A DAUNTING challenge awaits Currie this weekend when they travel to The Greenyards for a BT Premiership play-off semi-final clash against a Melrose team which finished the regular season top of the league table with a record of sixteen wins from 18 outings.
The Borderers also marched to the final of the BT Cup last weekend with an emphatic 48-18 victory over Stirling County, so they are going to be fully match-fit and battle-hardened. The home team’s only change for this game is the return of influential number eight Iain Moody after an ankle knock.
This will be the fourth time these two clubs have met in this campaign (they played twice in the league and also in round three of the cup) with Melrose coming out on top in each of the previous encounters – but Currie captain Ross Weston insists his side will head into the match in a positive frame of mind as the most improved team in the top flight over the course of the whole season.
The Malleny Park men lost their first three matches of the campaign (shipping in excess of 50 points away to both Ayr and Melrose as well as coming up short at home to Gala) and sailed treacherously close to the relegation zone until mid-October. However, head coach Ben Cairns always insisted that his fledgling squad would become a genuine force in the division once they found their feet, and that faith was rewarded with a transformation in fortunes which saw Currie charge up the league ladder with eight wins from their final 11 games to snatch the fourth play-off slot from Heriot’s courtesy of a bonus point victory over Boroughmuir in their final game of the regular league schedule.
“We have come a long way. The guys have really grown up as players and matured as a side during the course of this season, and you can see that with how our results have developed,” said Weston.
“The leadership group in the squad is expanding all the time, with more and more guys putting their hands up to take on responsibility, so it is certainly a much easier task for myself.”
“When you look at the guys in our squad who have been involved in the under-20s either this year or last – such as David Ainslie, Luke Crosbie, Hamish Bain, Thomas Gordon, Cammy Hutchison and Charlie Shiel – they’ve all had really strong seasons, which is great looking ahead to next year and beyond.”
The veteran number eight is remaining tight-lipped at this stage about what his own rugby future looks like, quite rightly insisting that all his focus is on the task at hand.
“Melrose have definitely been the most consistent side all season. They have strength in depth all over the park and no real weaknesses. There is not one area you could target as something they rely on, because they have enough ability across the squad to adapt if something isn’t working for them,” he conceded.
“In the first game down there, back in September, we got a real hiding; but the other two matches were relatively tight, even if we weren’t quite good enough on the day to get the result we were after. So, we know it is going to be an absolutely huge task, but we’ll take confidence from knowing that we are moving in the right direction.”
“Every time you go to The Greenyards you know that you are going to have to be at your very best to get anything out the game, but there is absolutely no pressure on us whatsoever. We’ve come from nowhere to get into this position, so we’re just going to go out there and throw the kitchen sink at it – and if we do that and still come up short then at least the team will have something to build on for next year.”
Weston’s continuing value to this team was evident three weeks ago, when they needed to win with a bonus point at Boroughmuir in order to make it to the play-offs. The 33-year-old scored a hat-trick of tries and generally set the tone in a comprehensive 19-67 victory. Another talismanic performance will be required this weekend if Currie are to upset the Melrose applecart.
Meanwhile, Ayr host Glasgow Hawks in a winner-takes-all contest for the second time in as many weeks. The hosts came out well on top in the first meeting last Saturday, but visiting head coach Finlay Gillies has been able to ring the changes with several players either returning from Scotland Under-20 duty or being released by Glasgow Warriors.
Gillies recognised after last week’s match that Tommy Spinks had been his side’s best performer, but the fact that the number eight announced just eight days before this double-header that he is switching allegiances at Ayr after the summer has caused considerable consternation at Old Anniesland, and with three of the brightest back-row prospects in Scottish rugby (Matt Smith, Matt Fagerson and Bruce Flockhart) coming into the selection mix this weekend, the erstwhile team captain has now been dropped from the squad altogether.
Gillies will be hoping that the return from Glasgow Warriors duty of hooker Cammy Fenton and second-row Scott Cummings will bring some sort of order to his team’s line-out; while George Horne and Hagan Schulte at scrum-half and and stand-off, respectively, will look to provide greater control than was evident last week.
THE LOWDOWN –
MELROSE v CURRIE
VENUE: Greenyards @ 3.00pm
Melrose: F Thomson; A Lockington, N Godsmark, G Taylor, S Pecqueur; J Baggott, M McAndrew; J Bhatti, R Anderson, R McLeod, J Head, R Knott, N Irvine-Hess, G Runciman©, I Moody. Subs: C McKay, D Elkington, N Beavon, A Grieve, B Colvine, C Jackson, G Wood.
Currie: H Elms; R Smith, R Tagive, R Nelson, B Robbins; J Forbes, C Shiel; J Cox, G Carson, A McWilliam, H Bain, S Ainslie, L Crosbie, R Davies, R Weston©. Subs: P Mundell, R Patterson, M Vernel, S McGinley, M Hooks, C Gray.
TEAM NEWS –
Melrose: Iain Moody is back after calling off last week with an ankle knock, meaning the versatile Ruairidh Knott moves into the second-row in place of Aaron Welsh.
Currie: Charlie Shiel, Hamish Bain and Luke Crosbie come straight into the starting fifteen after returning from Scotland Under-20 duty, while Cameron Gray – who was a prolific try scorer for the Malleny Park men even when they were struggling at the start of the season – returns to the squad after pushing himself through rehab quicker than expected. The team will be without centre Cameron Hutchison, who is on the long-term injury list after damaging ligaments in his knee playing for Scotland Under-20 against England.
KEY BATTLE: George Taylor versus Robbie Nelson
WHAT THE COACHES SAY –
“Currie showed great fighting spirit to get into the top four and will be looking to go one step further than last year. As always, they will be well organised and we understand the effort required to break them down. There is a huge amount of excitement around the town and Melrose Rugby for this BT Premiership semi-final play-off, and I’m sure the huge crowd expected will be treated to a thrilling game as is usually the case when we play Currie …” – Rob Chrystie (Melrose)
“Having visited The Greenyards twice already this season we know how difficult a place it is to go and get a result. Melrose have threats all over the pitch, they can sting you in the blink of an eye, so we know we need to remain focused in our defensive efforts for the full 80 minutes. However, we go with confidence having been in good form of late and feel our preparation has gone well. With pace throughout both backlines, and with both teams having a really positive attitude on how to play the game, I would expect it to be a very entertaining match in front of what we hope will be a bumper crowd. …” – Ben Cairns (Currie)
VERDICT: Continuity key for the hosts.
AYR v GLASGOW HAWKS
VENUE: Millbrae @ 3pm
Ayr: G Anderson; D McCluskey, A Russell, R Curle, C Gossman; F Climo, D Armstrong; G Hunter, L Anderson, S Longwell, R McAlipne, S Sutherland, B MacPherson, W Bordill, P McCallum©. Subs: D Young, D Sears-Duru, A Prentice, G Henry, H Warr, S McDowall, R Dalgleish.
Hawks: J Steel; S Yacoubian, P Kelly, B McGroarty, K Gossman; H Schulte, G Horne; S Findlay©, C Fenton, G Strain, S Cummings, A Kirkland, M Smith, M Fagerson, B Flockhart. Subs: G Stewart, C Barnes, L Archer, S Leckey, T Uainivi, P Boyer, J Henderson.
TEAM NEWS –
Ayr: Only one change. Robert McAlpine returns to the starting line-up after missing out last weekend through illness, with Craig Stevenson dropping out the squad. Otherwise, it is same again for the home side.
Hawks: Eight personnel and two positional changes to the tam which was well beaten last week. All change in the back-row with Scotland Under 20 stars Bruce Flockhart and Matt Fagerson, plus Glasgow Warriors pro Matt Smith, coming in; meaning Stephen Leckey drops to the bench, while Tommy Spinks and Ross Miller miss out altogether. Scott Cummings replaces fellow Glasgow Warriors pro greg Peterson in the second-row; Cammy Fenton returns at hooker after being 24th man for Warriors last week; and George Horne has been released by Warriors to play scrum-half, with Hagan Schulte moving up from full-back to play stand-off. Paddy Kelly is at outside centre after being a late call-off with a rib injury last week.
KEY BATTLE: Will Bordill versus Matt Fagerson
WHAT THE COACHES SAY –
“We are under no illusions that this will be a different Glasgow Hawks side to last weekend, and they will be determined to come away from Millbrae with a final to look forward to. We learnt last season that the results from previous matches mean nothing at this stage in the season. The players’ attitude has been great at training this week and our focus has turned fully to this weekend. …” – Calum Forrester (Ayr)
“It has been extremely tough trying to make sure that we keep the balance right between players who have been heavily involved throughout the entire season and the players who have been released to play. After a very disappointing performance last week we have spent a lot of time looking at the video and have pinpointed a few areas to really focus on getting right. Ayr are a team that apply a huge amount of pressure on you when they have the ball and even more so when they don’t have the ball. This is last chance saloon for us and we certainly don’t want to come off second best again. We have no complaints about last week’s result and we are not going to allow ourselves any excuses for not getting things right this week …” – Finlay Gillies (Hawks)
VERDICT: Closer but still no cigar for the guests