WINNING championships is not a new thing for Ayr. The club finished top of the heap in 2009 and again in 2013 before making it a hat-trick last April. What the Millbrae men have not been quite so good at is ensuring that success breeds further success. While Melrose and Heriot’s have both managed back-to-back titles during the last decade, the pink and black brigade have had a habit of peaking and then falling back into the pack again.
A key factor in Ayr’s quest to break that cycle this year will be how the team copes without two hugely influential figures from recent campaigns in flanker Will Bordill and centre Ross Curle, with the club’s desire to negate the impact of that double-departure evident in the ruthless recruitment of Tommy Spinks towards the end of last season.
There were a few noses out of joint in the West End of Glasgow when it emerged that the Hawks captain was going to switch to Millbrae during the summer, but Ayr have never been interested in winning popularity contests. Head coach Calum Forrester is generally an amiable fellow, but he is ice-cold when justifying the decision to swoop for the influential back-row forward.
“When we were planning for this year we knew that Will [Bordill] was moving to London from pretty early on so we knew we needed a direct replacement for him, and Tommy was the outstanding character in the area,” he states. “Already we can see what he brings in terms of small chat and organisation around the pitch.”
Finding a like-for-like replacement for the inimitable Curle (who initially announced his retirement at the grand old age of 29 but has now thrown his lot in with Stirling County) was not quite so easy, but the emergence of teenagers Stafford McDowall and Paddy Dewhirst during the course of last season, plus the recruitment over the summer of Robbie Nairn from the Harlequins Academy and Scott Lyle from Bury St Edmunds, means that Forrester has plenty of options available as he looks to put together a winning formula behind the scrum.
Archie Russell, who was Curle’s centre partner for most of last season, is away to study at Cambridge University, and second-row Craig Stevenson is off to Australia, but Forrester insists that Ayr are living through a gentle evolution rather than drastic revolution.
“Over the last ten years there has been a really strong and consistent backbone of players in the squad with people like Ross, Grant Anderson, Scott Sutherland and, until a couple of years ago, Andy Dunlop,” he explains. “While a few of those guys have now moved on, the really valuable thing for us is that we have not had a huge turnover of players in one go like some other clubs have had to go through.”
“In the play-off semi-final last year there were only three changes to the starting line-up from the semi-final the year before. This year we’ve lost Ross and I would say a direct replacement for him is Robbie Nairn; and we’ve brought Tommy in for Will. There were about eight players in total who moved on during the summer, but the competition has got stronger.”
David Armstrong, Frazier Climo, Danny McCluskey and Craig Gossman are some of the seasoned campaigners returning for another tilt at glory in the Ayr backline; while George Hunter, Steven Longwell, Rob McAlpine, Blair Macpherson and club captain Pete McCallum are long-serving members of the pack.
Meanwhile, former Edinburgh and Scotland Under-20 prop Robin Hislop is a noteworthy new name on the Ayr roster, having moved back to Scotland to take a development officer role in Garnock after three years in the English Championship playing for Rotherham Titans and then Doncaster Knights.
“He’s carrying an injury at the moment and won’t be fit until the end of September, but like Tommy he has made an immediate impact at training through his experience and the little bits of chat that really make a difference,” says Forrester, who will be hoping that some of that worldly knowledge rubs off on stage three Glasgow Warriors Academy prop Euan McLaren (captain of Scotland Under-18 whilst at school in Dollar last year).
Flanker George Stokes – who was born in England, grew up in Spain, played in Toulon last year and qualifies for Scotland through his grandfather – is another Academy recruit playing his club rugby with Ayr this season.
The fifth stage three player in the squad is homegrown hooker Robbie Smith, who has shown plenty of mettle when deputising at prop during pre-season and is hoping to become a regular starter for Scotland Under-20 in a few months’ time.
“Last year we had no academy players which meant we had first call on everyone in the squad while this year we have quite a few, so that presents a challenge – but if we get it managed right then we have some really exciting players there,” says Forrester.
Ayr might be champions but Forrester is the first to acknowledge that there is room for improvement.
“We had a lot of great wins last year but I think we let ourselves down a little bit with consistency. We had a big result against Melrose and then lost to Boroughmuir the following week, which shows how competitive the league is. Our standards need to be spot on every week. We are the team up there to be shot at, which is the way it should be, and it is up to us to make sure we are able to cope with that.”