GALA coaches George Graham and Scott Nichol watched their young cup heroes celebrating their RBS Scottish Cup triumph on Saturday and admitted to feeling a huge sense of excitement at what lies ahead for the Borders club.
Most immediately, they have a Border League Final against Hawick on Wednesday night, but Graham is looking beyond that Philiphaugh date.
Samoan skipper Opeta Palepoi has no plans to leave, having settled in the area, but, at 36, he is old enough to be a father to some of the stars of the 24-10 final win over Ayr.
Lee Millar, the Man of the Match, is just 20, but it was hooker Russell Anderson, who came to Gala from Langholm and only recently turned 18, No8 Euan Dods, 22, and 20-year-old prop Ewan McQuillin who laid the platform for success by taking on the more experienced Ayr pack from the first scrum.
McQuillin – sin-bin occupant, final try-scorer and Man of the Match contender – and his fellow youngsters were ably assisted by team-mates who stuck in in defence and ferocious breakdown battles.
Graham said: “Historically, teams show their best when they’ve been together three years and this is the third year the majority of this team has been together. But, when you take away OP [Palepoi], Chris Weir and Andy McLean I think the average age is nearly 20, so these boys will just get better.”
Mystifyingly, what Ayr forgot to bring to their third final in a row was the commitment, accuracy and discipline that made them winners twice before.
Gala should have had more than one Craig Robertson try and Millar’s penalty and conversion from their first half domination of territory. But Ayr exposed the loss of McQuillin to a yellow card for a kick, with a try from a lineout drive by Zimbabwean prop Denford Mutamangira, converted by Robbie Fergusson. Added to an earlier penalty from Ross Curle, that left the sides tied at 10-10 at half-time.
But Ayr did not create much more. Despite the rain falling hard at the start of the second half, Gala’s half-back duo George Graham and Millar gripped the game and lifted the tempo with the technical aplomb of seasoned pros. Ayr No8 Andy Dunlop fought manfully but his side frequently coughed up ball, conceded penalties and, crucially, lost wing Andy Wilson and hooker Stuart Fenwick within minutes of each other. Millar duly kicked Gala into a 16-10 lead.
Curle missed a long-range effort and Millar hit the target again, from over 40 metres on the left, and Ayr never saw the Gala half again. Millar kept turning them with clever and skilful kicking and McQuillin crashed over for the clinching try with eight minutes left.
Graham will remember the scenes of jubilation at the finish for some time, a first big success for Gala since their first cup win in 1999. After a grizzle over how the league title slipped away the friendly wee bear admitted silverware would now be delivered to the Netherdale clubrooms earlier than he had anticipated. “When we got back up to Premier One last year all we wanted to do was stay in the top eight and then see what happened,” said Graham. “But we have kept going and kept going and have massively exceeded that expectation.
“Myself, Scott [Nichol] and everybody is working really hard but, if I’m being honest, I still think we’re two or three years young. We can get a lot better. I was disappointed with a lot of things in the final – we turned over a lot of ball at the breakdown, the scrum-half didn’t get ball away as he should have at times, our lineout didn’t function as well as it could have done and I didn’t think the ref dealt with Ayr’s slowing the game down, which stopped us getting the tempo we wanted. But our scrum was excellent – Ewan McQuillin, Russell Anderson and Luke Pettie were excellent – and I thought that was a telling factor.
“I won’t be negative because we won the biggest game in the club’s history for years, but it is nice to look at these boys and know that we’ve got more gears to find. If we can crank it up another couple of notches with playing in the British and Irish Cup, who knows where we can go?”
For Ayr coach Kenny Murray, one player was particularly noticeable by his absence, the Australian Damien Kelly, an ox of a captain who left last summer.
“Damien was a good leader, not so much in what he said but in what he did. He led by example,” said Murray. “At the moment we don’t have someone like that putting us on the front foot.
“We were lucky to go in 10-each at half-time and at that point I thought we had a chance but, when you give away so many penalties to a kicker like Lee Millar, you’re on a hiding to nothing.
“Gala were miles ahead of us and completely outplayed us and it just underlined how we need to re-fresh the team and the squad this summer.
“Teams like Gala, Dundee and Stirling County have been the stand-out teams. Melrose have been consistent again, but it’s these teams that are putting their heads above the parapet now. It’s very disappointing right now for us, but ultimately that’s good for Scottish rugby.”
It is also a wake-up call for clubs in Scotland’s two largest cities. The major club silverware is back in region of only 105,000 people, with Melrose winning RBS Premier One again, while Dundee HSFP and Stirling County have brought a new threat from Caledonia.
The SRU are optimistic of expanding Scotland’s British and Irish Cup contingent to four clubs next season, and that quartet will fly the Scottish flag, so there will be no Edinburgh or Glasgow representation for the first time.
Graham always liked a challenge and the way he has bounced back from a disappointing end to his international coaching career four years ago points to a dedication that can put Gala on a strong footing to progress further.
Scorers: Gala – Tries: Robertson, McQuillin. Pens: Millar 4. Con: Millar. Ayr – Try: Mutamangira. Pen: Curle. Con: Fergusson.
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 (all played): 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 (all used): H Wisnewski, A Kelly, G Fisken, R Doneghan, A Macfarlane, A Wilson, S Diez.
Referee: J Mathew.