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Rugby football is coming home for Scotland hopeful

FOR most of the last 150 years, Ayrshire has been one of the unsung heartlands of Scottish rugby.

Mark Bennett, centre, joins Alasdair Dickinson, left, Matt Scott, right and kids from Kilmarnock Rugby FC to promote Scotland's Test match against Tonga. Picture: SNS
Mark Bennett, centre, joins Alasdair Dickinson, left, Matt Scott, right and kids from Kilmarnock Rugby FC to promote Scotland's Test match against Tonga. Picture: SNS

Its roll of honour when it comes to producing Scottish internationalists can match most equivalent regions, but it has not seen a representative match since Glasgow played there in 1954 and has never played host to a full Test — until now.

The announcement that the Scottish Rugby Union are to host Tonga in Kilmarnock is sure to energise the local rugby community and produce a surge of interest in the sport — or at least, that is the firm expectation from Mark Bennett, a product of the area's development system after going to school in the town and playing most of his senior rugby at Ayr before heading into professional ranks with Glasgow.

"It will be great for the community. There is a vibrant support for rugby in Ayrshire, so to bring a game of the scale of this one to Kilmarnock is great," he said. "It will help to grow the game in this area, there is no doubt about that."

Kilmarnock's and Ayrshire's long association with the sport is demonstrated by the name of the town's football ground, where the Tonga Test will take place - Rugby Park. When sport was first witnessed there in the 1860s, the hard and fast distinction between the two codes which exists now was still a long way from coming into being.

Though both the Association and the Rugby versions were played at the ground, it was the latter whose name was affixed to it, showing that at that time it was the one taken more seriously. It was only towards the end of the 19th century that the former started to dominate and not until 1927 that the rugby club moved out.

So, though a lot of attention will be devoted to the decision to play a full Test on a plastic pitch after the football club invested £500,000 on laying the current surface over the summer, in local terms, the real story is the re-establishment of the area's healthy rugby roots.

For Bennett, the ideal scenario would be if he were able to mark the celebration of Ayrshire rugby with a cap — maybe even his debut one. It is not an idle dream. He was close to one in the summer when he was called away from Sevens training to join the North American leg of the national team's tour and has been a regular member of international training squads for the last year.

On top of that, if Vern Cotter were to experiment in November, he is more likely to be radical against Tonga than against Argentina or New Zealand, the other opponents - though he will also heed the dire warning left over from Andy Robinson's era when the tweaked team lost and the coach paid for it with his job.

"If I was able to get selected for that game, it would be unbelievable," he said. "I went to school on the other side of Kilmarnock and did a PE course at a school just a stone's throw away, so this is home for me. I gives me a warm feeling to think of all the friends and family that would be there if that were to happen.

"The stadium looks brilliant — there are no sponsors' boards or rugby posts up, nothing like that, but it still looks outstanding. The pitch looks big as well, which means we can play a good bit of rugby and throw the ball about, which is what we would love to do. It should be special.

"The number of people you would get coming to that game from Ayrshire alone would be huge, never mind from other parts of the country. There are some big rugby clubs around here - Kilmarnock and Ayr - but also a lot of thriving smaller clubs with good numbers of players who would love to be at an event like this: Marr, Cumnock, Carrick, Irvine and all the rest.

"Imagine if they have Ayrshire guys involved as well, the likes of Pat MacArthur and Gordon Reid, who could be playing. Fingers crossed, maybe I might be playing as well. You would have a huge local contingent coming."

The pitch is bound to create interest. While Murrayfield, Twickenham, the Millennium Stadium and the Aviva Stadium have all invested in hybrid pitches, this will be the first Test on a totally plastic surface. Among the interested spectators will be representatives of the International Rugby Board who recognise that this could be the way forward for the sport, particularly in smaller, poorer rugby areas where the cost of maintaining a grass surface is prohibitive.

"The great advantage of artificial turf is that it can provide a consistent and low-maintenance alternative," Bernard Lapasset, the IRB chairman, said. "This is especially useful in parts of the world where growing and maintaining a high-quality grass surface is not straightforward. I would like to congratulate the SRU for this initiative."

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