THE influx of foreign players to Scottish rugby has long been a contentious issue due to relatively meagre resources in the game in this country, but Gala and Ayr head into battle at Murrayfield tomorrow captained by two of the most successful foreign imports to the club game.
Having worked their way up from Premier Three, Gala have relied largely on home-grown talent, but three years ago were delighted when Samoan international Opeta Palepoi decided against leaving the country when released as a pro by Glasgow and instead returned to the town he called home when with the Borders.
Ayr have invested crucial funds in a handful of overseas players in an effort to move into the contender ranks in recent years and the very fact that skipper Mark Stewart will tomorrow lead the team in their third RBS Scottish Cup Final points to an element of success.
When Ayr signed the big Kiwi centre they knew that he had played provincial level at Taranaki for seven years and enjoyed a career highlight of facing the British and Irish Lions in 2005 but, as with every overseas signing, kept their fingers crossed he would fit in well. His quality on the field has been a big part of Ayr’s success but what has kept him at Millbrae, he says, is the enjoyment of the work off the field.
He said: “It is important to get the balance not only on the field but off it where you pass on the knowledge and experience you have from your own upbringing, and help to bring through young local players.
“The experience at Ayr has been better than I expected. I came over for a season, but it has turned into three because I’ve enjoyed it, been made to feel welcome and been made to feel that I am helping to play a part in Ayr’s development as a club.
“An opportunity also opened up to study and I’m doing a sports coaching development degree in Ayr so I’ll be here next year too. I’m 31 and the body’s getting to a stage where I don’t know how much longer I’ll play, but I love Scotland and Ayr, and what they’ve done for me, and so I think I could give something back.
“For me, playing in a cup final at Murrayfield with a club you’ve come to love is up there with the Lions highlight, and to do it a third time would be just mind-blowing.”
Palepoi was more of a known quantity for Gala, having played for Samoa and come to Scotland initially to play for the Border Reivers. But bringing his two daughters up in nearby Tweedbank, he is almost considered a local.
“I agree with Mark,” said the 36-year-old. “The importance of having a foreign player lies with the experience he brings to the Scottish game from somewhere different. Whether it’s from New Zealand, Australia, Samoa like myself, it doesn’t really matter, but what I hope I bring is experience of international and pro rugby to a lot of young Scottish players.
“You need an experienced player to control a game and settle the ship a little bit to be successful, so I can understand why ambitious clubs want a player from a higher level which tends to be from overseas, but it’s also very important that you develop your own players.
“It has been important to me to be able to work with young players from the Gala area, to go out and speak about rugby and help to encourage people to think about playing the game and playing for Gala.
“It is easy for me now because I came to Galashiels in 2005 when I joined the Borders and my wife and I felt it was a nice place to raise a family, so we have put down our roots and I feel like a Gala boy now. I just hope the boys stay calm and play the way Gala can.”
Gala: A McLean; G Young, B Turner, A Emond, C Robertson; L Millar, George Graham; L Pettie, R Anderson, E McQuillin, O Palepoi (capt), C Weir, Gary Graham, G Lowrie, E Dods. Subs: P Stewart, C Keddie, D Marshall, S Cairns, C Borthwick, F Hunter, C Dods.
Ayr: G Anderson; S Manning, R Curle, M Stewart (capt), C Taylor; R Fergusson, M McConnell; D Mutamangira, S Fenwick, G Sykes, S Sutherland, C White, J Willis, R Colhoun, A Dunlop. Subs: H Wisnewski, A Kelly, G Fisken, R Doneghan, AJ Macfarlane, A Wilson, S Diez.