by DAVID BARNES
FOR all the excitement which has been generated by a play-off system which allows each of the top four teams during the regular season the chance to claim the BT Premiership title by winning just two head-to-head encounters at the denouement of the campaign, there remains an issue with natural justice.
Take last season as an example. Ayr were, by some considerable distance, the best team during the course of the initial 18 matches, finishing nine points clear of Currie and eleven points ahead of Heriot’s at the top of the table – but they came unstuck in the Grand Final, meaning that it is Heriot’s who will be recorded for posterity as the champion team of Scotland.
Of course, all competing teams knew the rules before they entered the competition, so it is churlish to quibble that the Edinburgh side are not deserving of this accolade – but it would take a heart of stone not to feel some degree of sympathy for the beaten finalists.
And the fact that their Grand Final defeat occurred in fairly controversial circumstances adds to the sense of frustration which has festered away at Millbrae these last 12 months.
The men from the west led 26-22 with five minutes to go at Millbrae only to concede a penalty try and have talismanic number eight Pete McCallum yellow-carded for illegally halting a Heriot’s line-out drive as it marched towards the home team’s line. Despite being a man down, Ayr mounted a late rally, but their focus was shot through and they were penalised twice more as Heriot’s held on for glory.
“I still struggle with that penalty try. I like to think I can look at the bigger picture and I would much rather have let Heriot’s score wide on the right and had a chance to really go at them with 15 men during the last ten minutes, rather than give away a yellow-card and a penalty try with an easy conversion from in front of the posts,” says McCallum, who has since become captain at Ayr.
“That initial feeling was the worst and it did linger for a good few weeks. It’s just unfortunate we couldn’t do anything about it straight after because our season was over. I’ve thought about it a lot during the last year, about making sure I get to another Grand Final, and hopefully getting a gold medal this time.”
“We haven’t spoken about it a lot because we don’t need reminding. But it was mentioned at training on Thursday night, as a final little motivator: for the boys who were here last year, none of us ever again want to feel like we did sitting in the changing room after that.”
“But that is the nature of the beast and in the days after it I realised that there would be times when we don’t have our best season and we end up finishing second, third and fourth – and when that does happen we want to be able to do what Heriot’s did by peaking at the right time to come though and take the goods at the end.”
Ayr get that opportunity this afternoon when they take on a Melrose team they finished four points behind in the regular season, and McCallum insists his team is ready to cause a minor upset.
“Tuesday and Thursday nights have probably been the best we’ve trained all season so hopefully we are just about peaking at the right time,” he says.
“Since way back in June, when we did our goal-setting for the season, this is where we’ve wanted to be, so nobody needs to motivate boys: they have all been desperate to get down to training nice and early so that they can put in a good session, and hopefully we will carry the great work we’ve done this week into the game.”
And he dismisses out of hand the suggestion that Ayr’s 27-10 defeat at The Greenyards the last time the two sides met just before Christmas might be an indicator of what we can expect this afternoon.
“There wasn’t anything in it. The score-line at the end did not reflect the game, in my opinion,” he states.
“We scored early in the second half to make it a three-point game and at that stage I thought the momentum was with us, but then Will Bordill got his second yellow card and was sent off, and then Ross Curle as well, so we finished the game with thirteen men and that’s too much to take on against a quality outfit like Melrose, no matter how well you are playing.”
“We were missing quite a few a few influential players that day – Frazier Climo, Craig Gossman, Steven Longwell and Scott Sutherland – but we’re pretty much at full strength this week and we’re really looking forward to it. I’m sure it will be a much tighter affair this time.”
The one notable absentee from Ayr’s starting line-up this week is centre Ross Curle, who is suspended after being sent-off for a no-arms tackle during the play-off semi-final victory over Glasgow Hawks – but the team says he has no doubt that 18-year-old Stafford McDowall is more than capable of plugging the gap in midfield.
“It’s a massive opportunity for Stafford but every time he’s been challenged this year he has stepped up to the mark. This week in training, he’s probably looked the sharpest out of everybody – he’s on fire – and I think he’s going to go on to big things,” said McCallum, whose father, Chris, once occupied the Ayr second-row alongside Fergus McDowall, father of Stafford.
There is a suspicion that Ayr have a tendency to lose their discipline at key moments and in a game as finely balanced as this one that could be a decisive factor (just as it was in the last Grand Final).
“We’ve addressed that at training. The coaches have put us in scenarios where ill-discipline will cost us, so there’s no excuse because we know it is something we have to be switched onto. Both teams know that if the yellow-cards start coming out then that is going to be a big factor, so ideally we’ll keep 15 players on the park all afternoon and it will just be the rugby that we are all about at the end,” concluded McCallum.