GRANT ANDERSON has his own unique place in Scottish club rugby history as its most decorated player in terms of winning Premiership and National Cup titles.
His reaction to finding out that his total of eight triumphs (four leagues and four cups between 2009 and 2019) puts him ahead of fellow former full-back Fraser Thompson of Melrose who ended up on six titles is illustrative of his competitive drive.
“My immediate thought was that Fraz [Thompson] will have got his six because they beat us in some finals, so I was quite annoyed because I realised I could have had more,” he quips – only half jokingly.
It is hardly surprising that Anderson is close to Billy McHarg, Ayr’s equally driven Rugby Chairman, who persuaded the 34-year-old to return to Millbrae as head coach of the club side at the start of this season, after two years as a player-coach at GHK.
“I was part of the Ayrshire Bulls squad at the start of Super6 but didn’t really enjoy it for reasons I don’t really need to get into, so after Covid I was going to quit altogether because I liked the idea of getting my Tuesday and Thursday nights back,” he explains.
“But my wife, my kids and I have never known anything different, so when Peter Wright [the former Scotland and Lions prop who coach GHK up to the end of last season] got in touch to say a few of my mates were going to play at Old Anniesland and asked if I fancied it given that it was just up the road – only half an hour from where I live – I decided to give it a shot.
“It was a good two years. I enjoyed it, but then Billy called. He and I are really close given everything we’ve been through together with Ayr in the old Premiership days, and he told me he had one of his masterplans to get back into the top-flight, so when he offered me the opportunity to be part of that, it was too good an opportunity to turn down.
“Billy is Billy. Whatever it is he is doing, he lives and breathes it,” Anderson adds. “He’s a main driver of the Super Series. We know a lot of people have questioned it, but Billy is all for it … being done in the right way. I think we as a club are now seeing the benefits of that.
“When I met with Billy back in May, I was given a pretty clear remit because the Ayr club team needs to be in the Premiership so that we can provide a full pathway where male players know from the day they first come along to Millbrae that there is a route there for them to progress through the minis and youth sections, into the club and hopefully into the club 1st XV, where they’ll get exposure to the Bulls environment so they are ready to step up to that level if they are good enough and want to, before hopefully going on to Glasgow Warriors and Scotland.”
Bringing Anderson back to Millbrae has certainly proven to be a shrewd move so far, with Ayr 1st XV having won all 13 National One games to date, with 11 bonus points and a positive points differential of 284 (next best is Highland on 90).
They are 23 points clear of their nearest challengers at the top of the table and will secure guaranteed promotion into the Premiership with a bonus-point draw or any sort of win at home against GHK (as luck would have it) this weekend (3pm kick-off on Saturday).
“Stuart Fenwick is an old mate of mine from playing together and he did a fantastic job as head coach during that transitional period at the start of Super6 when the Club XV had to adapt in National One, because the Bulls had Pete Murchie as head coach and he had no awareness of club rugby so he tried to change it into a mini-Glasgow Warriors, which in many ways didn’t work even though we were quite successful,” says Anderson.
“So, the guys who were in the 2nd XV became the 1st XV and Stuart managed that really well, and because he had coached a lot of those boys since they were 11 or 12 years old [as a development officer for the Ayr Community Ruygby Trust], he was a father figure to them which is what they needed at that time.
“Then, when I came in, I was able to bring a different mentality because those foundations were there. I’m quite demanding guy, and I was as a player as well, so the culture of the team and standards shifted to one where you can be serious about becoming a Premiership club.
“There is no head coach of the 2nd XV at Ayr, I have people who help me but I’m in charge of that team as well, so we get 40 or 50 boys at training on a Tuesday and Thursday and they all want to throw their hat in the ring for the 1st XV, and they know that I will rotate the team if somebody is performing well or if somebody is not performing well.
“We haven’t fielded the same starting XV once this season because the philosophy is we want to breed as much competition as possible. I think that’s really been the big thing for us.
“I’ll be honest and say that the relationship between the Bulls and the club team hasn’t;’t always been great, but I would say now it is much better because you’ve got Pat MacArthur, Robbie Fergusson and Frazier Climo coaching the Bulls, and then you have myself, Craig Gossman and Pete McCallum as player coaches at the club team, so we all go back a long way as old team-mates which means there is a togetherness, it is much more joined together and connected now.”
Anderson brought eight new faces with him when he arrived back at Millbrae but stresses that the nucleus of the squad is built around players who have come through the club’s own supply lines.
“Adam Prentice and Tom Martin joined from Dumfries Saints, and four boys from GHK who said they would love to come if I’d have them, and then one or two others, but apart from that it is a lot of homegrown talent, and some really young boys like Jake Shearer who is only 17 and played five or six times this season at prop, Scott Watson is 19, and then there is experienced heads like Danny McCluskey and Pete McCallum who were part of the Ayr team I played in.
“Joe Stafford has been excellent for us this season in the second-row. When I played for Glasgow [as an academy player in 2008-9], he was there too. He was a prop back then. Things didn’t really go his way, he went down south and played for Hull and a few other cubs, then since coming back up he has been outstanding.
“Last week, he had 23 carries against Gala, scored two tries and was man-of-the-match, and the week before that he absolutely destroyed Melrose as well. So he’s a key man.”
“And Rohan Pottie, our blindside, is the opposite of Joe. He’s a pocket-rocket, a small nimble guy who has been in and out the Bulls set-up.
“But for me, it’s more about the group. Every week we ask them to put their hands up, and I’m pretty cut-throat so they know if they don’t deliver they are gone, away with the 2nd XV with someone else coming in.
“My personal goal was to help everyone improve by five percent because if everyone did that then we would achieve our overall goal. Some of our guys have improved by 20 percent, some of them just by five percent, but I would definitely say the standard of our whole environment has lifted. The boys have bought into it.
“There is a buzz about this weekend but with a lid on it. Every week I’ve been really strict on not talking about what might happen down the line, it is always about the next challenge, so Tuesday was the first time I used the ‘P’ word, and now the SRU have confirmed that they will be there with the trophy, so we aren’t hiding from it but we know that the job we’ve got to do is make sure we secure another five points.”
“I won eight league or cup trophies with Ayr and loved every minute of it, and I sometimes forget that some of these boys haven’t won anything at all, so I feel like this is a coming of age process for them – because playing for Ayr is different to winning for Ayr. It is really important that this club is doing the latter.”