All you need to know about the BT Premiership play-off Grand Final

Melrose host Ayr as the whole league season boils down to these 80 furious minutes

Melrose v Ayr
Melrose and Ayr have had a few ding-dong battles in recent season's and this week's BT Premiership play-off Grand Final looks like being another classic Image: © Craig Watson -


Kick-off 3.00pm GMT.  

Melrose: Fraser Thomson; Austin Lockington, George Taylor, Craig Jackson, Ross McCann; Jason Baggott, Murdo McAndrew; Grant Shiels, Russel Anderson, Nick Beavon, James Head, Angus Runciman, Ruaridh Knott, Grant Runciman ©, Iain Moody. Substitutes: Ross Ford, Dan Elkington, Ruairi Mcleod, Ali Grieve, Bruce Colvine, Gavin Wood, Patrick Anderson.

Ayr: Grant Anderson ©; Rory Hughes, Matt Davidson, Stafford McDowall, Craig Gossman; Scott Lyle, David Armstrong; Robin Hislop, Lewis Anderson, Steven Longwell, George Hunter, Rob McAlpine, Tommy Spinks, George Stokes, Blair Macpherson. Substitutes: David Young, Jonathan, Agnew, Scott Sutherland, Michael Badenhorst, Harry Warr, Paddy Dewhirst, Jamie Bova.

Referee: Keith Allen

Team news

Melrose loose-head prop Grant Shiels returns after missing last weekend through injury and Russel Anderson gets to start at hooker ahead of Scotland’s record cap holder Ross Ford, who drops to the bench. The same backline starts for the third consecutive game.

Ayr are missing their captain Pete McCallum, who has a shoulder injury, so George Stokes comes in at open-side flanker, Tommy Spinks shifts to the blind-side and Blair Macpherson takes the number eight jersey. Veteran full-back Grant Anderson will captain the side. The equally influential Frazier Climo is also out with a head knock, and with Robbie Fergusson shadowing the Scotland 7s squad in Hong Kong, youngsters Stafford McDowall and Matt Davidson take over in the centre, renewing the partnership which worked pretty well when Ayr beat Melrose at the Greenyards back in January. Winger Rory Hughes is released by Glasgow Warriors.

Coach Calum Forrester steps down after this game. He is actually an usher at a wedding in Perth which is at the same time, but is missing a large chunk of the day to lead the team for the final time. It is also the last time stalwarts George Hunter (moving to London) and Scott Sutherland (retiring) will represent the club.

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5 key questions

What’s at stake?

Quite literally, everything. The whole league season boils down to these 80 furious minutes.

This is the fourth year since play-offs were introduced, and only Heriot’s in 2015 have managed to finish top of the BT Premiership table at the end of the regular season and then go on to lift the championship trophy. In 2016, Ayr finished top but ended up losing in agonising fashion to Heriot’s  in the decider at Millbrae; and last year the shoe was on the other foot for the men in pink and black, when they were runners-up but stole the big prize from runaway league leaders Melrose in a tense final showdown at the Greenyards.

Melrose will be desperate to avoid a repeat of last year’s heartache in this rematch, while Ayr will draw inspiration from that experience and from their 12-20 league win at the Greenyards in the league back in January.

What’s Melrose’s form like?

They finished the regular BT Premiership campaign nine points clear at the top of the table and have been the outstanding side in Scottish club rugby over the course of the season.

They did have a minor wobble just after the New Year when they lost back-to-back games at home to Ayr and away to Currie Chieftains, but by that stage they had already established a commanding enough position to ensure that they were not really in any danger of relinquishing their number one seeding. The Greenyards men recovered to register wins over Marr away, then Heriot’s and Stirling County at home, before a rather unsatisfactory end to the league campaign at Hawick on 17th March, when they were missing seven frontline players who had been playing in the Club XV match the night before and ended up slumping to a 38-3 loss.

That was, however, an aberration (in a game which counted for nothing for them and meant Premiership survival for their opponents), as proven in their play-off semi-final clash against Watsonians the following week, when a ferocious defensive performance and devastating counter-attacking display despatched the Edinburgh side with a 37-8 score-line.

Watsonians put up more of a fight when the two sides locked horns again in last week’s BT Cup semi-final at Myreside, but Melrose still had too much pace, power and precision for their opponents, helping themselves to a 10-17 victory.

The Borderers are ticking over nicely coming into this winner-takes-all clash.

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What’s Ayr’s form like?

Building consistency has been the big challenge for Calum Forrester’s team this season. A fairly heavy injury toll has not helped, but even taking that into account there has been something head-scratchingly erratic about their performance levels.

After a slow start to the campaign – which included an 18-28 loss at home to Glasgow Hawks in round two and  a 17-34 defeat at home to Melrose in round three – Ayr were left playing catch-up for most of the season, which must have been a funny sensation for a club which has gotten used to being amongst the front-runners in the league.

Watsonians [12-48] and Currie Chieftains [12-14] before Christmas further rocked Ayr’s sense of themselves, although that victory over Melrose at the Greenyards provided evidence that their renowned indefatigable spirit was still lurking below the surface.

It was announced after a BT Cup quarter-final defeat to Hawick at the start of February that Calum Forrester will step down as head coach at the end of the season, with former Glasgow Warriors and Scotland full-back Peter Murchie taking over the role.

Ayr eventually scraped in to a third place finish in the Premiership courtesy of a 17-27 victory over Watsonians in their final league match, played in atrocious conditions at Myreside, and they showed their fighting spirit again when battling back from 18 points down to defeat Currie Chieftains 21-24 in a tense play-off semi-final at Malleny Park a fortnight ago.

So, are this pair the best of enemies?

As the two clubs which have been at the forefront of pushing professional standards in the BT Premiership in recent seasons, Ayr and Melrose probably have more in common then any other sides in the league in terms of outlook, but it is not always a mutual appreciation society.

Melrose, and specifically their director of rugby Mike Dalgetty, were left fizzing back in December, when Ayr arrived at the Greenyards for their league match and a few minutes before kick-off decided that the pitch had not thawed enough to play. There was a minor social media spat with Dalgetty and others in the Melrose camp furious that their commitment to player welfare had been called into question, while Ayr pointed out that they were hardly delighted at having made the five hour round trip to the Borders for a game which didn’t go ahead.

Where will the game be won or lost?

For all the praise directed Melrose’s way during the early part of the season for their free-flowing brand of attacking rugby, it has been the power of their pack and the controlled aggression of their general defence which has been key to keeping them on track as the pitches have softened and the level of opposition improved. Few teams in this league can live with Melrose when they roll up their sleeves but Ayr, on their day, can.

If last year’s Grand Final is anything to go by, this will be a battle of attrition, and if Melrose get parity in the collisions then they should have enough class and experience across the back-line to get the job done… assuming that conditions allow them the opportunity to play.

Ultimately, it is going to come down to nerve.

What the coaches said

Melrose head coach Rob Chrystie on the challenge his team face –

Ayr have had to work really hard to get into the final but have shown their calibre and ability to win big games over the last few weeks. They clearly will be looking to dominate up front which has set the foundations for their results as of late.

There has been an excitement and focus at training this week and we are looking forward to the challenges that lie ahead this Saturday.

Ayr head coach Calum Forrester on the need to start well –

If we go 18 points behind during the first half like we did against Currie Chieftains then it is hard to imagine any way back against a team of Melrose’s experience, but f we can set the tone early on then they might start to doubt themselves given recent results we’ve had down at the Greenyards in recent seasons.

And Forrester again on missing Pete McCallum and Frazier Climo –

They would be two of the first names on our team sheet, but we are fortunate to have strength in depth. We will miss Frazier’s game management but in Stafford McDowall and Matt Davidson we have two young guys in the centre who will run all day and tackle anything that moves. George Stokes coming into the back-row gives us an authentic open-side flanker which is not a bad thing going up against Grant Runciman.

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Three key clashes

Craig Jackson versus Stafford McDowall

Jackson is almost certainly the most complete back in the league at the moment. He leads Melrose’s vice-like defence, kicks their goals and is the fulcrum of much of their attacking play with a combination of the soft-hands of a stand-off and the brave running of an orthodox crash-ball centre. He was, perhaps, just a touch too small and a yard short of pace to make it in the pro game, and a serious injury during his season with London Scottish meant that the opportunity past him by, but he has been a key man since returning to his native Melrose at the start of last season.

McDowall is a full-time, stage three member of Scottish Rugby’s BT Sport Academy, a veteran of two seasons in the Scotland under-20s set-up and has already had game time for Glasgow Warriors. He has the physique to make it as a pro and is a tidy player – and it will be fascinating to see if he can impose himself against Jackson.

Ruaridh Knott versus Tommy Spinks

While Ayr have struggled this season to reach and maintain the high standards they have previously set themselves, Spinks – who was a controversial recruit from Glasgow Hawks at the tail-end of last season – has been a beacon of consistency.

Knott has often had to play second fiddle at Melrose during this campaign as cover for both the middle and the back-row of the scrum, but has never let his commitment levels drop with big impacts off the bench. He gets a second consecutive start this week and will look to lead the way with raw aggression. There could be fireworks.

Ross McCann versus Rory Hughes

McCann showed what a deadly finisher he can be with a decisive brace against Watsonians in the play-off semi-final, and the former Scotland Under-20s star will be desperate to make an impression with this opportunity to go head-to-head against a full Scotland internationalist in Rory Hughes, as the Glasgow Warriors feels his way back to full fitness after a lengthy injury lay-off.

Ten most recent matches

21 November 2015: Melrose 35 Ayr 24 – BT Premiership

26 March 2016: Ayr 13 Melrose 20 – BT Cup semi-final

2 April 2016: Ayr 48 Melrose 10 – BT Premiership play-off semi-final

14 September 2016: Ayr 11 Melrose 7 – BT Premiership

17 December 2016: Melrose 27 Ayr 10 – BT Premiership

15 April 2017: Melrose 8 Ayr 12 – BT Premiership Grand Final

22 April 2017: Melrose 23 Ayr 18 – BT Cup Final (at Murrayfield)

26 August 2017: Ayr 31 Melrose 44 – Charity Shield

16 September 2017: Ayr 17 Melrose 34 – BT Premiership

6 January 2018: Melrose 12 Ayr 20 – BT Premiership

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About David Barnes 3537 Articles
David has worked as a freelance rugby journalist since 2004 covering every level of the game in Scotland for publications including he Herald/Sunday Herald, The Sunday Times, The Telegraph, The Scotsman/Scotland on Sunday/Evening News, The Daily Record, The Daily Mail/Mail on Sunday and The Sun.