THE days of a packed Netherdale and Gala celebrating atop Scottish club rugby are remembered only by those with particularly good memories.
It was 31 years ago that the ‘Maroons’ last won the Scottish Division One Championship, the end of a run of three titles in four years from 1979-80 to 1982-83 claimed by the likes of Jim Aitken, Tom Smith, David Leslie and Peter Dods.
But at Stirling today, they could finally return to the top of the heap if they overcome County and Melrose lose away to Aberdeen GSFP, and Heriot’s fail to pick up a bonus point at home to Glasgow Hawks.
There are other permutations but Gala supporters could be forgiven for believing that the race for the RBS Premiership is bound to run to their final match against Ayr on 22 March in any case.
Why? Because it is Stirling County they face this afternoon. County may be in eighth position and still fighting relegation, but they have had the measure of Gala on every previous meeting at Bridgehaugh. The fact that Gala’s head coach George Graham hails from Stirling only adds to the intrigue.
“I can assure that I try just as hard with the team talks and the tactics when I’m in Stirling as everywhere else,” Graham said, unnecessarily, “so it is just a bizarre twist that that ground, where I made my name, is the only one that we haven’t won at! But records are there to be broken and, while it would be wonderful to win the title and bring all those memories back for the Gala town and the people at Netherdale next month, as a coach I’d be delighted if we could wrap it up this weekend.
“I don’t expect to, simply because I expect Melrose and Heriot’s to keep pushing us all the way, but the key for me is that we go out and perform well and win, and put an end to the hoodoo.”
In the other fixtures, Currie are at home to Hawick and Edinburgh Accies travel west to Ayr, with the bottom six clubs – Accies, Hawks, Hawick, Stirling, Currie and Aberdeen – all still in the relegation mix. A good, exciting denouement is just what club supporters asked for, but one imagines few places will match Bridgehaugh for excitement.
Now an honorary ‘Maroon’, Graham is looking forward to the challenge of claiming silverware just a few miles from where he grew up, but is eager to keep his players’ feet on the ground.
“This is going to be a tough game for us,” he added. “We scored 35 points against them a couple of weeks ago, but that was in the cup at Netherdale. This is at their fortress, they are fighting for their lives and it will be another close game.
“We’ve had great close games there but we’ve not won at Stirling because they are a very good team and they don’t lost many games at home.
“It is funny that I’m going back there for such an important match. I’m a Raploch man through and through. It’s true that you can take people out of the Raploch but you can’t take the Raploch out of the people.
“I’ve been away since 1991 now and brought my family up in Carlisle, but that’s where I come from and it’s where I made my name in rugby and so I have a heartfelt respect for them. But not this weekend. In terms of being the coach of Gala, I have no interest in them at all and want us to go there and play the way we can and win. I’ve said to the players that if we win our last two games we will win the league. But they have to make it happen.”