Images IT was a big day at Millbrae when Melrose came calling last weekend. The full clubhouse capacity of 150 guests attended the pre-match lunch, the rickety old stand was packed pretty close to the rafters with supporters and, despite the wind and rain which swept ferociously across South Ayrshire, there was a real buzz all around the ground as the only unbeaten teams in the BT Premiership went toe-to-toe for 80 captivating minutes.
Then again, when Ayr play at home these days it is always a big occasion at Millbrae. In fact, last weekend’s lunch was dwarfed by ‘Ladies Day’ on the opening weekend of the season, when 230 Ayrshire belles paid £35 a pop for a three course lunch, wine on the table, scantily clad waiters with aprons covering their modesty, and live entertainment in a specially constructed marquee at the front of the clubhouse. The gents joined in after the game and the party went on deep into the evening.
“We usually have 280 ladies at that event but it was the Ayrshire Hospice Summer Ball at Turnberry on the same day so we were forced to slim it down a little,” says Eilidh Goodwin, the committee member tasked with running this particular event.
“We’ve been running Ladies Days since 2008, we used to have two a year – one at the start of the season and one at the end – but we have cut it back to one because there are plenty of other things going on to fill up the calendar and, to be honest, it was just getting too big to be manageable,” she added.
Between the Oktoberfest beer festival (8th October), the Hallowe’en Party (29th October), Fireworks Night (4th November), the Oval Ball at Ayr Racecourse in aid of the Ayr Community Rugby Trust (5th November), the pre-match buffet ahead of Scotland’s match versus Georgia at Rugby Park in Kilmarnock (26th November), the President’s Lunch (2nd December), the Christmas Party (10th December), New Year’s Day Cocktail Party (guess the date!), the Burns Supper (17th March), the end of season awards dinner (provisionally 28th April), the Land O’Burns Beer Festival (provisionally 27th May), and pre match lunches open to anyone who has bought a £30 ticket before every home game, there is certainly plenty of reasons other than rugby to get along to Millbrae this season.
“There’s a lot going on and it serves two purposes because it brings money into the club and, probably more importantly, it gets people engaged with the club. A lot of these people have never been here before but now that we’ve made that first contact then hopefully they might decide to become a part of what we are trying to do,” says Elena Hogarth, who first got involved at Millbrae around four years ago as the match reporter for the club website and has seen her role develop into a full-time position dealing with everything from advertising and sponsorship to match secretary.
“The beer festival we had last May was huge. It was the first time we did it and we were following the lead of clubs like GHA, Whitecraigs and Dumfries, who have their own beer festivals which are much bigger than ours. But we were surprised at just how many new faces came along and hopefully they are coming back or going to come back,” she adds.
It is not only the social scene that is being driven forward at full throttle. The youth section now numbers 350 boys and girls, and their ground-breaking academy set-up has just started its fifth year and currently has 46 members.
“This year we’ve got a good ten to fifteen boys at each age-grade from under-14s up to under-18s level in the Academy. They come to us three times a week on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays and they train with their team on Monday before they come to us and on a Wednesday as well,” explains 1st XV stand-off Frazier Climo, who is one of three full-time development officers employed by the club. There are also four modern apprentices in the rugby development team, which is headed by former stalwart front-rower Stuart Fenwick.
A six day camp at Hartpury College in Gloucestershire took place this summer. “That was a great week. It’s a big old set-up they’ve got down there and I suppose it was a bit of a wake-up call for our boys in terms of the early morning gym sessions and things like that. But the facilities were brilliant, the weather was great and the boys got a lot out of it. We pushed them pretty hard and they get a taste of what they need to do to go to the next level,” says Climo.
“We played Bristol and Worcester academy teams and skill-wise there wasn’t much in it, but physically there was a big gap – so since our boys have come back they have all taken out gym memberships, they are thinking about what they eat and they have a better idea of where they want to get to.”
“My big thing is skills. Growing up in New Zealand it was all about kids getting out there and throwing the ball about, so that’s what I am all about. Danny McCluskey (1st XV utility back) is great in terms of working with them in the gym, and Stuart works with them on more game related stuff.”
“The goal is to be as professional as we can be. We might not have the same sort of facilities as we encountered down at Hartpury but we can still do the little things right, and have a professional attitude, which will make a difference as they move on into adult rugby.
Earlier this year, Catherine Shennan was appointed by the club as Scotland’s first dedicated women and girls’ development officer, underlining the club’s commitment to being a fully inclusive organisation.
The ladies section currently has around 30 members. The team won promotion to the top flight of the women’s league last season, and have had a revitalising effect on that thriving social scene.
The level to which the club has got itself engaged with the local community can be seen by the level of sponsorship they are able to attract. The back of the stand at Millbrae is plastered with advertising boards, and alongside that there are three ‘towers’ overlooking the car park holding five boards each. This is before you get into the ground.
“I think we have a pretty good relationship with our sponsors. There is inevitably some turnover because a company isn’t doing so well and can’t afford it or they just decide it is not for them, but we manage to retain a high proportion because we make an effort to look after people who invest in the club, and I think they can see the value to their business and to the local community of getting involved,” says Hogarth
Ayr are one of the clubs at the top of the Premiership who are keen to push towards a more formalised semi-professional structure.
“The aim is to stay at the top and when the opportunities comes along you go semi-pro. The problem is that there are only three or four clubs who would want to go that way, so is it sustainable games-wise?” askes Billy McHarg, their rambunctious president, who is the key driving force at Ayr.
There are concerns that Scottish rugby is not big enough to support such a move but the guys at Millbrae believe that with enough ambition, imagination and hard-work their dream is entirely achievable.
Images: George McMillan