RICHIE Vernon will play for Stirling County in the British and Irish Cup tonight in the new position of centre, a switch which he and the Scotland coaches hope will revitalise him.
The 26-year-old made his name for Glasgow in the back row, having come through Scotland age-grade teams and gone on to win 20 full caps for at No 8 or flanker. Vernon has always been one of the quickest and most skilful players in whatever squad he has been in, if not the biggest or most powerful, which, as he stands 6ft 5in tall and weighs 16 stones, is a reflection of the modern game.
After struggling to win back a starting berth at the Warriors on his return from two years at Sale Sharks, Vernon revealed that Scotland interim head coach Scott Johnson and his Glasgow boss Gregor Townsend had offered him the chance of something different.
He said: “It has been tough since I came back up. I knew it would be and I knew you’d have to be playing very well to warrant a place in the Warriors team. While I’ve had some niggling injuries, to be honest, my form hasn’t been good enough to earn a back-row jersey consistently yet. I still back myself to be able to perform at the top level in the back row, but, when Scott and Gregor approached me and asked what I thought about moving to centre, I thought ‘why not?’
“Having played stand-off, centre and full-back as a kid, I’ve always enjoyed being out there during multi-phase stuff in a game. I’ve been training with the backs at Glasgow for the last two weeks and really enjoyed it, and I have to say watching the forwards going through 20 or so scrums this week, while I was out with the backs, brought a wee smile to my face.”
Johnson is a big fan of trying players in new positions and, if Vernon can adapt, he could offer Scotland a fresh option in a position where competition is not as intense as elsewhere.
“I’m looking forward to giving it a go,” added Vernon. “I think the last time I played centre was filling in for someone who was injured at West of Scotland about five or six years ago.
“People keep telling me defence is tougher there but there are a lot of similarities in flankers and centres these days, such as the physicality and the running lines. It’s one of those things that I think I’d regret it if I didn’t give it a go.”
Vernon will form a powerful midfield with Danny Gilmour, joined by fellow Glasgow and Scotland cap Henry Pyrgos at scrum-half. Ex-Glasgow back row Stevie Swindall is at No 8.
County lost 50-7 at home to Nottingham last week and know they face a tough assignment, but it will be interesting to see what difference Vernon makes down south in his first outing in the No 13 jersey.
Ayr head to Belfast to face Ulster’s reserve side, the Ravens, having clinched Scotland’s first British and Irish Cup win with last week’s fine 41-22 victory over the Belfast side at Millbrae.
Scott Sutherland is rested tonight due to a back knock and Nick Cox is unavailable but Denford Mutamangira is back as is Craig Gossman.
Glasgow Warriors have released Scott Wight, Finlay Gillies, James Eddie and Ayr favourite Gordon Reid so it is a strong team which has headed across the Irish Sea on a unique double hunt.
Ayr coach Peter Laverie said: “Last week’s victory at Millbrae showed some of our best rugby of the season and provided a welcome lift after the rigours of league action.
“We scored some excellent tries and put together some very good passages of play, despite conceding a try in the opening minutes.
“However, we are under no illusion about the task ahead. Ulster will be desperate to make amends in front of their home crowd and keep their British and Irish Cup qualification hopes alive, so nothing short of our best efforts will do.”
Laverie welcomed the cross-border involvement, adding: “This competition is great for the players. They really get to challenge themselves and of course it raises standards for everyone involved, and we have our goals.
“A good performance is essential before the return to league business next week and of course to give our own loyal support something to cheer.”
Edinburgh Accies and Gala play tomorrow, the Accies hosting London Welsh at Raeburn Place, while the Maroons welcome Bristol to Netherdale aiming to regain some pride after a heavy defeat in Bristol.
Stirling County (v Nottingham at 8pm): B Archibald; M Lamb, R Vernon, D Gilmour, R Hughes; F Lyle, H Pyrgos; K Burney, R Kennedy, C Hutton, R Leishman, E Dewar, S Robertson, S McDonald, S Swindall. Subs: J Bhatti, R Murray, W Bordill, J Dunn, A Watt, J Hope C Robertson.
Ayr (v Ulster at Deramore Park, 7.30pm): G Anderson (capt); R Dalgleish, R Fergusson, F Russell, R Curle; S Wight, P Jericevich; G Hunter, F Scott, D Rae, C Templeton, G Williamson, J Eddie, A Dunlop, P McCallum. Subs: F Gillies, G Reid, D Mutamangira, B Cogley, M McConnell, K Gossman, C Gossman.