by STUART RUTHERFORD
IN the Perthshire town of Blairgowrie, football is king – with Blairgowrie FC, Rattray AFC and Balmoral AFC all sharing centre stage. However, this weekend rugby will escape the sizeable shadow cast by it’s spherical cousin when the local club take on Portobello in the BT Bowl Final at Murrayfield.
It is the Blairgowrie’s first trip to Finals, and an occasion which club president Fraser Bissett happily concedes that he thought he ‘would never witness’. The 33-year-old, who still plays at inside-centre for the team, first became involved with the club when he joined the mini-rugby section around a quarter of a century ago and has been hooked on the sport ever since.
“I am coming into my 18th season playing for Blairgowrie [senior side]. I’ve been captain, vice-captain three times, and all the mediocre roles in between, such as bar convener to social convener,” he says. “It was four years ago that I took on the presidency from Duncan McCrae, who was another long standing stalwart of the club, and ultimately I’ve just been trying to take the club in another direction.”
“The first couple of years were a wee bit of a struggle, in the sense that there were a lot of older figureheads who had stepped down, but the last couple of years have been great. A lot of the younger guys have stepped up and taken on major roles, and we’ve got a pretty good team behind us now.”
Following two disastrous seasons, in which the club finished bottom of BT Caledonia League Division 2 Midlands (they were not relegated due to other teams in the league dropping out) the Perthshire side achieved a fourth placed finish this year, with nine wins for the season – three times the number of victories they’ve earned in the last two years combined – and now an unlikely shot at claiming some silverware awaits.
“There hasn’t been a huge amount of change in the team. We’ve obviously had a small influx of youth players, but a lot of the success has been down to the coaching and the mentality. There is a real positivity at training, and that encourages more lads to come along. Everyone seems to be enjoying training – it isn’t boring, which is perhaps a reason why we have found some success,” says Bissett.
“Put it this way, I’ve been playing at the club for 18 years now and this season has been the most enjoyable in a long time. I think a lot of the guys would agree with me, that as a group we are fitter and stronger than we have been in a lot of years,” he adds.
Blairgowrie found themselves in the national spotlight earlier in the year following a 172-0 friendly victory over Howe of Fife – a result that highlighted dwindling playing numbers in the region. Whilst Bissett says that his team “didn’t take any great satisfaction in the victory”, especially as his own side have “been on the receiving end of a couple of spankings over the years”.
With Craig Ormiston taking over as head coach at the start of the season, Blairgowrie are determined to avoid returning to those days when they were receiving rather than handing out spankings. The turnaround in fortunes in the league has been remarkable, but their journey to the BT Bowl final has been even more so. With the chance to play at Murrayfield on the line, the club hosted Strathendrick in the national semi-final.
“We basically didn’t lead at all until the final seconds of the match and for most of the boys, myself included, it will have been the toughest game they have ever played in. Strathendrick were an extremely strong, physical side who not only won their respective league (BT West Division 3), but they did so by conceding only 65 points the entire season,” says Bissett.
“I think in the end it came down down to fitness. They seemed to be running empty in the last twenty minutes and we just kept picking away. After a few penalties, we were able to get a driving maul going from a line-out deep inside their 22, and from about five metres out Dave Malloch managed to power over for the win.”
“The place just erupted. I would have said there was about 400 spectators there in total. The support from the town was just incredible.”
Spurred on by that success, ‘Murrayfield Fever’ has swept through Blairgowrie in recent weeks.
“We’ve got nine buses coming down, plus I’ve spoken to hundreds of people who are travelling there by train, car and the rest. When we met with the SRU a couple of weeks ago they told us we had sold 200 more tickets than any other team for Finals day, So I expect a great support for the boys,” says Bissett.
“Predominantly, Blairgowrie is a football orientated town so I think a win would maybe switch a bit of the focus towards rugby, and possibly help us get a bit more funding to improve the club and move forward – which is obviously the main goal. I think it would do wonders for rugby in the area.”
“Even off the back of reaching the Bowl Final we’ve had guys coming back to the club who are maybe after a stab at glory, and training numbers have been up. So, it can only be positive.”
“It’s taken a long time for the club to get here. Personally, I’ll probably never get to play in a final again, so Saturday will undoubtedly be the highlight of my career.”
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