THESE are interesting times for Ayrshire rugby which is flying high as never before. Marr College got to the semi-finals of the schools cup, before succumbing to a highly competitive Stewarts-Melville side. Marr Rugby Club sit proudly at the top of the BT Premiership with Currie Chieftains their only real competition for the title, and Ayrshire Bulls are going well in the new Super6 format. Despite a hiccup at home in the opening game against Heriot’s, Peter Murchie’s side has recovered nicely to win all their remaining matches and sit second in the table.
The team is based on Ayr Rugby of old so it seems only appropriate that the buccaneering breakaway Glen Tippett, one of Ayr’s all time greats, is the team’s chief operating officer.
When asked who we should look out for the amiable Kiwi throws out a couple of names, Matt Davidson has returned from a spell in England and fellow Kiwi Lars Morrice has been training with the Warriors, but he warns against expectations of a conveyor belt of fully fledged professional players elbowing their way into the professional ranks. Instead Tippett points out that the new tournament is a stepping stone and he looks back home for the best analogy.
“Not everyone who plays Mitre 10 Cup rugby is going to come through and play Super Rugby,” he reasons, referencing New Zealand’s own domestic competition. “It is a pathway for the most impressive players to make the step up but it is also there to bridge the gap.
“Some people were unhappy with the way that Super6 was brought in but I don’t think anyone will argue that we need a level between the pro game and the club game.
“I have been a strong advocate of the concept of Super Rugby for a long time,” he continues, warming to his theme. “Look at our recent results. Scotland failed to exit the pool stages in the recent World Cup. The U20’s side have been relegated from the top tier for the first time ever and, I think I am right in saying, lost to Georgia (in the World Championships) and Italy (in the junior Six Nations) the last time they played.
“How does the old saying go? If you keep doing the same things you are going to keep getting the same results. We simply had to do something different fairly bloody quickly.
“When Warren Gatland left Wales just about the first thing he did was recommend an eight team premier league that falls in line with what we are doing here, to bridge the gap. And that comes from Wales’ most successful coach.”
If Super6 has struggled to deliver what the most optimist backers were hoping for – clear blue water between the semi-pro tournament and the top of the club game – then that is at least partly down to the Scottish winter which does not lend itself to high-paced skilful attacking play (next season domestic window will be shifted back to the August-October slot), plus it is too early to judge anything after a few rounds.
Tippett wholeheartedly agrees when I suggest it is not what Super 6 is right now that is important but rather what the league might develop into some years down the line.
You certainly hope so. Watching County draw with the Southern Knights at Bridgehaugh a few weeks back I bumped into a former Stirling player who now plys his trade in the All Ireland leagues.
The Irish premiership teams are required to be 100% amateur but he still reckoned that his new club would beat his old one hands down and he may well be right. We have slipped behind the likes of Ireland and Wales almost without realising it because, since the demise of the British & Irish Cup (B&I Cup), we simply don’t play them except in the PRO14. All that is about to change.
“When we were putting together this whole concept, the most important factor was the cross border competition,” says Tippett. “I look back to when the Scotland teams were playing in the (now defunct) B&I Cup and some of our best learning came from playing against those really tough composite teams like the Irish provincial A sides, the Welsh sides and the English Championship teams.
“We got some absolute hidings but we started to develop and grow because we were playing outside our own little bubble. We have to get out there and experience the quality and the calibre of the players and environments (in Wales/Ireland) that we are playing against or we will just keep meandering along in our own little world thinking that we are doing alright when we are not.
“We have to make changes and we have to start pushing ourselves harder than we have done in the past.”
The cross border games against the Welsh Premiership teams in the Spring of next year will be interesting to say the least, another learning experience, although Tippett insists that Scotland don’t want for talent. In the meantime Ayrshire Bulls will continue to mould a new squad of players into a competitive team.
“They are gelling well now, I like the way that Peter (Murchie) has got them playing. We were down at Melrose a few weeks back and I think that is absolutely the future of the game right there.
“They have an artificial pitch, their flood lights were first class and it was really good to see a whole lot of boys and girls from all over the region playing at half-time and before the match.
“If we want to play a quicker game then we need to play in quicker conditions and that is what an artificial pitch offers.”
And yes, an artificial pitch is just one of the many things on the Bull’s ambitious agenda.