Smith: I have to se­lect my best play­ers

He­riot’s coach de­fends Cochrane role

The Herald - Herald Sport - - RUGBY UNION - DAVID BARNES

WHILE He­riot’s un­ques­tion­ably en­joyed their BT Cup fi­nal suc­cess at Mur­ray­field last week­end and Ayr, who lost out to Mel­rose in the semis, would cer­tainly have loved to have been there too, nei­ther club made any se­cret of the fact that to­day’s Premier­ship grand fi­nal at Mill­brae is the one that re­ally mat­ters.

Win­ning the cup is nice — but be­ing league cham­pi­ons is the proof that you are top dogs.

There is cer­tainly much at stake and He­riot’s coach Phil Smith has stuck to his guns over the thorny is­sue of parachut­ing the vastly ex­pe­ri­enced Ed­in­burgh pro­fes­sional Neil Cochrane into his squad for the first time this sea­son last week­end, with the 32-yearold on the bench again this af­ter­noon. Cochrane is ex­pected to take the field sooner rather than later, as He­riot’s go hunt­ing for the dou­ble.

Smith is hop­ing that the man who has cap­tained Ed­in­burgh on a num­ber of oc­ca­sions dur­ing the last two sea­sons can make as big an im­pact this time out as he did last week.

How­ever, the coach was also at pains to point out that while Cochrane clearly added value to the team, the sug­ges­tion that he sin­gle­hand­edly won the match for He­riot’s is well wide of the mark.

“He scored two tries but they were not Neil Cochrane tries,” said Smith. “They were He­riot’s for­ward pack tries. They got to­gether and drove the line-out and he was at the back to get the ball down.

“Of course, he made a dif­fer­ence. He is a good player with a lot of ex­pe­ri­ence and that is why we picked him. He won us a few turnovers, he hit his line-outs, but the re­ally big thing he did — which I did not ap­pre­ci­ate un­til I spoke to the guys af­ter­wards — is that he brought a calm­ness when things were get­ting a bit tense and the play­ers were be­gin­ning to feel the pres­sure.

“He helped ev­ery­one re­fo­cus by say­ing ‘It is fine. It is all un­der con­trol. This is what we need to do. If we do that, every­thing is go­ing to be OK’. It might not seem like a lot but hav­ing that voice of rea­son there at cru­cial mo­ments can be the dif­fer­ence be­tween win­ning and los­ing.”

Smith ad­mit­ted that telling club stal­wart Ste­wart Mus­tard that he was go­ing to miss out so that Cochrane could be in­cluded in the squad was a hor­ri­ble mo­ment but felt that he had lit­tle choice in the mat­ter.

Smith said: “We play within the rules that are laid out for us. My job is to pick the best team avail­able to me to win the most games pos­si­ble — and when Neil was re­leased by Ed­in­burgh for the match, that meant putting him in the squad. That is the na­ture of com­pet­i­tive sport.”

It should be pointed out that Cochrane’s op­po­site num­ber last week­end was Ge­orge Turner — a fel­low Ed­in­burgh pro­fes­sional, although sig­nif­i­cantly less ex­pe­ri­enced — and Ayr have se­lected James Mal­colm, who has played in 13 games for Glas­gow War­riors this sea­son, at hooker for to­day’s match.

He­riot’s also have Glas­gow War­riors pair­ing Ja­son Hill and Glenn Bryce in their squad. But as both those play­ers have long-stand­ing con­nec­tions with the club and have played a num­ber of games at this level al­ready this sea­son, their selections are not quite so con­tro­ver­sial. For­mer He­riot’s star Ju­nior Bu­lumakau, who has played four times for Glas­gow War­riors this year, is on the wing for the hosts.

Us­ing club rugby as a ve­hi­cle for giv­ing pro­fes­sional play­ers game time is es­tab­lished prac­tice, and is gen­er­ally wel­comed by the clubs in the top flight as a way of rais­ing stan­dards.

How­ever, the prob­lem is in defin­ing the sce­nar­ios when it starts to com­pro­mise the in­tegrit y of the com­pe­ti­tion.

Per­haps a sys­tem sim­i­lar to the pro­to­col for play­ers dual reg­is­tered at club level — whereby they are not al­lowed to play for the lower-ranked side in the last three league games of the sea­son or in the quar­ter-fi­nal stages or be­yond of the cup, un­less they have played at least 50 per cent of their pre­vi­ous 1st XV matches with that club — is worth con­sid­er­ing.

Ayr are at home to­day by virtue of fin­ish­ing nine points clear at the sum­mit of the Premier­ship ta­ble at the end of the reg­u­lar sea­son.

And they made an im­pres­sive dec­la­ra­tion of in­tent when blast­ing Mel­rose aside three weeks ago in their play-off semi-fi­nal.

How­ever, their slip-up against the same op­po­si­tion in the BT Cup semi­fi­nal the week be­fore that shows that they are fal­li­ble if the op­po­si­tion can stop them build­ing up a full head of steam early on.

Ayr have won the last three en­coun­ters be­tween th­ese two teams — but He­riot’s re­fusal to ac­cept de­feat means that only a fool­hardy punter would wa­ger more than their pocket change on the out­come.

UN­RE­PEN­TANT: He­riot’s coach Phil Smith has de­fended his de­ci­sion to pick Ed­in­burgh’s Neil Cochrane

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