IT MAY feel like a long time since the Ayrshire Bulls were crowned inaugural Super6 champions. Players and coaches have come and gone since the final last October, and of course we have had a Sprint Series tournament too.
Yet while it was Watsonians who won the latter competition, there is little doubt that the Bulls are perceived by their five rivals as the ones to be shot at. Not only did they take the title in style by beating the Southern Knights 26-16, they have inherited the mantle of their parent club Ayr as the standard-bearers of excellence in the Scottish club game.
They had to work hard to get to that level, of course, and they expect a tough fight every inch of the way in the defence of their title, which begins tomorrow evening when Heriot’s are the visitors to Millbrae. “We’ve got a target on our backs,” is how centre Bobby Beattie put it.
“We felt that in the Sprint, and we maybe didn’t play to our full potential. This year we’re really going to have to be on our game, because everyone will be coming after us and want that Super6 title off us. There has been a lot of change in personnel since the last Super6, but we still stick to a lot of things that have worked for us in the past.”
One significant change of the pitch has seen coach Pete Horne depart in order to join the coaching set-up at his old club Glasgow Warriors, and his insight into the game as well as his painstaking professionalism would be a loss to any team. On the plus side, however, Pat MacArthur has returned to the position of head coach after stepping back to a supporting role to Horne during the Sprint. MacArthur will be assisted by Ayr club legend Frazier Climo and by Elias Caven, who remains a player and starts on the left wing against Heriot’s but also now has responsibility for strength and conditioning.
The Heriot’s coaching team has also changed significantly, with Fin Gillies and Stuart Edwards being confirmed as joint head coaches after the club parted company with Andy Kelly days before the end of the Sprint competition. “It’s definitely a whole lot more work, but it’s good to be able to share that with a good friend and a like-minded individual like Eddo,” Gillies said of his promotion.
“We picked up just before the Boroughmuir game, so we had quite a bit to get in place – we had to plan pre-season, try and pick up some pre-season fixtures, contract negotiations. We had quite a bit to do.
“It’s been quite a nice balance. We’re both teachers, so we’ve had a bit of time off. Not ideal picking up a full-time job over your holiday, but we’ve both enjoyed it. It’s been a good challenge.”
Gillies is well aware that his employers will expect him and Edwards to take the team back to the position of pre-eminence they enjoyed a few years ago. “Heriot’s have always been a very successful club – and that hasn’t necessarily translated to Super6,” he continued. “First season we were definitely in the mix, then things haven’t gone quite as well as they should have done. Those results and performances dictated that there had to be a change – probably a brave decision by the club, but hopefully it’s the correct one. It’s a big responsibility, but one that we all share – players, management, everybody.
“It feels like a fresh start. As short and quick as pre-season was, we’ve been able to get some changes in place, and hopefully that will translate to the pitch.”
In the first, truncated season of Super6, Heriot’s beat the Bulls at Goldenacre in the last round of regular matches before the play-offs were subsequently scrapped because of the pandemic. So they know they can get the better of tomorrow’s opponents – but are equally aware of just how difficult it is to get a result at Millbrae.
“At least there is some precedent for it, but the Bulls are good players, well coached,” Gillies added. “It’s a fair old challenge to go down to Millbrae at any time.”
For his part, Beattie expects an entertaining game as well as a testing evening for his team. “I’ve never had a boring game against Heriot’s in my life. They like to throw the ball around a lot, and we’re really expecting them to chuck it around. We’ve just got to try and stop that at source and stick to our game and really impose what we do on them and hopefully come out with a win.”
The first round of fixtures continues on Saturday, when Stirling Wolves are at home to Boroughmuir Bears and the Southern Knights welcome Watsonians to the Greenyards. Previews of both games will be published on The Offside Line tomorrow.
Ayrshire Bulls (v Heriot’s at Millbrae, Friday 7.45pm): Liam McNamara; J Shedden, T Glendinning, R Beattie, E Caven; W Hunt, J Lenac; W Farquhar, A McGuire, C Henderson, E Bloodworth, R Jackson, A Smeaton, G Wilson, B MacPherson (captain). Substitutes: J Malcolm, A Nimmo, M Scott, Lewis McNamara, Chris Elliot, M Mccornick, R Simpson, A Tait.
Heriot’s: D King; F Jones, R Steele, R Kay, S Pecqueur; B Houston, J Gelderbloom; C Keen, C Fenton, E McLaren, R Seydak, F Hastie, R Leishman (captain), I Wilson , J Mann. Substitutes: M Liness, J Scott, D Gamble, S Johnstone, J Britton, K Brown, N Godsmark, R Jones.