release of three full-cap internationalists in winger Jack Cuthbert (currently Scotland 7s squad), centre Mark Bennett and prop Murray McCallum (both Edinburgh Rugby). McCallum would ordinarily be assigned to Edinburgh Accies but they aren’t playing this weekend.

Chieftains, meanwhile, have first year Edinburgh pro Luke Crosbie at No 8, and he is joined in the back-row by Thomas Gordon, who is on a partnership contract with Glasgow Warriors and has been away duty with Dave Rennie’s side during the Six Nations window. Mark Cairns’ boys also have Glasgow Warriors and former Scotland Under-20s tight-head Adam Nicol [redirected from Stirling County] ready to add some power off the bench in what promises to be a tight, fiercely competitive affair.


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Across in the west, those two great rivals Ayr and Melrose, who have dominated the Premiership the last two seasons, lock horns at Millbrae. Melrose struggled to consistently hit their own high standards due to a reduced squad and injury this season, but hung in there to make it to the knock-outs stages of the league campaign as fourth placed finishers in the Premiership. And they are bolstered this week across their backline by the return of three first year pros in George Taylor, Ross McCann and Jason Baggott, as they they look to topple an Ayr side who finished the regular season top of the heap.

Ayr’s only pro release as winger Ratu Tagive, who played in 12 out of the 18 league games Stirling County were involved in the regular season, and his selection is yet another demonstration of the weird no-man’s-land between the pro and amateur game that the Premiership currently inhabits.

The winner of each of these games will meet in the Premiership Grand Final on 6th April.

Turnberry Hotel

THE LOWDOWN –

AYR v MELROSE

VENUE: Millbrae @ 3.00pm

TEAMS –

Ayr: G Anderson; R Tagive, J Pinkerton, D McCluskey, 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, R Curle, O Smith.

Melrose: C Jackson; G Wood, P Anderson, G Taylor, R McCann; J Baggott, M McAndrew; G Shiells, R Anderson, C Young, A Runciman, J Head, R Knott, G Runciman©, I Moody. Subs: R Ferguson, C Crookshanks, T Brown, H Morris, S Hutchison, D Crawford, I Sim.

TEAM NEWS –

Ayr: Glasgow Warriors winger Ratu Tagive, who has played most of this season with Stirling County, switches to Ayr for this match, while prodigal son Ross Curle travels up the road from London once again and will be desperate to make a big impact off the bench.

Melrose: Three first year pros in George Taylor, Ross McCann and Jason Baggott are released to bolster a dangerous looking backline, while Scotland Under-17s prospect Harri Morris (a George Watson’s College pupil) takes his place on the bench covering the back-row in an otherwise settled looking squad.

KEY BATTLE: Tommy Spinks and Grant Runciman

WHAT THE COACHES SAY –

“Knock-out games of rugby always have an edge to them and with many of the squad who first won the league in 2009 in attendance as spectators, it should be a great occasion. Melrose are a quality team, who are very familiar with big games, and we know we will have to be at our very best . With a vocal home support behind the team it should bring out the best in us  …” – Pete Murchie (Ayr)

“A semi-final away to Ayr is a great challenge that we are extremely excited about. Ayr have shown their quality finishing the regular season top of the league and rightly go into the game as out-and-out favourites on home soil. There has been added intensity to our training over the last two weeks with all players working hard to ensure they are in the best place possible. I am sure there will be a large vocal crowd at Millbrae which will inspire both groups of players to play at their very best … ” – Rob Chrystie (Melrose)

VERDICT: Home advantage and form over the course of the whole season perhaps gives Ayr the edge on paper  but Melrose have a dangerous looking back-line this week, despite the absence of talismanic full-back Fraser Thomson. And with almost all of their big-hitters back in the pack (apart from flankers Rory Darge and Neil Irvine-Hess) they have nothing to fear from the home eight.

In the final reckoning, the strength of the bench could be the difference, and in that department the men in pink and black might just have the upper hand.

Very narrow home win.

HERIOT’S v CURRIE CHIEFTAINS

VENUE: Goldenacre@ 3.00pm

TEAMS –

Heriot’s: R Jones; J Cuthbert, M Bennett, R Kay, C Simpson; S Edwards, A Simmers; J Scott, M Liness, S Cessford, R Leishman, C Marshall, I Wilson©, J McLean, S Dewar. Subs: A Johnstone, M McCallum, A Sinclair, M Hughes, J Hill, A Ball, R Carmichael.

Currie Chieftains: J Forbes; B Robbins, J Reynolds, R Nelson©, M Hooks; G Hunter, C Davies; M Argiro, F Scott©, F Watt, V Wright, M Vernel, M Kelly, T Gordon, L Crosbie. Subs: G Carson, A McWilliam, A Nicol, S McGinley, R Davies, A Hall, S Hamilton.

TEAM NEWS – 

Heriot’s: For the first time this season, Heriot’s benefit from having three pro players released in the shape of Scotland 7s squad player Jack Cuthbert on the wing, Edinburgh and Scotland centre Mark Bennett in the centre and Edinburgh and Scotland tight-head prop Murray McCallum on the bench (who comes in for the injured Martin Bouab). Bennett and McCallum were drafted to Boroughmuir and Edinburgh Accies, respectively, but as those teams are not in action this week they have been redirected towards Heriot’s. Otherwise, a fairly settled looking squad.

Currie Chieftains: Partnership player Thomas Gordon returns from Glasgow Warriors duty at open-side flanker, and is joined in the back-row by Edinburgh pro Luke Crosbie. Adam Nicol is also released by Glasgow, and as Stirling County are not playing this weekend he gets a hit-out for the Chieftains.

KEY BATTLE: Andrew Simmers versus Chris Davies

WHAT THE COACHES SAY –

“I really hope the three-week break does not affect the quality of what should be a cracking encounter. Our two league fixtures have been tight affairs with neither team really putting their best foot forward … or both defences playing very well. The ingredients are certainly there to have supporters on the edge of their seats. We will look to our experienced players to guide the game-plan to wherever it needs to go and be aware of the threats that Currie pos…” – Phil Smith (Heriot’s)

“We have been involved at this stage of the league for the last five years, so there is plenty experience throughout the squad. This season we have been on the right side of two very close games against Heriot’s and we know it will be an extremely physical match at Goldenacre. It’s all set up to be a really exciting game and I hope we produce the quality of rugby we know we are capable of. Saturday is not about reaching the final to have a chance of winning the league, but simply to have another opportunity to play together again.…” – Mark Cairns (Currie Chieftains)

VERDICT: Chieftains might have come out on top on the two previous occasions these teams met this season, and their emphatic win at Melrose in the penultimate round of the regular campaign showed that they do, indeed, have a big game mentality. But their failure to pick up a bonus point in the final round of matches at home to bottom of the table Edinburgh Accies could prove costly, because it means that they have to play away from their Malleny fortress against a Heriot’s side who have slowly but surely built up a formidable head of steam over the course of the campaign.

Chieftains make no secret of the motivational drive which comes from the decision to exclude them from Super 6, but will that be enough to fuel a win on the road against a Heriot’s side bolstered for the first time this season by some professional pedigree?

Another narrow home win.

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