THESE two teams have already met each other twice this season with honours even, so Saturday’s RBS cup final between Gala and Ayr looks way too close to call.
Oddly enough both teams won away from home in the league, Ayr by 13-20 at Netherdale and Gala by 29-40 at Millbrae, albeit only after the referee had fished three cards from his pocket, one of them red. Still, neither side will relish being drawn out of the hat as the home team for next Saturday’s Murrayfield final.
The two clubs have enjoyed different fortunes of late. Gala last lifted the silverware in the previous millennium, 1999 to be exact, while Ayr are hoping to be the first club to make it a hat trick of victories following their success in 2010 and 2011. (Does a win mean they get to keep the cup?)
There are intriguing head to heads right across the pitch and Ayr’s Zimbabwean international prop Denton Mutamangira should prove a stiff test for Gala’s front row. According to Ayr coach Kenny Murray he schooled with the Springbok favourite Tendai “the Beast” Mtawarira, he has a dozen Zimbabwe caps to his name and is a crowd favourite at Millbrae. But the final outcome may well depend upon who gets the upper hand in the battle of the scrum-halves between George Graham, son and namesake of Gala’s coach, and Ayr’s 19-year-old No 9 Murray McConnell. The youngster is already on Glasgow’s books as an apprentice and this particular Murray is very obviously in a hurry.
Despite his tender age McConnell has been the coming man for several years. He first played for West of Scotland in the Premier One as a 16-year-old schoolboy – which can’t have done his popularity any harm – he played a pre-season match for Glasgow one year later and he has come off the bench for Sean Lineen’s side a couple of times in the current RaboDirect campaign, good going for a man who missed almost the whole of last season.
“I had a bulging disc in my back”, says the teenager, “and, while there was never any doubt that it would settle eventually, it took its time doing so. It meant that I missed almost the whole of last season after making a couple of early appearances. I still rehab the back now but there has been no reoccurrence and it’s just not an issue.”
McConnell played in both matches against Gala and remembers thinking that the Netherdale half of the double header had been easier than expected. The same could not be said of the return fixture. Ayr were on the receiving end of a 40-point shellacking at Millbrae and, while it didn’t help matters, much of the damage had already been done before prop Gordon Reid was red-carded.
“We got a bit of a doing off Gala second time round but that only gives us more incentive to give them one this time,” says McConnell with some feeling. “We have looked at the video a few times and when you concede 40 points you aren’t going to win many matches.
“We let in some soft, soft scores that day and hopefully everyone will be on their toes in the cup final and won’t miss any tackles. I missed one on my opposite number who then scored beneath the posts. George is a good player and I’m looking forward to mixing with him in the final.”
Ayr are a little like Edinburgh this season with an excellent cup run accompanied by some pretty ordinary league form. They finished in sixth place with no chance of revisiting their British and Irish Cup heroics against Plymouth and Bristol next season. The men in pink thumped Plymouth on the south coast by a point and doubled the margin when they beat Bristol at Millbrae.
After West were relegated the allure of the British and Irish Cup was what took McConnell to Ayr in the first place but he insists that he’s unlikely to switch allegiance, despite the fact that Stirling County are not only closer to his Glasgow home but Bridgehaugh could host B&I Cup action next season. The SRU has proposed that four Scottish clubs enter the competition and they are waiting for the other unions to respond. For now McConnell’s entire attention is focused on the business in hand.
“I’m excited by the prospect of playing at Murrayfield,” says McConnell. “The guys who were there for the last two cups wins all say what an amazing atmosphere there is in the ground on cup final day. It will be the first time I have played there in my career.”
It may well be the first but not, you suspect, the last.