CARRICK plan to make history on Saturday by becoming the first men’s team to pick up silverware at three consecutive Finals Days. The Maybole outfit lifted the National Shield in 2016 with a 34-27 victory over Highland, and repeated the trick last year with a 41-28 success against Murrayfield Wanderers. Now they have Hawick Harlequins in their sights at Murrayfield this Saturday, and head coach Gordon Brown believes that familiarity with the wide-open spaces of the international pitch will stand his men in good stead.
“Our president did say after our semi-final victory away to Alloa that at least we’ve got a home game in the final, which I thought was quite humorous,” he chuckled.
“To do it the first time was amazing, to do it again last year was even better, and I don’t think anyone has ever won it three years in a row, so that’s a pretty exciting prospect for us.”
Brown is one of Scottish rugby’s great enthusiasts. He is the kind of character who should be chauffeur driven by limousine to Murrayfield for consultation every time the bigwigs want to make a decision on how the game should be developed at ground level.
During the last 15 years he has been the driving force behind Carrick Academy going from a school where there was no rugby at all, to a school where over 40 per cent of the pupils have access to the sport. This has translated directly into the club side’s development and they have climbed from the lower reaches of West Division Four to being in pole position for promotion into the National Leagues next year.
Carrick are currently seven points clear at the top of West League One with three games to go. Given that they have lost only once in all competitions during the last 18 months, it is hard to see them failing to pick up the nine points they need to secure promotion.
Shambolic season structure
Brown’s sunny disposition does – however – briefly disappear behind a cloud when he contemplates the preposterousness of having to play three more league games in May, after his team have returned from Cup Finals Day at the end of April.
“I have my views about 12 team leagues and I was very vocal about that at the time,” he sighs. “The season is far too long and that’s a big issue for the grassroots of the game. We are expecting amateur players to start pre-season in early June when they are finishing the previous season on 19th May – you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to work out what the issues are there.
“We are asking more and more from people, and we are asking them to sacrifice competing issues in their life in terms of work and family and so on. It is very hard to keep people motivated in that situation. We are going to turn people off the game if we carry on like this.”
It doesn’t take much to coax Brown back into light. All that is required is a quick question about some of the young players who will be in the Carrick squad this weekend.
“This year we’ve got two more boys who came through the under-18s set-up two years ago in Aiden Strachan and John Limond, who played for the 2nd XV last season. so that’s six of our under-18 team from two years ago involved on Saturday,” he beams.
“Aiden was actually 23rd man and missed out on the chance to play in last year’s final, but he’s really come on this year and made the number nine jersey his own.
“And 20 of our 22 on Saturday will have come through the school so it is really down to the success of the school and what we have done over the last decade.”
It is pretty impressive stuff, but Brown has no desire to rest on his laurels.Error, group does not exist! Check your syntax! (ID: 2)
Onwards and upwards
“It’s not about getting more [kids playing] because our school holds only 450 kids and we already had about 40 per cent playing rugby, so it is about improving the quality of it. Last year we won our whole school Conference in the west of Scotland – which really showed our strength in depth when competing against some very strong independent schools at that level,” he says.
“Nobody would have thought Marr could ever get to the Premiership. When we used to play them in the Ayrshire Schools’ Cup Final, there would be 1,000 people at Millbrae and we lost four finals in a row by less than a score. That was with the Bickerstaffs and the Johnsons in the Marr side. We’ve maybe not progressed at the same rate as they have, but you’ve got to aim for the stars.”
“The club has to keep developing and the school has to keep developing, and there is going to be a new build at the school in the next couple of years, which is a big opportunity for the club in terms of facilities and infrastructure.”
“But for the time being, we’re just focussing on Saturday and getting into the National Leagues, which for a club like Carrick – to put ourselves in the top 50 clubs in Scotland – would be quite a remarkable achievement. We just want to keep building every year.”
Battle lines redrawn
In terms of Saturday, Carrick and Hawick Harlequins have a fair idea of what to expect from each other, having faced each other in the Shield semi-final last year, with the west coast side coming out on top [43-20] on that occasion.
“It was a tough game,” insists Brown. “At half-time there was very little in it – I think we were leading by a score at that point – then in the second half we did what we have done in the last two finals, we scored a try then quickly backed it up with another, and another. I think we were a bit fitter than them during the final quarter.
“But they’ve had a fantastic season. Looking at their results in the league, they have really kicked on this year – but so have we. It should be a fantastic game.”
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