Heriot’s play-off victory a great advert for club game

The Heriot's players congratulate Charlie Simpson after he scored a crucial try against Ayr
The Heriot's players congratulate Charlie Simpson after he scored a crucial try against Ayr
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There may be a few outstanding fixtures with some promotions and relegations down the leagues still to be determined but the curtain effectively came down on the club season with Heriot’s double-clinching victory in the BT Premiership final at Ayr.

It was an agonising finale for the Millbrae men in the second year of the play-off system as the regular season frontrunners were ambushed 29-26 by a Heriot’s side who had finished third but were driven on by the momentum of a perfectly-timed run of winning form.

There was frustration from the Ayr coaching staff and players and anger amongst the vocal home crowd about the late penalty try which handed the crown to the defending league champions, adding an extra ingredient of controversy to the mix of an occasion which served up genuine entertainment.

Victorious coach Phil Smith was right when he said the end-to-end contest was a great advert for Premiership rugby and, at a time when it is increasingly difficult to get coverage in a rugby landscape dominated by the international and pro game, the nation’s clubs are doing an admirable job of fighting their corner.

Seasoned observers of the domestic scene have noted an upturn in quality in the last couple of years and there does seem to have been positive strides in making the Premiership more of a stepping stone to the professional tier.

The top clubs like Heriot’s now view themselves as semi-pro and, while they may still be closer to amateur than pro on the sliding scale, the aim is clearly to shift the pendulum more and more the other way.

But the issue of pros playing for clubs is a thorny one which has attracted biting criticism from certain quarters. The now former Gala coach George Graham didn’t hold back when he launched a scathing attack on the system back in January, describing the lottery of professional allocation through the draft system as “an absolute joke” which distorted the league.

It cropped up again last weekend when experienced Edinburgh hooker Neil Cochrane scored both Heriot’s tries in their cup final win over Melrose. That was Cochrane’s first game for the Goldenacre club all season and he was back in the blue and white hoops scoring again at Millbrae on Saturday.

Other coaches are far more relaxed about the state of affairs. John Dalziel of Melrose spoke about the desire to “professionalise” the league in the wake of that cup final loss.

After Saturday’s triumph, Smith said: “This year has been difficult because of the World Cup and the way it was structured. Nobody knew who they were getting from the start of the season.

“Hopefully, next season we will know who we are getting. If we can fix that I think it will be easier on the supporters.

“It has worked well for us the last couple of weeks. It’s just part of the game.”

His Ayr counterpart Calum Forrester was equally sanguine and said: “It’s about building the link between the Premiership and the pro game, these guys need to play.

“I think we have shown that we have a good track record with guys getting an opportunity to step up.

“This is a good hunting ground for young players in the west, and that’s the opportunity we want to give.”

A Scottish Rugby spokesperson said: “We are content with the league structure in place with a ten-team BT Premiership and play-off system but, as always, we welcome suggestions and feedback from the clubs through the established and respective forums.”

The double success was another feather in the cap of Smith, who earlier this year led the Scotland Club XV to a historic double over England and Ireland and he has said he would be keen to continue in the role next year.