AYR moved from champions into a place in rugby history last season as one of the special handful of Scottish double winners but, if anyone felt that the Millbrae faithful may have enjoyed a summer sigh of relief and “job done” reflection, they may be in for a shock.
The RBS Premiership champions for the past two seasons kick off the new campaign away to Stirling County, a vibrant club re-igniting its reputation for quality youth development and who are already popping up regularly in chat about dark horses for the new term. But Ayr are far from an old breed of rugby war horses and no-one epitomises better the lust for more trophies than 19-year-old talent Robbie Fergusson.
A Scotland under-20 performer in the past two seasons, he was drafted into Glasgow’s pre-season camp and started at full-back in the warm-up game in Aberdeen. As the internationalists work their way back into Warriors training, he has returned to Millbrae focused on his club’s bid to stretch their dominance of the Scottish club scene to three seasons on the bounce, and enter a hallowed den occupied only by legendary Hawick, Melrose and Glasgow Hawks teams.
“We have enjoyed the last couple of seasons,” he said. “It’s been great for the club but there is a real determination to defend the titles again.
“It’s going to be very difficult, of course, but it’s the challenge you want. We have the British and Irish Cup this year as well and that adds an extra incentive, but we’re definitely set on defending the league and the cup again, and having a good season in the British and Irish Cup.”
The one big difference down Millbrae way is the change of man at the top, with Peter Laverie stepping up from the assistant berth to take over from Kenny Murray, whose success at club level has been rewarded with an opportunity in the pro game at Glasgow. No-one could ever confuse Murray and Laverie, but Fergusson insists there has been little change.
“Peter has been here for the last five years anyway and he’s stepped in and put his own style into it, but a lot of the boys here have been here for a long time too, so it’s been seamless so far.
“There is a lot of knowledge here now about what it takes to win, among players and coaches. We had a great group of boys last year, as we do again this year, the management worked very well, we had a good pre-season and took that into the league and it all just snowballed from there.
“But, also, one of the main things that we’ve got is competition for places, and that keeps it fresh, keeps everyone on their toes. If you are guaranteed a place in the team every week, that’s when people might think they can relax a bit, that they’ve done it, but the number of boys we have now makes competition really hard. The second XV is also going well and looking to have a good season, and that keeps everyone going.
“And it’s good winning things, and the standard in the club game is getting higher and higher every year, so we have to keep working hard and pushing if we want to keep winning titles.”
A PE student at the University of West of Scotland, Fergusson turns 20 in a fortnight, but he is already a key member of the Ayr side. He has filled the stand-off, full-back and both centre roles, but prefers outside centre where his pace, handling and eye for a gap is possibly at its most dangerous.
“I’m pinning myself down to centre now, and I hope the majority of my time will be at 13 and maybe 12, depending on how things go injury-wise,” he said, “but we have enough competition now that I should be able to push for centre.
“I have really enjoyed being involved in pre-season training and playing my first game up in Aberdeen. It’s been a really good experience. But I see myself being at Ayr all this season, and I just want to try and have a good season with Ayr, be consistent, and hopefully push on after that.
“A lot of boys have proven that the step-up [from club to pro level] can be made. I’m good friends with Mark Bennett and he’s shown what can be done, and Finn Russell is doing really well at the minute. So the transition can be made. It’s just about doing it consistently through the season with your club.”
But Ayr are now the scalp everyone wants and, while they held off Gala, just, last season, it seem likely they will face a more consistent challenge from more sides in the race to the finishing line this time.
Fergusson is just eager to get cracking. He added: “There is a lot of excitement now with it starting this weekend, and we know it’s going to be really tough to win it again.
“I don’t think there are any favourites this season. We saw how close it was last year and I think it will be the same. Any team that plays well will have a chance of winning each week.”
Head coach: Peter Laverie
Assistants: Glen Tippett, Colin Ireland
Captain: Calum Forrester
Players in: James Malcolm (GHA), Fergus Scott (Currie), Callum Templeton (back from two-year injury), David Armstrong (Hillhead/Jordanhill), Robbie Shirra-Gibb (Melrose RFC), Graham Williamson (Cartha QP), Benn Cogley (Fettes College), Danny McCluskey, Gavin Lowe, Finlay McMillan and Stewart Penny (all under-18s).
Drafted pros: James Eddie, Ed Kalman, Mark Bennett, Jerry Yanuyanutawa, Ruaridh Jackson, Ryan Wilson, Niko Matawalu, Stuart Hogg, Alastair Kellock and Dougie Hall.
Players out: Hayden Wisnewski (New Zealand), Ross Doneghan (Darlington).
Players to watch: Scott Sutherland and Robbie Fergusson.
Ground: Malleny Park
Head coach: Ally Donaldson
Assistants: Ben Cairns, Sean Cox, Graham Hogg, Campbell Reynolds
Captain: Mark Cairns
Players in: Graham Carson (returning from Uni), David Cherry (Tynedale), George Horne (Strathallan School), Andrew McWilliam (Currie 18s), Ruaridh Smith (Oakham School), Harvey Elms (Currie 18s), Adam Alexander (Heriot-Watt University), Ethan Pollock (Waikato), Callum Kerr (Musselburgh).
Drafted pros: Jonny Gray, Tom Brown, Robin Hislop, Sean Cox, Sean Kennedy, Matt Scott, Lewis Young, Geoff Cross and Andrew Turnbull.
Players out: Gregor Hunter, Jonny Gray, James Johnstone and Dougie Fife (to pro contracts), Jamie Forbes, Mike Entwhistle (both Australia), Fergus Scott (Ayr), Alan Whiittingham (Stewart’s Melville).
Players to watch: David Cherry and Callum Kerr.
Ground: Old Anniesland.
Joint coaches: Jamie Dempsey and Jimmy Sinclair
Captain: Ross Miller
Players in: All Maclay (Hong Kong Scottish), Brendan Cullinane (Garryowen), Angus Hamilton (Melbourne Harlequins), Mateusz Bartoszek, Craig Bachurzewski (both RC Arka Gdynia, Poland) Andy Redmayne, Jack Steele, Andrew Linton (all Dundee), Robbie Houliston (Birkenhead Park), Chris McGeogh (Hamilton), John Brogan (GHA), Ryan Barr (Kilmarnock), Grant Thompson (Hutcheson’s Grammar), Paul Ramsay (Kilmarnock), James Ogilvie (Strathendrick), Zander Fagerson (Strathallan).
Drafted pros: Scott Wight, Tyrone Holmes, Finlay Gillies, Mike Cusack, Jon Welsh, Colin Gregor, Pat MacArthur, Chris Fusaro, DTH van der Merwe and Ryan Grant.
Players out: Tom Preece (Clifton, Bristol), Harry Walker (Aberdeen Grammar).
Players to watch: Peter Redmayne and Sean Yacoubian.
Head coach: Phil Smith
Assistant: Stevie Lawrie
Captain: Jack Turley
Players in: Keith Buchan, George Turner and Alex Henderson (both Boroughmuir), Murray Douglas (Aberdeen GSFP), Scott Burnside (North Berwick HS), Robbie Tait (Exile), Liam Steele (Stewart’s Melville).
Drafted pros: Kevin Bryce, Michael Maltman, James Fleming, Jack Cuthbert, Dougie Fife, Stuart McInally, Izak van der Westhuizen, Greig Laidlaw and Steven Lawrie.
Players out: Fraser Brown and Kevin Bryce (Glasgow Warriors), Struan Cessford (Aberdeen GSFP).
Players to watch: Jason Hill and Max Learmonth.
Head coach: Graeme Young
Assistants: Henry Edwards, Stevie Swindall
Captain: Alex Moffat
Players in: Will Bordill (Sale Sharks), Ali Price (Bedford), Jamie Swanson (Boroughmuir), Andy Watt (Boroughmuir), Matt Larsen and Kris Burney (both Falkirk), Billy Dineen,
Stuart Govan, Stuart Shilliday and Archie Russell (all U18s).
Drafted pros: Peter Murchie, Gabriel Ascarate, Tommy Seymour, Alex Dunbar, Tom Ryder, Duncan Weir, Richie Vernon, Peter Horne, Colin Shaw and Henry Pyrgos.
Players out: Robbie Boswell (Sweden).
Players to watch: Jamie Swanson and Stuart Edwards.