THE make-up of this first Super6 Grand Final may have echoes of the period immediately before the new league was set up, when Melrose and Ayr – the parent clubs of Southern Knights and Ayrshire Bulls – won eight out of 11 Premiership titles, but Knights head coach Rob Chrystie is adamant that things have moved on.
The former Hawick, Melrose, Bath, Border Reivers and Scotland A scrum-half points out that neither side was the dominant force during the inaugural Super6 season (which was declared null and void just for the play-offs du to Covid), and argues that the two outfits’ ability and willingness to adapt and develop with the new competition has been key to them emerging as the dominant forces in this year’s competition.
“We were sitting rock bottom after five games, and there was probably more of the core group [from the Melrose Premiership era] in that squad, so I suppose that shows how far we’ve come,” he said. “If you look at the Ayrshire Bulls squad, it’s pretty different now from what was there at the start of Super6 as well, but I think what you’ll find is that the two clubs are pretty similar in terms of the personnel in the back room.
“Somebody like Mike Dalgetty is massively important for us. Ayr have got Billy McHarg and Glen Tippett who have been around for years. They understand what has to happen off the field as much as they do on the field. We always say the players are the most important part of the club, 100 per cent, but ultimately there’s an awful lot of other people who have got the responsibility to contribute as well.
“Ross Ford [Scotland record cap holder who retired from the pro game in 2019] has done a great job as our S&C coach throughout that down time, which was pretty challenging through Covid. Lewis Carmichael [former Edinburgh and Scotland second-row] has come in as a young coach and he’s done a great job as well. And our analysis guy, Fraser Menzies, has been brilliant picking up with guys on one-on-ones.
“We’re trying to create and develop something a bit different, and to be fair Ayrshire Bulls are doing exactly the same, and I think it’s the right way for Scottish rugby, if I’m being honest,” he added.
“We’ve got two really good squads of players who have fully bought into what we’re trying to do so, hopefully, that will translate into a really good game of rugby on Sunday that shows the competition for what it’s worth.”
Honours are even from the two matches these sides played against each other during the regular season. The Knights squeezed a 22-20 win at The Greenyards back in mid-August, while the Bulls gained revenge with a 17-11 success on a filthy Friday evening at Millbrae a fortnight ago.
Chrystie was surprisingly sanguine after that defeat, and his observation at the time that it might help focus minds at the business end of the season seemed to be borne out by the impressive way his team dismantled Stirling County in their dead-rubber final match of the regular campaign.
“I was just like, ‘it is what it is’, if I’m being honest,” Chrystie recalled of that Bulls defeat. “I wasn’t going to dwell on it too much. They were good initially, they definitely took their chances pretty well. You play at Millbrae on a night like that and you go 14 points down after 11 minutes, it’s always going to be tough. They probably should have gone 21-0 up as well.
“We were fortunate we had done quite a lot of good work before that game. We knew that if it was a crunch game that could have affected our season and things went out of our hands, that could have been really difficult. But hindsight says it wasn’t really that situation. We knew we still had Stirling at home the following week.
“I would expect quite a lot of similarity in the way the game is played [this weekend],” he added. “It was pretty physical. Both teams have got some really strong, dynamic players. It’s going to be a bit of a battle. It’s going to be a final as well. There will be pressure on people – on certain people more than others – and to a certain degree it will be who flinches first.”
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Bulls head coach Pat MacArthur is also loath to read too much into that match two weekends ago.
“Yeah, we did very well – we won – great,” shrugged the former Glasgow Warriors and Scotland hooker, who originally came through the ranks at Ayr. “But you have to put that behind you. They’ll take learnings out of that and get better as a result, and we have to do the same.
“We’ll focus on ourselves. We have certain standards we set and stick to.
“It was a tough, really physical game, which was literally on a knife-edge throughout. I believe that they are two very well-matches teams, and it will be on a knife-edge again [this weekend]. So, we need to stick to our guns if we want to come out on top.”
The playing surface this afternoon will be similar to the 4G pitch the Knights now train and play on at The Greenyards, but MacArthur doesn’t see that being a decisive factor in the opposition’s favour.
“You don’t let the pitch change your team and the way you want to play rugby,” he reasoned. “Yes, they are fairly used to it, they train on it and will understand how it feels under foot, but we have the ability to train on 4G pitches down by us.”
The general consensus amongst those who have followed Super6 this year is that it has been a step-up from the inaugural aborted season, which is fairly impressive given that the players had been out of action for the best part of 18 months in between times.
“There’s been numerous things behind that,” added MaArthur. “Playing summer rugby has been brilliant. It allows you to play more rugby, without doubt. Also, credit to the players, they are wanting more off of the coaches, they are desperate to train three times per week plus a game, they are hounding you for feedback, so they are really driving the standards. We can do our best to assist them, but if the lads aren’t keen then you lose it before it starts.
“So, I think the marked improvement this year is how much the players are wanting to progress and push tings forward, and that puts pressure on coaches to try to allow that top happen, and I think that’s where the big performance change has been.”
MacArthur has brought back several players who have been central to the team’s strong second half of this campaign, having mixed things up last week and paid the price with a heavy defeat at Watsonians. Tight-head prop Michael Scott, hooker Alex McGuire, second-row Ed Bloodworth, open-side flanker Yaree Fantini, No8 and captain Blair MacPherson, stand-off Tom Jordan, inside-centre Tom Williams and full-back Matt Davidson all return to the starting XV, while Rhodri Tanner, Ruairidh Sayce, Rory Jackson and Gavin Wilson revert to the bench.
Southern Knights (v Ayrshire Bulls at The DAM Health Stadium on Sunday 17th October @ 1.30pm): J Henry; P Anderson, N Godsmark, B Wara, S Pecqueur; J Baggott, M McAndrew; G Shiells©, F Renwick, E McLaren, D Suddon, A Runciman, H Borthwick, R Knott, I Moody. Substitutes: R Anderson, S Gunn, C Crookshanks, D Redpath, A Ferrie, C Jones, C Scott, A Mitchell.
Ayrshire Bulls: M Davidson; A Tait, R Beattie, T Williams, E Cavan; T Jordan, J Lenac; G Thornton, A McGuire, M Scott, E Bloodworth, T Everard, R Sweeney Y Fantini, B MacPherson©. Substitutes: R Tanner, R Sayce, C Henderson, R Jackson, G Wilson, H Warr, C Townsend, G Lowe.