WHEN Tommy Spinks decided at the tail end of last season that he would be moving from Glasgow Hawks to Ayr during the summer, he said his desire to win trophies and push his rugby forward by competing for game-time in one of the strongest squads in the league were two key driving factors in his decision.
It was hard to fault his logic at the time. The Millbrae men were battling it out with Melrose in a two team breakaway at the top of the BT Premiership table, and although they ended up finishing second at the conclusion of the regular season they managed to pip the Borderers at the post in the play-off Grand Final to be crowned champion team of Scotland.
However, the wisdom of his decision is not looking quite as rock solid now, with Ayr floundering in the lower half of the league having lost two of their first three games of the current campaign. Despite this, Spinks has warned the rest of the league that they write-off his new club at their own peril.
“I think when any team has new players, and new relationships they are trying to form, then it is not always going to go exactly the way they want it to go initially. And when it doesn’t quite go to plan it is only natural for people to start asking questions. But everyone at Ayr has remained pretty calm about our situation, we’ve not got ahead of ourselves on the negative side of things,” says the back-row forward.
“The club has been very strong in recent years and there is an expectation about winning so when that suddenly stops happening it becomes a big thing – but we recognise that we have played two very strong teams who have wanted the match more than us on the day. It comes down to the fact that we can’t live off reputation – we can’t just go out and win games based on what happened last season or the season before, because the standard of the league is developing all the time.”
“The pack needs to step up to be a lot more aggressive and dominant. I have no doubt we have the ability within the squad, and the coaches are doing a fantastic job keeping us positive. There is a really ferocious determination to right a couple of the wrongs that have happened so far this season, and I expect Saturday [against Currie Chieftains] to be a good reflection of that.”
The fact that one of these early season set-backs was a first home defeat to Hawks since December 2005 must have been particularly tough for Spinks to take, but he shows his class by applauding his old team.
“I’d like to think I was the first person to congratulate them: they absolutely deserved it. There’s no doubt about it. They came out firing and we were very slow to react,” he says.
“The decision process to move to Ayr was incredibly difficult for me,” he continues. “I was captain of the team and had a great relationship with the coaches and players, but the reality is that Hawks were not at the same level as Ayr and Melrose last year, and as a player you want to push yourself as much as you can. You want to play at as high a level as possible, whilst you can.”
“I believe that the move to Ayr will help my development – I’m only 23 so there is a lot I still want to do in the game, like win titles.”
“I am very happy with my decision: we lost to Hawks the other week but I don’t think we’ll lose to them again. If anything, that defeat has just made me a little bit more determined – put a little bit more fire in the belly – for next time.”
Spinks started playing rugby in his native North Berwick, attended Fettes College in Edinburgh on a full-time scholarship between 2010 and 2012, and signed his first professional contract with London Scottish whilst still at school. He played nine 1st XV games during two seasons in Richmond, and took part in consecutive Junior World Cup campaigns for Scotland Under-20, captaining the team in New Zealand in 2014, ahead of moving back north on an Elite Development Programme contract the following season.
He managed a couple of games for Glasgow Warriors off the bench during the 2014-15 campaign, and had a short period on loan to the Ospreys, but then decided that another change of scene was required in order to really push his credentials for a full-time pro contract in Scotland.
“I wasn’t playing as much as I wanted and I was maybe a little bit frustrated by that, so I made the move to Jersey Reds [playing in the second-tier English Championship], which I thought was going to be a fantastic opportunity to play at a high standard week-in and week-out to really show my worth. But life doesn’t always work out how you planned, unfortunately.”
“I broke my foot and suffered some pretty bad ligament damage round my left ankle during the build-up to the first game of the season, which left me out the team for three months, and after that I really struggled to get to a level where I could see myself progressing.”
“Hindsight is a wonderful thing and maybe I could have held out to see what opportunities came up around Scotland, but all you can do is learn from the decisions you make because you do have to live with them.”
When old pal Fin Gillies got in touch at the end of that first season in Jersey to ask if he was ready to return home, Spinks didn’t take much persuading.
“I had a great relationship with Fin, and I wanted to be playing regular rugby and feel valued. So, I made the move and started enjoying my rugby again. I’m incredibly grateful to Fin and Hawks for that,” he states.
All of which made it even tougher when Ayr came calling. To Spinks’ credit, he could have kept quiet about his plans until the season was done, but that wouldn’t have sat easily with him – especially as Hawks were due to play Ayr in both the cup and league play-off semi-finals during the next few weeks. So, he met Gillies for a pint and broke the news.
“Fin was the first person I told. I just made it very clear why I was making the decision. I wasn’t asking him to agree, I was asking him to respect the decision I was making. I just felt that in that instance I had to be selfish, and now that the dust has settled I think he can accept it. The fact that he got that win over Ayr probably makes it a bit easier!”
It is safe to say that Gillies was pretty unimpressed at the time. Spinks was relieved of captaincy duties before the cup match, and although he was one of the team’s best performers in that game he was dropped out of the squad altogether for the play-off encounter. However, the bear hug between the two after the game at Millbrae two weeks ago indicates that the friendship has endured.
Spinks currently works as a technical recruiter – ‘finding people to build computers in the Glasgow area’ – but still harbours ambitions of testing himself in the professional environment again. And he has been around the block enough times to know that the only way he is going to have a chance to do that is by concentrating on the here and now.
His own form has actually been pretty good this season, but it is much easier to catch the eye whilst playing in a winning side.
“It is a really important match this weekend. It is an opportunity to show the rest of the league that we are still the best team here – the team they have to beat. We are determined to get back to the confident Ayr which other teams don’t want to be on the same pitch as,” he vows.
“The Chieftains have really stepped up the last couple of seasons, they’ve got some exciting players and they are playing really well at the moment. I don’t think there is a better match for us to show the rest of the league that we’re not finished yet.”