THE BRITISH and Irish Cup might remain a curious mis-match of professional and semi-professional clubs from across the UK and Ireland, but according to a returning Ayr talent it is providing a new window of ambition for the Scottish game.
One of the key problems in Scottish rugby since the advent of professionalism has been how to inspire and motivate club sides after interest dropped alarmingly when the leading players in the country were swept into a new pro tier. The British and Irish Cup has provided a new higher tier for the top three clubs and nowhere is that more apparent than at Ayr, who launch this weekend into their third consecutive competition.
They do so off the back of indifferent league form but with much positive movement behind the scenes, underlined by the recruitment of former Glasgow apprentice Colin White in the summer. White was born in Irvine and played for Whitecraigs before he moved to Stirling to study and took up with the Bridgehaugh club.
A talented back row, he was signed by the SRU as a young apprentice and trained full-time but played at Ayr and on the IRB World Sevens Series with Scotland. However, with the SRU drawing the purse-strings tight, he was released and left for Italy, where he played for three years.
“I went to Italy because I wanted to try something new,” he explained, “and I enjoyed it, but as a foreign player you’re reliant on year-to-year contracts and that uncertainty’s not easy, so I decided to come home this year and Ayr were looking to launch a rugby academy. So I manage that, I play for the club and I help with marketing and sponsorship at the club which allows me to work in the game still, and the academy is very exciting.
“We have loads of kids playing rugby in Ayrshire now. Stuart Fenwick [Ayr’s schools development officer] is doing a great job promoting rugby around the schools and I have 31 boys aged from 13 up to 20, 21 in the academy, where we work them in small groups with skills, strength and conditioning, sports psychology, nutrition work.
“These are areas that club coaches don’t have the time to do at this level, so I think it is very positive of Ayr to take on that role. I am working with SRU people as well to share information and learn from what they are doing, and combine that with my own experiences as a player.”
Now 27, White lives in Glasgow with internationalists Ruaridh Jackson and Moray Low, and watching the highs and lows they have endured has helped persuade him that even if there were opportunities, professional rugby is no longer for him. He is excited, however, at playing a part in developing the next generation of professionals from Ayrshire, while also playing at a decent level.
That last statement might be suspect considering Ayr were thumped at the weekend at Stirling, which is not ideal preparation for their opening British and Irish Cup match away to Plymouth Albion on Saturday. White said: “It has been disappointing but we’re rebuilding a front five with Gordon Reid and Pat McArthur away to the Warriors, Nick Cox retiring, Damien Kelly away and Scott Sutherland injured, and Josh Dunning and Rob Colhoun also injured right now. That’s why I’ve been playing second row.
“But there is more to come and a lot of excitement about the [British and Irish] Cup. It will be really hard, with Plymouth, Munster and Cross Keys. Ayr’s victory last year over Doncaster and draw with Rotherham – professional teams – shows what they are capable of. It’s a great opportunity for the Scottish game and young, ambitious players. It is a way to promote themselves for pro rugby, like Gordon Reid did last year to earn a contract with the Warriors.
“I have boys in the academy who are getting a chance because of injuries, and they are excited; guys like Robbie Ferguson, Pete McCallum and Blair McPherson, who with time and experience are capable of going on and becoming professionals. No 8 Graham Fisken is another, and Ross Curle, who played in Viadana and for Scotland at sevens, are a bit older but they have the ability to play pro.
“I remember speaking to agents as a youngster, and they said no-one sees you in club rugby in Scotland, but if you play in the British and Irish Cup they will see you, and if you play well it helps your prospects.”
Currie and Melrose are also in the competition again this year with Ally Donaldson’s men away to Leeds and Bedford visiting the Greenyards on Sunday (2pm).