ABERDEEN GRAMMAR are missing a handful of key men – including back-rowers Chris Jollands and Greig Ryan, centres Tom Aplin and Murray Mitchell, and full-back Sean Mills – for this weekend’s only re-arranged Premiership fixture against Currie Chieftains at Malleny Park.
It is hardly an ideal situation for such an important encounter between the two sides leading the race to catch table-toppers Marr, but head coach Ali O’Connor insists that his team are viewing the enforced selection shake-up as an opportunity rather than an excuse.
“We’ve got a lot of changes – a lot of guys coming into the team who are playing only their first, second or third game for the 1st XV – which is exciting,” he said. “We know it will be a baptism of fire, but we’re confident the guys will rise to the challenge.
“Because this is a rescheduled fixture, some of our guys had booked holidays, some are going down to the NFL match which is being played in London this weekend and some are going to a wedding, which is frustrating. But we asked guys not to book things when we had games scheduled, and I think a few maybe thought that because it is World Cup Final day there wouldn’t be any matches this weekend. It’s sod’s law that the last game before we wouldn’t have to use this stand-by date was called off because of a flooded pitch.
“But we’re excited to see what the guys who are coming in have got to show us, because that’s what rugby is all about – people getting a chance to grab an opportunity – so this could be a really good news story for us.
“I’m not wanting to raise or lower expectations, I’m just being realistic,” he continued. “We have a lot of changes and we’ve not played a couple of weeks, but these are just excuses, at the end of the day. We just need to go out and perform the best we can, and if we do that then we believe we can take some points out of this game. If not, it could be a tough day at the office.”
Among the fresher faces in the side is Gregor Nichol at inside-centre, Luke Murphy on the wing and debutant Tom Clark at full-back. “We’ve still got a lot of strike power out there,” insisted O’Connor, mindful of the fact that Nathan Brown will be keen to extend his lead of the league’s top scorer table by adding to the nine tries he has managed already this season, while Doug Russell has moved from the other wing to outside-centre.
“We’ve also got Tom Ryan, a really enthusiastic and exciting prospect at prop on the bench, and we expect him to do a fairly aggressive job when he gets onto the field, the same goes for Yasseen Ahmanache,” continued O’Connor.
“Meanwhile, Valentine Ifu Ojogwu is a great physical specimen, who is about 6ft 7ins and pretty much sleeps at the gym. He only came to rugby from basketball about three seasons ago so is still learning the game, but is doing it with great enthusiasm. He’s a tribute to what we have been trying to achieve at the club during the last few seasons in terms of working hard to bring on the players we’ve got. Hopefully he’ll get a chance to make a mark in attack and defence when he comes on in the second-row.
“It is a great opportunity for all these guys to see what Premiership rugby is all about. If they step up to the mark: great. If not: they will be better for the experience and a step closer to being able to do it next time. No matter what the result is, all the guys involved in this game will be better for the experience.”
Making experience count
It should be noted that these young guns are not being sent out alone to take on the Chieftains. Seasoned campaigners such as stand-off Sam Knudson and Robin Cessford, who has played most of this season in the second-row but is at No 8 this weekend, will endeavour to lead the way.
“Sam is captain and a huge attacking threat for us,” said O’Connor. “Robin is one of our main ball carriers. He’s not happy unless he’s got three players on his back and is still driving forward. He played a lot of rugby at No 8 in his younger years until we had to move him forward because we had a lack of out-and-out second-rows, but he is like an extra back-row no matter where he plays. Having him at No 8 on Saturday gives us that extra option as a strong ball-carrier at the back of the scrum.
“The leadership these guys have shown week-in and week-out … I can’t speak highly enough about them. As they’ve got older and more experienced, they have really embraced that role. A lot of these guys were the ones we were talking about three or four years ago as being a little bit raw and a little bit inexperienced, and they have got better and better with each season.”
These are heady days at Rubislaw. It has been several seasons since the team last competed at the top end of the Premiership, and although the club rugby landscape in Scotland is very different now, and concerns have been expressed that the north of the country is being neglected by the SRU, O’Connor remains optimistic about the future of the game in his neck of the woods.
“I’ve never been one of these doom and gloom merchants about the state of rugby in the city,” he sated. “There are challenges, but we need to attack that positively. It goes through cycles and once you get a bit of success that breeds more success. In the last two seasons or so, we have improved – moving up the table – so that does breed a general sense of positivity. You attract people to the club because they hear through word of mouth that it is a good place to be, people bring their mates down from work, and it becomes a pretty inclusive place.
“I don’t think it is just because we are in the Premiership. I think a lot of it is down to the ethos we have been building up for a while.
“From a performance perspective, it is really great to be back in the top flight, we get more exposure and it gives the guys challenging rugby to really push themselves forward as players. We’re pretty happy with how it is going so far, although we’re still kicking ourselves about the performance we put in away to Glasgow Hawks when we were really, really poor.
“If that result had gone our way, we would be right up there challenging for top sport, but we’ve moved on from that now and this is a great opportunity to gauge ourselves against one of the top teams in the country in recent years.
“We’ve done as much as we can with the squad over the last two to three weeks. We’ve kept them at it with fitness and targeted this game, so it is 15 against 15 and we’ll go into it fancying our chances.”
HOW IT STANDS –
THE LOWDOWN –
CURRIE CHIEFTAINS v ABERDEEN GRAMMAR
VENUE: Malleny Park @ 3.00pm
Currie Chieftains: C Brett; S Hamilton, A Hall, R Nelson, A McLean; G Hunter, G Christie; G Carson, F Scott©, M Argiro, M Poole, H Ferguson, R Vucago, J O’Brien, W Nelson. Subs: C Ramsay, J Ramsay, S Edwards, C Meager, F Sayers.
Aberdeen Grammar: T Clarke; N Brown, D Russell, G Nichol, L Murphy; S Knudson©, J Troup; C Reddish, A Cook, M Schosser, N Coe, A Robertson, B Inglis, W Alton, R Cessford. Subs: Y Ahmanache, T Ryan, V Ojogwu, D Wallen, P Ritchie
TEAM NEWS –
Currie Chieftains: A fairly settled side after last weekend’s cup win with the only changes being Roy Vucago starting at blindside in place of the unavailable Mike Vernal being unavailable, and Gregor Christie coming in at scrum-half having returned from a wedding in New Zealand.Brother Cairn and Jacob Ramsay are on the bench.
Aberdeen Grammar: Several senior players including Chris Jollands, Greig Ryan and Tom Aplin missing, which gives the men from the north a chance to test the strength in depth of their squad.
KEY BATTLE: Wallace Nelson versus Robin Cesford
WHAT THE COACHES SAY –
“Although we ended up with a comfortable victory away to Selkirk last week, we were not satisfied with our performance. There were far too many errors in attack and we were disappointed with our intensity in defence. Aberdeen have been going really well this year, they keep possession well and will be relishing the opportunity to come to Malleny. We need to be at our best to come away with the points in what we are expecting to be a really physical encounter …” – Mark Cairns (Currie Chieftains)
“We’ve had a great week at training, with the boys showing real enthusiasm and desire to do the job that has been asked of them, so we’re really looking forward to Saturday now. The final thing we said at training last night was that we are going down to Malleny to take what they have. They are second in the league at the moment and that’s where we want to be. We just need to do what we know we can do, as aggressively and accurately as we can. We know they are a good team, who have had some great results, with some class players like Fergus Scott at hooker and Gregor Hunter at 10, but if we can knock them off their game then they are as beatable as anyone …” – Ali O’Connor (Aberdeen Grammar)