George Graham awakens ‘sleeping giant’ and now wants Gala to lift cup

Mark Stewart and Opeta Palepoi get to grips with RBS National Cup (PA)
Mark Stewart and Opeta Palepoi get to grips with RBS National Cup (PA)
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GALA head coach George Graham has stood on the Murrayfield turf and cried with sheer emotion and he has walked off it in tears at the frustration of losing.

That was in a Scotland jersey. Tomorrow afternoon he will be in charge of a callow Gala side there against Ayr in the Scottish Cup final.

Gala have defied the odds by pushing for the Premier One title in their first season back in the top flight. They will contest the Border League Final with Hawick next Wednesday night and spend the summer preparing for a first involvement in the British and Irish Cup.

It is a remarkable record and one which Graham believes shows that a sleeping giant of Scottish rugby has awoken.

As ever, he is engaging and thoughtful ahead of the big game, but remains the same ball of fiery ambition that he was as a player in both rugby union and league as well as when he was a coach with the Borders and Scotland.

He knows he faces a major challenge to guide his side past Ayr, the cup winners of the past two years, but he is relishing this as much as any other challenge in his career.

He said: “I told the boys on Tuesday night that when the late Duncy Paterson [legendary Gala scrum-half] first spoke to me in 2004, when I came to the club, he told me that Gala was a sleeping giant. Well, now that giant has woken up and it will not be sleeping again for a long time. It’s great for me as a coach to be involved with a team fighting for silverware, and to work with these boys is an absolute joy. They can be incredibly frustrating with guys who can’t make it one week because they go on holiday or have organised a stag do, which they don’t realise drives me insane.

“But I have a deep desire for winning and I have a deep desire for the boys on the field to experience winning. That’s never changed whatever level I’ve been at. I see my job as a coach as being about helping them to play at the highest level of rugby they can, be the best player they can and maybe experience some of the things I’ve been able to experience in my career.

“I am hard on them and I make no bones about it, but it’s about trying to get the best out of them. If they don’t give it to me I let them know, and whether that works for everybody I don’t know and whether it works for Gala I don’t know. You’d have to ask them.”

Two cup finals, a third-place finish in the league, two wins out of three over neighbours Melrose and a place in the British and Irish Cup suggests it is working but Graham admitted that he was still disappointed not to have added the league title to their haul.

He has tried to lighten the mood around Netherdale this week, and while he has experienced many occasions at Murrayfield as a player and coach, his ability to keep a relatively young squad relaxed ahead of what will be the biggest game in virtually all of their careers will be a key test of his management skills.

Kenny Murray does not have the same concern as almost his entire Ayr squad experienced Murrayfield’s Cup Finals Day both last season and the one before. His challenge may be to ensure they are as buoyant and excited having already won the trophy twice in a row, beating Melrose on both occasions.

“The majority of our boys have the experience of the final,” acknowledged Murray, “but this isn’t just a rugby match. It’s all the build-up and the experience of the whole day and you do need to keep your feet on the ground. But, the key thing remains performance. We have been very up and down this season, and so it’s not been a good season by the standards we have set ourselves in recent seasons.

“We set out to win the league and get into the British and Irish Cup, and we haven’t achieved either. The other big goal was to retain the Scottish Cup and the boys know they have one more chance to get something from this season. We have won a trophy in each of the past four seasons and, if we don’t take this chance, we will not win anything this time, so there is a lot of fire in the belly. People will see Gala as favourites because they beat us well the last time we met but we gave away soft tries so it doesn’t worry me too much.”