Gala test ensures Ayr are focused for cup semi

AYR cruised into the last four comfortably in the end against Gala, but the scare of the first hour was enough for the club to feel a bit apprehensive about the visit today of Heriot's.

The Millbrae side were without their talismanic skipper Damien Kelly, an Australian whose body shape harks back to another generation but whose skills, power and sheer desire regularly earn him man-of-the-match awards at whatever level of the game he performs at. It is, therefore, of some relief to the Ayr faithful that he is back from injury this week and will be at the centre of the club's bid to reach a first cup final.

Heriot's are the reigning champions and should they progress and Melrose overcome Currie at the Greenyards, Murrayfield would witness its third consecutive final featuring those pair. Clearly, Ayr and Currie are out to break the hegemony and they have proven this season in dominating Premier One they certainly have the arsenal to do it.

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Kenny Murray, the Ayr coach, also welcomes back Ross Curle and Grant Anderson from Scotland sevens duty, and Scott Nimmo from injury.

"Last week's result against Gala did not truly reflect the match. Our performance was well below par and Gala were, for large periods, the better side, admitted Murray.

"But, this week we're at home and Ayr have never been in this position before, having previously been drawn away from home and lost. We fully realise that we've got a great opportunity to reach the final, but we must overcome a strong Heriot's side that have been one of the in-form teams over the past few months.

"They've got some very dangerous players in Rory Hutton, Colin Goudie and Marc Teague so our defence will have to at its best to keep them at bay."

Ayr and Heriot's are the two Scottish sides that have played in the inaugural British and Irish Cup and Murray believes the intensity experienced there could add to the quality of this semi-final. It is no surprise that he picked out Hutton among those to watch, but it may be a surprise to those who have not seen Heriot's lately that the playmaker starts today on the bench.

Bob McKillop, the Heriot's coach, is now in Milan coaching the Scotland under-19s, and Heriot's will today be in the capable hands of Hawick duo Roddy Deans and John Houston. But McKillop explained the reasoning behind starting Hutton on the bench.

"Rory is obviously a fine player," he said, "but he's not been around the club for a long time either through injury or playing sevens with Scotland, and we've been performing very well recently and Greig Rutherford has been a huge part of those performances so he deserves to start.

"Playing away from home against Ayr is about as tough as it gets in Scottish club rugby but our guys are rightly confident. We know we have to put all the bits and pieces together"

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Ayr: G Anderson; J McLung, R Curle, M Stewart, C Taylor; F Climo, J Hunter; G Reid, S Adair, S Fenwick, D Kelly (capt), S Sutherland, J Crossan, A Dunlop, G Tippett. Subs: P Burke, S Nimmo, G Sykes, D Steele.

Heriot's FP: C Goudie; M Teague, P Saunders, R Mill, M Nimmo; G Rutherford, G Wilson (capt); A Dymock, K Bryce, W Blacklock, P O'Connor, C Osazuwa, M Maltman, C Fusaro, J Syme. Subs: N Meikle, M Welch, M Reid, S Johnson, R Hutton.