FOR his next trick, Peter Murchie plans to guide the Ayr Super 6 team to success in both domestic and cross-border competitions next season. It is a fair old challenge, especially as so much remains unclear as to how this new tier in Scottish rugby, which is to sit above the club game and below the professional strand, is going to look and operate. But given the how things have gone for the former Glasgow Warriors and Scotland full-back during his first full season as a head coach, the Millbrae outfit can feel confident that they are marching into this new world under the stewardship of the right general.
Ayr added the Scottish Cup to their trophy cabinet on Saturday (to sit alongside the Premiership title they picked up three weeks ago) by coming from behind to defeat Heriot’s with an injury-time penalty from Frazier Climo. It was a dramatic climax to the season and, truth be told, Murchie’s men can count themselves rather fortunate to have come out on top on this occasion – but looking at it with a wider lens, few honest brokers who will argue that they have not been the outstanding team in Scottish club rugby over the course of the last nine months, so in that sense they were entirely worthy winners.
Murchie has, and should, take a lion’s share of the credit for what has been achieved. Certainly, man-of-the-moment Climo was quick to sing his gaffer’s praises in the immediate aftermath of Saturday’s game. “It is a fairly new squad – we lost a lot of boys from last season – but Pete came in and really stamped his mark on it, and the boys really bought into what he was trying to do,” said the veteran Kiwi playmaker. “We’ve just gone from strength to strength – grown in confidence – and it is a great club to be part of.”
Ayr were, of course, a pretty decent side before Murchie arrived on the scene, reaching the play-off Grand Final in each of the previous three years and winning the competition in 2017, but they have really kicked on this season.
There have been hiccups along the way, in particular a narrow defeat at home to Watsonians at the end of October and a heavy defeat at home to Heriot’s at the start of December, but the general trajectory has been overwhelmingly positive. The impression is that a rod of iron now runs through the squad which has banished a previous tendency to crumple, which is particularly impressive given the loss of several senior players such as George Hunter, Robin Hislop, Lewis Anderson, David Young, Scott Sutherland, Rob McAlpine, George Stokes and Ross Curle at the end of last season.
It was instructive to hear how satisfied Murchie was with the fact that his team had not performed to the style or standard he had expected against Heriot’s on Saturday but had still found a way to win it.
“In the semi-final of the league against Melrose, we won with the last play of the game, and we did it again there,” he said. “It is just another example of us never giving in. They are just a great bunch of guys in terms of their ability to keep playing.
“We didn’t play that well, especially in the first half and at the beginning of the second half, but it doesn’t really matter – it is just about winning finals, and we found a way of doing that, despite losing the ref in the scrum and our line-out being poor. I thought when we moved the ball we were quite dangerous, and I knew if we were able to get into their area and get on the ball then we would create chances.
“Our goal was to win the double, so it is a great feeling to have achieved that,” he continued. “This process started a long time ago, in the first week of July when we came in for pre-season training and changed a lot of things. We lost a lot of players, especially out of the forwards – which meant a lot of young guys came in and some of them had been playing mainly 2nd XV rugby previously. It has been a story of guys like Harry Warr and Ruaridh Sayce stepping up, and not just fitting in but often being our top performers. I’m really proud of their effort throughout the year and it’s an amazing way to finish the season.”
Murchie had special words of praise for man-of-the-moment Climo, and will be delighted that the veteran playmaker has committed to at least one more season before hanging up his boots. “It says a lot of Frazier that he had the bottle to slot from that touchline, and it was on the wrong side for him as a left-footed kicker, so it was unbelievable skill,” he said. “There are not many players who are in pro rugby who can do that.”
Ayr’s success means that they will be the last team to get their name on the Premiership and Scottish Cup trophies before the club rugby landscape changes next season with the launch of Super 6.
“We played on that,” admitted Murchie. “You’ve got to get those little motivational edges where you can, and we knew at the start of the year that we wanted to be the last guys to win the league and win the cup in this format. How much was that a factor? I don’t know – but it is certainly something we talked about.
“But, generally, it is an amazing feeling to win trophies, because that’s the experience you have gone through with the squad – and to have the opportunity to reflect back on that is a really important thing.
“Some people were talking at the start of this season about it being a transition year – almost like it was a free shot – but I really didn’t see it like that. I felt it would be a cop out for me to come in and say this season was about building, because the best way to build is get the environment right and go from there.
“A large proportion of this current team will play Super 6 and it is good that we have been able to get that environment right as early as we can. But we also had a duty to the club and the players – especially the ones who might not get the chance at Super 6 next year – to do the best we can.
“I’m lucky in that Ayr is a really strong club with a great youth section, a really good infrastructure, brilliant people involved behind the scenes and really good players. We’ve got a great supporter base – you saw that with the number of people we brought with us to Murrayfield.
“I’ve still got a lot if improving to do as a coach, it has been a great learning experience for me, and I know I can get a lot better. So, for me, it has been a great year and I’m just really thankful to everyone at the club for helping me through it.”