Ayr put their faith in familiar faces in bid to wrest back crown

FRESHENING up is taken as read as being a priority of any coach at this point in the season and Kenny Murray has ensured some new faces will be parading their skills at Millbrae this season in the pink and black of Ayr.

But, his side's bid to win successive Scottish League titles having run aground on the Currie rock last term, he is acutely aware that too many changes can also have an unsettling effect and, as discussed elsewhere on this page, the focus on finishing in the top eight over the first 11 games of the new-look league allowed no time for easing-in.

Hence, there are no surprises in his choice of captain this season, with indefatigable lock Damien Kelly again taking up the reins. Coming through the 'in' door are also a number of players who are not entirely new. Nick Cox, the Glasgow Hawks prop, and Kiwi lock Dean Stewart, the brother of centre Mark, are new to Millbrae, but Andy Kelly, the former Glasgow prop, might come from GHA, but he is a product of the Ayr youth system. He played for the first team before being snapped up by Glasgow and while he failed to make a real breakthrough at the top level, Kelly will undoubtedly add quality and depth to the Ayr front row.

Julien Rae will not be in the side this weekend as he has a shoulder injury, but he is another making a return to the club, the back row having enjoyed some time playing in Australia, as is Richard McCallum, now back from a study-related period in France, while Johnny Manning, brother of Stephen and new signing from Cartha, is back to the family bosom.

And then there are the youngsters that Murray has high hopes for. Two 17-year-olds, Murray Beckwith from Marr College and Mark Bennett of Cumnock, have caught the eye of many across the west of Scotland and having witnessed some of the top world talent in June, in accompanying the Scotland under-20s to the World Junior Championships in Argentina, Murray is keen for Ayr to become a club renowned for bringing on Scottish talent.

"They are great talents and I don't see why we can't expose them to the top flight of club rugby this season, even if they are just out of school. They will both be given chances this season. The Under-20 championships was a great experience and although it was disappointing in that we suffered heavy defeats against South Africa and Australia, it was part of the learning curve. It also highlighted for me the whole area of how we prepare young players for that level of competition and really rammed home that we have to increase the level of intensity at which they are playing week in week out. For me, that means they have to be involved at the very least in Premier 1." Murray also spoke of the opportunity to improve his own education by meeting up with coaches from around the world, and he insisted this merely underlined the need to provide young talent with opportunities to play and express themselves in the senior game as soon as they can.The SRU, in common with the IRB directives, brought in new rules on when teenagers are able to step up to the next level of the game and, despite initial fears that this would prevent boys under 18 playing senior rugby, many, such as new Glasgow scrum-half Murray McConnell, proved last season that they could cope with the step-up, once the new strength tests were passed.

Murray acknowledges that rugby now requires a level of strength that can only be found through strenuous gym workloads, but shares the belief of many that the recent 'hot-housing' of academy prospects with more training than playing has not necessarily helped.

So, the challenge for Murray is to meld those beliefs to develop Scotland's next generation, with the simple desire at Millbrae this season to reclaim the Premier One title. They won the Scottish Cup final at Murrayfield last term, but it was the league that Ayr wanted and it is that crown they are desperate to reclaim this year. The lead provided by the more established core of Kelly, Glen Tippet, Jono Crossan, Frazier Climo and Mark Stewart will be crucial down at Hawick on Saturday to the youngsters' opportunity to play and for Murray's drive for success on several fronts to get off the starting grid.

COACHES: Kenny Muray and Peter Laverie

CAPTAIN: Damien Kelly

INS: Nick Cox (Glasgow Hawks), Andrew Kelly (GHA), Dean Stewart (Taranaki), Scott Forrest (Scotland sevens), Mark Bennett (Cumnock), Murray Beckwith (Marr), Julien Rae (Australia), Richard McCallum (back from France), Jonny Manning (Cartha QP).

OUTS: None.

DRAFT PROS: Pat MacArthur, Ryan Wilson, Richie Vernon, Fergus Thomson, Richie Gray, Johnnie Beattie (all Glasgow).

LAST SEASON: Second in league, cup winners.