THE big takeaway for Ben Cairns from the inaugural Super6 season was the importance of getting a good start to the campaign. His Stirling County outfit were competitive throughout but the head coach was left tearing his hair out at a succession of close-but-no-cigar results. Now, as the second season of the league finally dawns, the former Scotland centre is confident that his team can emerge as genuine contenders for the title.
“It probably starts with belief,” said Cairns, when asked about what County need to do to win Super6 this year. “We probably struggled with that in season one. We started the season well but lost a couple of games at the death and that had a knock-on effect through the campaign. It is hard to get it back.
“It is like everything, if you get momentum then that becomes a habit, and habits are hard to break. Similarly, if you go the other way then it is hard to get back on track.
“I think there is that belief within the squad at the moment, we’re really comfortable saying that it is a better group than we had in season one. We feel like we have recruited really well.
“Ultimately, we don’t really know where that stands against the rest of the squads, and I think everyone will be saying the same thing about having a better squad this time around, so we’ll have to see where that sits. You need a bit of luck, of course you do, and you need to get off to a quick start – so that’s why we are so excited about Saturday.”
“There is definitely a bit of anxiety there after not playing for 16 months, but we’ve seen going through training and returning to contact for the first time that it evaporates pretty quickly, and you soon get back into the swing of things – so I’d expect the first league game to be similar to that,” he continued.
“We’re really happy to be kicking off the season at home and hopefully we can create a spectacle and start to build the crowd through the season.”
“After three good hit outs in pre-season, our squad depth is already being tested with a number of players unavaible for selection. Nine of the starting XV were involved in season one while six players make their debut – George Breese, JP Phelan, Byron Bowes, Marcus Holden, Steven Hamilton and Tom Roche.
“After 17 months off competitive action, the replacements will be just as important as the starters. Debuts lie in wait for Callum Cruickshank, Josh Van Vuuren and Archie Russell.”
It might be a new competition, and there are a lot of recruits players, but Cairns believes that the history of the club from which this franchise has been built should be a key driver for the team.
“Stirling hasn’t won the top division in Scotland since 1995, so that hangs over the club,” he explains. “The first step is identifying that and then you work through it.
“We do have a lot of new guys to the club so it maybe doesn’t hang over all the players, but 40 percent of the squad played youth rugby here and came all the way through, so it is there.
“And what better way is there to break that streak than by winning Super6? I think that would change perceptions within the club and the whole atmosphere, so that’s the challenge we have set ourselves, and we’ll see where we get.
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Southern Knights also had a slow start to the last season, going through their first five matches without a win, but turned things around by winning five out of their last six games to qualify for the play-offs in fourth place, so the key is surely to carry on as they left off 16 months ago.
“I’m not sure it will be quite as easy as that,” is head coach Rob Chrystie‘s cautious reply. “But, look, our boys have worked really hard over the last 16 months now, and we’re going to try to start as well as we can – but it is a bit of an unknown so we’ll see how we go.”
Chrystie has named a side sprinkled with Greenyards stalwarts such as inside-centre and captain Craig Jackson, loose-head prop and vice-captain Grant Shiells and second-row James Head, along with several new recruits including youngsters Andrew Mitchell (on the wing) and Daniel Suddon from nearby Hawick.
“They’ve been excellent since they’ve come in, they seem to be really enjoying it and they are working bloody hard,” says Chrystie. “Like any team, we can improve – there is always room for improvement – but that’s the exciting thing about it.
“We want to do it so that young players who have aspirations to improve and reach their potential get a fair chance, and if we do it right then that will stand us in good stead and hopefully over the next couple of years we will see more young guys come through – because the talent is there.
“So, that’s out long-term vision, to have a core group of players while developing young lads, especially from the local area.”
Stirling County (versus Southern Knights @ Bridgehaugh on Saturday 31st July, kick-off 3pm): T Roche; S Hamilton, L Hayes, G Hughes (vice-captain), L Trotter; M Holden, C Korteweg; G Breese, R Kennedy (captain), J Phelen, J Pow, B Bowes, G Arnott, C Gordon, A Mackie.
Subs: A Fraser, B Lineen, M Walker C Cruickhank, J Van Vuuren, K Kay, A Goudie, A Russell.
Southern Knights: J Jenkins; A Mitchell, N Godsmark, C Jackson (captain), P Anderson; J Baggott, C Jones; G Shiells (vice-captain), F Renwick, E McLaren, J Head, D Suddon, D Redpath, A Ferrie, I Moody.
Subs: R Anderson, S Gunn, C Crookshanks, A Runciman, H Borthwick, M McAndrew, K Clark, I Sim.