NOT everybody would relish the winter trip from Ayr to Plymouth, but Kenny Murray is one of life’s little coiled springs of exuberance when he starts talking about rugby challenges in the British & Irish Cup.
The Millbrae club may have struggled with injuries this season, in addition to losing several of their talismanic performers to retirement or professionalism, but they demonstrated their resilient qualities again at the weekend by transforming a 17-10 deficit into an 18-17 victory over Plymouth Albion, with Glasgow’s Johnnie Beattie powering his path to the try line in the last five minutes of the feisty encounter.
The sight of the barnstorming No.8 in his element was one of the significant pluses of the lengthy trek for Murray, though he appreciates that the Scotland player might have preferred a berth in the Warriors ranks for their Heineken Cup tussle with Bath.
Yet, if there was any sense of injustice festering beneath the surface, Beattie kept it well concealed.
“His attitude, his application and his work ethic were all first-rate and I can’t overstate the influence which he had on our squad. The Plymouth pack were a big unit, they featured at least one lad who had played in the World Cup [for Canada], and they did their best to get physical with John, but he just dusted himself down, kept battling away, and eventually gained his reward,” said Murray.
“Sometimes, these pro guys don’t really want to be here, turning out for clubs, but Johnnie and Jon Welsh both did their best to feel part of the team, they were with us on the journey down, they relaxed with us afterwards, and you won’t hear a bad word about either of them from Ayr’s players, management or supporters.
“To be honest, we would like to have them both back for Saturday’s [home] match against Cross Keys, because that will be another very tough fixture for us, but we recognise that they want to be involved in European action and you can hardly fault them for that.”
With Melrose also orchestrating a heroic fightback to defeat Bedford in the same competition on Sunday, Scotland’s club representatives have definitely punched above their weight, and no organisation has adapted better than the Ayr men, who have also claimed wins over Rotherham, Doncaster and Birmingham-Solihull since the cross-border tournament was launched.
The majority of these clubs boast greater strength in depth than their Caledonian counterparts, and yet, as Murray argues, there isn’t a massive gulf between the best amateur performers and those who earn their living from rugby.
“We found out later that 70% of the Plymouth boys were full-time professionals, and the other 30% were on part-time pro contracts, so there is no doubt this event is a step up from what we are used to in the Premiership, but we managed to cope, and so did Melrose. The fact that we both rallied from conceding early points perhaps showed that it took us a little bit of time to get up to speed with these English opponents, but we managed it soon enough,” said Murray.

“I was a bit frustrated when we fell behind, but we were playing into a strong wind in the first half and when we cut the deficit to 17-5 before the interval, I fancied our chances. We’ve a lot of youngsters in the ranks, but they can only learn quicker from these sort of experiences.
“Now we have to prepare for Cross Keys, who beat Moseley by 40 points, so we have no illusions about their threat. But that’s one of the things I love about this event; the fact that you are constantly coming up against new clubs and travelling to places you would never normally visit. You never know what will happen from one week to the next. It’s terrific.”
There’s no need to look any further than Ayr and Melrose, who defeated strong English opponents in the British & Irish Cup over the course of the weekend. Hawick also notched up their maiden victory of the season against Selkirk.
The British & Irish Cup is a tremendous innovation [of which Scotland has three participants]. But the vast majority of the country’s clubs now have to wait until January to resume action. Is this really the best means of promoting the grassroots game?