WITH their strong youth set-up, network of feeder clubs and large catchment area, Stirling County were in many respects in an ideal position to bid for a Super6 franchise. Those advantages certainly appealed to Ben Cairns when he applied to be head coach of the new team.
Recognising at the same time that there was a lot of work to be done in other areas, and that some time would be needed to assemble a squad for the new competition, the former Currie Chieftains coach moved to Bridgehaugh at the start of the year to begin his preparations. Now, as he prepares to take charge of his side for the first time in a competitive fixture when they take on Boroughmuir Bears on Friday evening, Cairns is ready to put those ten months of preparatory work to the test.
“I only applied for one of the roles and it was the Stirling role,” the 34-year-old said. “Part of the reason for that is it was a similar club feel to Currie. That’s how it’s felt. The size of it, especially the youth section, is on a bigger scale than Currie, but there are lots of similarities.
“What excited me about the club was that youth section, and how we can get more of those players playing to their full potential. That was certainly one of the things I looked at when I first came in – how can we make that pathway better?
“From a club perspective, that was the whole point of Super6 – to make sure we had that continuing pathway. And there’s a couple of stories there in our squad already of guys who have come through the club. Euan Cunningham, who’s 17 – I think he’s the youngest player in the whole competition – is one example we could really hang our hat on, and I’m sure there will be more coming through in the next few years.”
Besides such precocious talent as Cunningham, County can boast a fair amount of experience both in the playing squad and behind the scenes. Scrum-half Sean Kennedy has a vital role to play in leading by example, while Eddie Pollock will provide a link between the Super6 team and the amateur side of the club.
“We’re pretty happy with that blend,” Cairns continued. “Everyone probably thought this competition was going to be a young man’s game, but we were really keen to make sure we kept some experience in there. So there are guys like Reyner Kennedy, our captain, who has been around the club a long time, and Sean Kennedy was a big one to get across the line – we want to tap into his experience as well. We’re hoping we’ve got a good blend; I guess time will tell.
“Eddie will have a head-of-rugby role on the amateur side of the club, and he’s also my assistant for the Super 6 side. I’m really keen to make sure that I’ve got a link with the rest of the club as well, and to make sure that Super6 isn’t seen as this separate entity that just drains from the rest of the club. It should be an extra opportunity for players to progress, and it should help the rest of the club as well.”
Another factor that should also help County, at least for as long as the competition remains at its current size, is geography. Compared not only to the three Edinburgh teams but also the Ayrshire Bulls and Southern Knights, Cairns’ club have a vast stretch of country which they can look on as their own, at least in terms of this competition. That will change if and when teams from Dundee and Aberdeen join in, but for the time being, there is a significant potential audience to be attracted to Bridgehaugh whether as spectators or as aspiring players.
“We have our own area, our own region – we’re hopefully the Super6 club for the whole of the central belt, and not only the Forth Valley but further afield into the Highlands and the Caledonia region as well,” Cairns continued. “We’ve got a good catchment area: the challenge of that is the logistics.”
Another challenge for the former Scotland centre has been how to work with a squad that began to be assembled some time ago, but in some senses has had to mark time while waiting for its competitive debut to come around. “I came into the role in January. A lot of these players haven’t played a competitive game since March, so it’s been a long build-up. We were really keen to make sure they had a decent amount of time off, because we’re very conscious we’re pretty much in competition for a 14-month spell now.
“We’re pretty happy with where we’re at. We’ve had some good tests: we’ve played three of the other Super6 teams already and had a trip to Newcastle, which was a big test for us but a really good opportunity for the guys to see where they’re trying to get to.”
So where are Cairns and County trying to get to in this inaugural season of the tournament? Success on the pitch is part of the aim, of course, and if that comes, it will make it easier to attract more players and spectators.
“From a rugby perspective, my KPIs [key performance indicators] are going to be about how many guys we get coming through and pushing on to further honours, how many guys we get coming through the pro ranks, and how many come all the way through out youth section into the Accies and Wolves teams. If we can get that working, then that will be a measure for us.
“In terms of the whole tournament, it needs to be a better product – it needs to be more entertaining, energise crowds and get the support along for it. We’ve all got to see it as a challenge to drive numbers into our stands. Boroughmuir have done a good drive on getting people in, so we hope to see a big crowd at that first game, and then it snowballs from there. We plan to have a big crowd at our first home game on the 16th [against the Southern Knights] and there’s a big drive to get the student population down to watch as well. It’s also the club’s Ladies’ Day, and the Accies and the Wolves are at home as well, so we’d hope to have a good crowd for that first home game. Then it’s about building from there.”