WHEN Scott Bickerstaff joined Marr Rugby straight out of school in 2008, he walked into a 1st XV who were playing in the sixth tier of Scotland’s national leagues.
The Troon based club had only been promoted out of the West regional leagues two seasons earlier, and they briefly ended up back in that tier a few years later due to a league restructuring (when the number of national divisions was cut from six to four), but the general trajectory of the club during the last 14 years has been upwards, sometimes at breakneck speed, to the point where they could become the champion side of Scotland if they come out on top in Saturday’s Premiership play-off final against Currie Chieftains at Malleny Park.
Indeed, Marr were mightily unlucky not to achieve that accolade in 2020, when they finished the regular Premiership campaign as top dogs only for the season to be declared null-and-void before the play-offs due to Covid.
It has been some journey for the Fullarton Park club, and Bickerstaff has been a central cog in all that has been achieved.
“It is mad,” he reflects with a wry chuckle. “I came out of school at a time when you pretty much walked straight into the first team because there wasn’t that strength at the club, but we’ve built it up over the years and had some great success going up the leagues. It is amazing, really, when you stop to think about it.
“It was just the thing that you did – come out of school and join the senior team of your hometown club. We were just playing with our mates, and we’ve been lucky to keep that theme as much as possible, with the same core group of players for many years. It is pretty cool.”
Other stalwarts on the playing side of this success story include the younger Bickerstaff sibling, Conor (a centre who joined the club two years after Scott and would have captained the team on Saturday were it not for a serious knee injury suffered earlier in the season), Fraser Grant (a second-row who joined the club at the same time as Conor and is now stand-in skipper) and stand-off/centre Colin Sturgeon (who dotted between Carrick, Ayr and Kilmarnock before becoming part of the furniture at Fullarton).
Bickerstaff – who had a spell as a member of the Scotland Sevens core squad during the 2019-20 season – is not the only member of that group that powered Marr’s drive up the leagues who could have taken the express route to the top of the club game had they jumped ship to a Premiership club in their early twenties. In fact, some of his team-mates did and carved very good Premiership careers. On balance, however, the winger (who has also played outside centre this season) has no regrets about the path taken.
“You do look back sometimes and wonder ‘what if?’” he acknowledges. “If I had gone to a Premiership club early in my career then who knows what would have happened, but the massive thing for us was the chance to play with your mates, and in my case I was lucky enough to play alongside my brother for many years. I think if there wasn’t that hometown club feel about it, and the bond you have there, then maybe I might have been more tempted to go to another club and try my hand there.
“The constant growth of the club was obviously a factor as well,” he adds. “It wasn’t like we were a club who hit our level and couldn’t go any higher. We were always pushing for the next thing, so that fed the ambitious side of you as a player.
“When we first got into the Premiership pre Super6 [in 2017-18], we had a good start to the season but then struggled a little bit with the level of intensity. But we realised then that we weren’t too far away from being able to hang with the bigger clubs, and in fact it wasn’t an issue with ability, it was more about being used to fronting up at that level every week.
“I think that inspired a lot of boys to dig in and really see how far we could go. Even going back to winning the Shield at Murrayfield in 2013, that was a big moment as well because it gave boys that taste of success and really helped drive us all to want more.”
Victory on Saturday would undoubtedly be the biggest success yet. Marr will go into the match us underdogs against a Chieftains side undefeated this season since their hiccup against Hawick on the opening weekend of the Premiership – but they will travel to Malleny believing that they can cause an upset. Certainly, head coach, Craig Redpath, has maintained throughout the season that his team are yet to hit their peak.
“Craig is always striving for more, which is obviously a good thing,” says Bickerstaff. “But you could speak to any of the players and they’ll tell you that we haven’t yet produced an 80 minute performance either individually or as a team, so there is definitely more to come … and it is now or never because this is going to have to be our biggest performance of the season if we are to have any chance.
“As you can imagine, there were a few sore bodies after the semi-final against Hawick – it was quite a physical one – so it is just about making sure the boys are right physically and then polishing up on a few things we could have done better last Saturday.
“We talk about ‘Fortress Fullarton’. It is a big thing for us, and I’m sure it is for other clubs as well, but I know a few guys from teams we play against who hate coming to our place and dealing with the atmosphere there. So, hopefully we can export that over to Currie, get a few bus loads over there, and get that Fullarton atmosphere going at Malleny.”
If Marr do pull it off, it will be a crying shame that Conor isn’t on the pitch to enjoy a moment, but big brother is adamant that his contribution won’t be forgotten.
“He’s our captain and one of, if not our best player, although I know I’m biased. Hats off to him, he’s the most positive guy out there. He’s always up at the club doing what he can to help the coaches prepare the team. So, although he isn’t on the pitch, his presence is still very much within the team in terms of the way we play and the positivity he would normally bring.”
- Saturday’s Premiership Play-Off Final kicks off at 3pm on Saturday at Malleny Park, with a cash only gate.