National Bowl Final preview: Wigtownshire back from the brink and making up for lost time

Bowl success is only the start of club's ambitions

Wigtownshire have already claimed the West League Division Three title and now have their site set on winning the National Bowl at Murrayfield this Saturday ***Image courtesy: Wigtownshire RFC***

SCOTTSH rugby is, indeed, a village. They might be separated by 275 miles of road – five and a half hours worth of driving time – but it turns out there is a connection between West League Division Three side Wigtownshire of Stranraer and Caledonian League Division Two North side Ross Sutherland of Invergordon, who are the two combatants in this Saturday’s BT National Shield Final at Murrayfield [kick-off 10am on the international pitch].

“One of our minis coaches’ father-in-law is the president at Ross Sutherland,” reveals Wigtownshire assistant coach Gordon Keith. “That’s the only contact we’ve got – and we’re getting nothing from them,” he adds, with a rueful chuckle.

Not that the men from southwest Scotland feel like they need to resort to espionage in order to put some extra shine on to what has already been a remarkable season. They have completed their league schedule and are 22 points clear of the chasing pack at the top of West League Division Three, having lost only their opening game away to Lochaber in mid-September. Bishopton may narrow the gap with their two games in hand, but the silverware is already Stranraer bound. In all competitions, they have gone 20 games without tasting defeat.

It is a remarkable turnaround in fortunes for a club which was on its knees less than two years ago, and a testament to what can be achieved with a little bit of direction, desire and discipline.

Almost bust

“A year and a half ago we were about two weeks away from going bust. The committee wasn’t strong enough while other people within the club were [too influential], and the club wasn’t for rugby – it was basically a pub for a few people. So, a new president [Campbell McGregor] was voted in who was strong enough and he started changing that. It just went from there. We were at the bottom of Scottish rugby, but we’ve made a few changes to our committee and in coaching, and it has had an absolutely amazing effect,” explains Keith.

“The whole club is now buzzing, we’ve got a full minis section from nowhere, a women’s team from nowhere, under-14s, under-16s and a partnership at under-18s with Newton Stewart. We’re pushing for a second team. We’re just flying just now, actually.

“Our head coach [Paul Phillips] came in at the start of this season. He’s a grumpy old man and everyone is scared of him. If you don’t turn up for training then he’ll phone you, and phone you again, then pull you aside and speak to you – it is all about communication.

“Now we’re going for the treble. We’re champions of the league, we’ve won the Regional Bowl and this is the icing on the cake.”

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Keith played hooker for the club for over 20 years before retiring at the end of last season and jokes that his old team-mates are perhaps trying to prove a point by making this such a successful season.

“Maybe the boys are trying to tell me that I should have retired much earlier,” he chuckles. “There is a disappointment that I won’t be running on the pitch, but I’m enjoying learning as a coach under Paul. It is player power that has got us where we are. We speak to the players and see what they think, then we develop it. There are no cliques – we’re all together. We’ve all come from nowhere and here we are on our way to Murrayfield.”

“We don’t have a big squad. In previous years we used to have about 70 playing for the team over the season, but this year we’ve had about 33, and it is all boys who are training and playing together all the time – so they know each other inside out. It is all based around the old boys and the young boys of Stranraer.”

Only the beginning

Regardless of the result on Saturday, Gordon Keith promises that Wigtownshire’s Murrayfield adventure is not an end in itself, but an exciting interlude in a longer journey the club has embarked upon.

“There is so much further for us still to go. We’ve been punching way below our weight since I’ve been playing for the cub. We weren’t committed enough – the mental attitude wasn’t there – so, hopefully, this is the start of us climbing up the leagues again,” he says.

“Newton Stewart are our main rivals. When I first played we would beat them by 50 points each time, and now they are up near the top of National League Division 3, so they are our role models – but don’t tell them that!”

“From where they’ve come, to where they are now, is fantastic. And we want to be there and beyond, because we’ve got the bigger catchment area and the bigger schools to feed the team.”

Such considerations are for another day, however. For the time being, Wigtownshire deserve to enjoy their moment, and lap up all the credit which is coming their way.

“We got a congratulations message from Stranraer Football Club over their tannoy system at Stair Park during their last home game. For the semi-final [a 33-12 win over Panmure], I think we had more people watching us than the football team across the road. It is mentioned on the radio all the time. It is quite a hard thing to get you head around,” concludes Gordon.

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About David Barnes 3995 Articles
David has worked as a freelance rugby journalist since 2004 covering every level of the game in Scotland for publications including The Herald/Sunday Herald, The Sunday Times, The Telegraph, The Scotsman/Scotland on Sunday/Evening News, The Daily Record, The Daily Mail/Mail on Sunday and The Sun.