HE STARTED the season walking away from the professional game and vowing never to watch another match, but will finish it this afternoon at Murrayfield with his love of the sport wholly refreshed.
Pro rugby may be the ambition of most youngsters, but as Ayr captain Calum Forrester prepares for his first Scottish Cup Final, he is living proof that it is not the be-all and end-all. The 26-year-old was one of Scotland’s most talented teenagers when he emerged from Hutcheson’s Grammar, played for GHA and won his first caps with Scotland under-19s and under-21s and then Scotland Sevens, before signing full-time with Glasgow at 19.
Tall, skilful and with pace, he became a formidable back-rower, but one who seemed at home in any position on the sevens field. But the pro game did not quite take to him. Whether it was the fierce competition for places in Scotland’s two-team pro game or the now-expected series of injuries associated with pro rugby, Forrester never enjoyed the crucial run of starts that can turn youth promise into the quality of an established pro and Test player.
When he was released last summer, he considered other offers and turned them down. It was a dark time. He said: “The last few seasons have been tough and in my last season I was out from March until the end of November with injury, and was shown the door at the end of the 2011-12 season.
“I didn’t know what I was going to do, but I didn’t want to go away and get injured again so I decided it was time to close that chapter on my life and I’m glad that I did.
“It wasn’t easy suddenly coming to terms without that pro structure in your life, where everything was mapped out for you, where to be, what to eat, what to drink, etc, and then training at nights after nearly ten years of training in mornings.
“But watching Glasgow was the hardest bit. I went along to their first game of the season and I didn’t enjoy being there, sitting beside other non-playing players not being part of it, and I left saying to my dad that I wouldn’t be going back. But gradually I’ve begun to watch games on the TV, and it’s been great to see them doing so well.
“Being part of something special with Ayr has helped enormously. I did wonder when I came back to club rugby whether I would enjoy it the same, but it has been fantastic. This year is probably the most rugby I’ve played since I was about 12 years old. I had knee reconstruction on one knee and I am a serial kneecap dislocator with the other one, and have suffered various other injuries, but this year I’ve not had any problems and have played every minute of the league and cup.”
Now a student again at Glasgow University, Forrester was at pains to stress that he had experienced enjoyable times, too, including playing around the world with the Scotland Sevens team, and being part of the Scotland squad that won the IRB Nations Cup in Romania in 2009. Now, though, the focus is squarely on Ayr and, as much as the club has helped revitalise Forrester, the back row has played a major part in the team’s resurgence to the top of the Scottish game.
This season, players such as Forrester, George Hunter, Dean Kelbrick, Craig and Kerr Gossman and Peter Jericevich have added a quality to the spine of a team that already had top talent. They shook off Gala in the title race by beating the Borderers home and away, held the Bill McLaren Shield 17 times before recently losing it to Aberdeen Grammar and have held their nerve en route to today’s cup final by edging past Glasgow Hawks and Dundee HSFP.
Crucial to the back-row battle today, Forrester expects a tight, intense duel and said: “These are the occasions every player wants to be part of. Like us, Melrose have a good, big pack and a good back line, so it’s set up to be a great cup final.”