NOT quite all roads at the top end of Scottish club rugby lead to the Premiership Final at Mansfield Park this weekend. About 20 miles to the north east of Hawick, there is another huge game taking place 2at Poynder Park.
If they can beat the weather, then National League Division One top two Kelso and Ayr will be locking horns with a game which could effectively be a promotion to Premiership decider.
After 19 of 22 matches and with just one promotion spot up for grabs, Kelso are on 83 points after 17 wins and two losses and Ayr are on 82 points after posting a similar record.
Both teams have 15 points left to play for, and while their remaining fixtures against GHK and Highland for Kelso, and against Gala and Stewart’s Melville for Ayr, will play their part in the final league rankings, this really is a big game.
Last weekend Kelso won 25-13 at Watsonians, but failed to get a bonus point while Ayr collected all five points from a 33-10 home win over Biggar.
When the two sides met at Millbrae in late November, Kelso edged the game 22-21 for a crucial away win and that result points to another close one in the Borders this weekend.
Kelso’s coaching teams is headed up by Kevin Utterston and player/coach Bruce McNeil, while Ayr are coached by Stuart Fenwick, Dean Kelbrick, GB Sevens captain Robbie Fergusson and Nick Cox.
Elsewhere in the division – with three teams going down as the leagues are being re-jigged for 2023-24 – there are due to be five other games on Saturday. Seventh placed Biggar take on 11th placed Aberdeen Grammar at Hartree Mill, there is a Border derby at Netherdale as fourth placed Gala take on Melrose in third and sixth placed Dundee Rugby are at eighth placed GHK. Fifth placed Highland are due to host ninth placed Watsonians and already relegated Stewart’s Melville welcome 10th placed Stirling County to Inverleith. All of these games are at 3pm.
How it stands –
The Lowdown –
Kelso v Ayr
Venue: Poynder Park @ 3pm
Kelso: L Herdman; G Ponton, D Patterson, F Robson©, A Roberts; M Hastie, A Tait; G Shiells, C Marshall, A Frame, C Thompson, K Melbourne, A Cowens, K Dryden, B McNeil. Subs: E Knox, T Logan, A Common, L Tait, N Stingl.
Ayr: S Watson; J Fulton, D McCluskey, J Bova, Z Howard; J Anderson, R McCorkindale; S Rae, D Young, R Sayce, E Hamilton, C Reece©, M Kirk, R Pottie, P McCallum. Subs: S Collier, C Rae, M Leatherbarrow, R Anderson, C Wood.
Key battle: Bruce McNeil versus Pete McCallum.
Team news –
Kelso: Up front, Charlie Marshall and Allan Frame come into the front-row, Cammy Thompson moves up to second-row and Archie Cowens comes in at six. Murray Hastie comes in at 10, so Liam Herdman moves to full-back and Greg Ponton to the wing. It is a four-one split on the bench.
Ayr: Ruairidh Sayce starts at tight-head with Caleb Rae reverting to the bench. On the wing, John Fulton replaces the injured Harry Lynch.
What the coaches say –
“They’ll be coming down expecting to win, so we just have to do what we have done all season, give it everything and give the Kelso jersey the respect that it is due …” – Bruce McNeil (Kelso)
“We were pipped last time against Kelso and got bullied perhaps a bit physically, so that is something we have been working on in recent weeks and we’re expecting another physical battle. The guys are looking forward to the game …” – Stuart Fenwick (Ayr)
Verdict: This should be a real cracker. Both sides have done incredibly well this season and have young players making their mark. In games like this experience often counts and, to that end, the likes of Bruce McNeil, Andy Tait and skipper Frankie Robson could be key for Kelso, while the same goes for Pete McCallum, Jamie Bova, Danny McCluskey and Ruairidh Sayce of Ayr.
A tight home win.