AS current Super6 champions, Ayrshire Bulls will be the team to beat in this Sprint series, and that’s fine as far as head coach Pete Horne is concerned.
“We’ve not spoken too much about it, but the target is on our backs, and it is up to us to cope with that … it comes with the territory,” shrugs the former Glasgow Warriors and Scotland centre who hung up his boots in December to take on the lead role at Millbrae, having assisted Pat MacArthur during the 2020 campaign.
“But it wasn’t like everything was plain sailing last year, we had a really tough start before it clicked – it wasn’t like we were way out ahead of the pack from start to finish in the campaign,” he adds. “So, the guys were pretty honest when we got together at pre-season about wanting to get straight back to the levels we finished last season at, because we know we can’t afford to start slowly in a sprint competition like this.”
There has been plenty of player turnover in the Bulls squad, with Pete McCallum and Ruiaridh Sayce stepping down to the Ayr Club XV, Craig Miller returning to Marr, George Thornton moving to Australia to join Northern Suburbs, Tom Everard now at Jersey Reds, Yaree Fantini at Benetton, Gavin Lowe and Matt Davidson in the Scotland 7s set-up, Tom Williams in the Welsh 7s programme, and Robbie Nairn and Harry Warr also off to pastures new.
However, there is continuity, too, with the likes of Blair MacPherson and Ryan Sweeney – two bulwarks of the back-row last season – limbering up for another shot at glory, while Bobby Beattie will once again be a slippery customer for opposition defences at outside-centre, wing to full-back.
“I remember wondering at the start of this season how Blair’s motivation was going to be given how hard he has worked over several years to keep pushing himself as a player,” says Horne. “I needn’t have worried. He’s fitter, stronger and hungrier than ever, which is obviously fantastic. Physically, he’s a machine – if he was a few years younger then he would definitely be knocking hard on the door of the pro game. I’ve been really impressed with all the returning guys in terms of their attitude and determination to keep pushing forward.”
Meanwhile, Tom Jordan, who was the key playmaker in last year’s success, is now on a full-time contract with Glasgow Warriors but hasn’t played yet for the Scotstoun outfit, so he is likely to be available to the Bulls as a first-year pro. The New Zealander played the second half of last season at 10 but is probably a more natural 12 – although, by the sounds of it, he is going to have his work cut out trying to claim that slot in the Bulls line-up ahead of former GHA and current Scotland under-20s centre Andy Stirrat.
“I watched quite a few GHA games last season and there was one particular match against Currie Chieftains, who had two really good centres [DJ Innes and Ryan Southern] coming hard down the middle of the park, and this little No12 just kept banging them back,” recalls Horne. “I thought: ‘Oh, I like the look of him’. Then, on the other side of the ball, he had a bit about him as well.
“So, afterwards I found out who he was, and I spoke to him about coming in to do a bit of training with us. It looked like he was going to miss out on all the under-20s stuff – he flew under the radar a bit and didn’t get picked initially – but then played against the under-20s in a training match and was one of the best players on the park, so they realised then that they had to get him involved, and he ended up being one of the best Scottish players during the Six Nations.
“So, I’m really excited about getting my hands on him. He’s an absolute ball of energy, flies into everything, and has the heart of an absolute lion.”
“He’s the type of player you want to play with because he gives you everything. He was pretty beat-up after the Six Nations so he hasn’t been down to train yet, but he came to Jersey with us a few weeks ago when we took the whole squad for our pre-season match against the Reds and made it into a bit of a bonding exercise with a few beers together after the game.”
Stirratt is not the only young Premiership player making their way to Millbrae. “Tim Brown [Glasgow Hawks] is another one,” says the coach. “He’s a No 7 who came into the under-20s squad at the end of the campaign and was really impressive.
“And Thomas Glendinning [also Hawks] hurt his shoulder and missed the start of the under-20s campaign, but since coming back he’s been brilliant. He’s got a great attitude and physically he’s ready to go to the next level – he’s quick, he’s strong and he’s fit. He also has such a positive growth mindset, anything you throw at him he will process then come back and ask little questions. He wants to sit down and go through the video, do the analysis and take on board anything which can make him a better player.
“Hopefully if he can get a run of games under his belt during this Super6 then he’ll be a big player for Kenny Murray [Scotland under-20s head coach] in the summer [when the age-grade side are expecting to play a tournament against their northern hemisphere rivals].
“Then there’s Jamie Shedden, who is a little bit older but was one of the best players in the Premiership last year whilst playing for Marr, and was unlucky to miss the play-offs after rolling his ankle,” Horne adds. “I think he’s going to be quality, but he just doesn’t know how good he is yet. He’s only been doing Monday nights with us, so I don’t think he feels really embedded as a Bulls player at this stage, but in six months’ time he is going to be a different player.
“He’s a big boy but he’s not actually played rugby for that long. He’s gone from Kilmarnock to playing in a good Marr team with good coaches where he has come on leaps and bounds, so hopefully we can help him continue on that trajectory.”
Bulls host Boroughmuir Bears on Friday night in the first game of this Sprint series, and although Horne acknowledges that the build-up has been more fragmented than he would have liked, he is confident that his players are now ready to get going.
“I think all the clubs are in a similar boat in having had players away with the pro teams, or the sevens, or the under-20s, while a lot of the guys we have signed from the clubs are finishing their domestic season,” he concludes. “So, it has been a bit here, there and everywhere during pre-season – but we’ve had this core group of 16 to 20 players who have been down three nights per week every week, absolutely grafting away. Coming from the full-time pro environment, I’ve just been so impressed with the attitude of the boys.
“There has been no mumping and moaning about there only being 20 boys at training, they’ve just been focussed on making themselves better. That means that as the rest of the squad come back in, they have to get to that level straight away. There’s no excuses.
“So, I think we’re in a good spot. We’ve had a couple of good pre-season hit outs and we’re looking forward to getting into it now.”
Horne will be assisted by a coterie of former Glasgow Warriors team-mates. Pat MacArthur [who was always a temporary head coach] has stepped back into his initial role overseeing the forwards, Rob Harley is helping with contact, line-out and maul defence, Jamie Bhatti is coaching the scrum and little brother George is helping with the backs.