A YEAR of challenges lie ahead for South Ayrshire’s rugby players as they bid to climb back to the top of the tree after a tough end to 2022.

The Ayrshire Bulls are licking their wounds after losing the FOSROC Super 6 Championship title they won in 2021 in a pulsating climax to this season’s competition in November.

At club level, Ayr’s first XV ended the old year level on points with leaders Kelso in National League Division One, but with one more game played than their rivals – and plenty of work to do in the new year if they’re to finish the season in top spot and gain promotion to the Premiership.

And in the top flight itself, Marr are hoping for a significant turnaround in fortunes if they’re to secure the top four place they need to have a chance of retaining the title they won in thrilling fashion against Currie Chieftains in April.

The Bulls finished the regular Super 6 season two points behind Watsonians after winning nine of their 10 games, with the top two finishers’ only defeats of the regular season being against each other.

A 17-0 win in the play-off semi-finals against Boroughmuir earned the Millbrae men a place in the final against the Myreside club – but injuries to Richie Simpson, Bobby Beattie, Andy Stirratt and captain Blair MacPherson eventually left the Bulls with too much to do, with the Edinburgh side scoring three extra-time tries to win after the teams were tied 24-24 at the end of 80 minutes of edge-of-the-seat entertainment.

At the top level of the amateur club game, Marr’s 36-25 win over Currie Chieftains in the Tennent’s Premiership final at Malleny Park in April was a moment nobody involved with the Troon club will ever forget – but if it’s one they’re to repeat this season, a major turnaround in fortunes will be needed.

Marr ended the year fifth in the Premiership regular standings after winning seven and losing six of their first 13 matches – and while the Fullarton side go into 2023 just two points off the fourth place spot which would earn them a place in the end-of-season play-offs, head coach Craig Redpath knows his team need to do much better in their final five fixtures if they’re to not just reach those play-offs but also cause trouble to the teams above them.

Following what would turn out to be Marr’s last match of 2022, a bonus point win at home to GHA on December 3, Redpath admitted that “every game from here on in is a cup final” for his players – and none are bigger than the one coming up this Saturday when unbeaten league leaders Hawick come to Troon.

Back at Millbrae, Ayr RFC’s first XV also have work to do if they’re to join Marr in next season’s Premiership.

They ended 2022 level on points with National League Division One leaders Kelso, but with a game more played than the Poynder Park side, and with four away games in a row to come this month, against Melrose, Watsonians, Stewart’s Melville and Aberdeen Grammar, before trips to Kelso in March and Gala in Aprilas the campaign nears its end.

It’s an equally exciting time off the pitch for Ayr following the recent transfer of Ayr RFC and its assets to a new company limited by guarantee, Ayr Rugby Football Club Limited, in line with a vote by members in the autumn of 2021.

The company also has charitable status and is now working to conclude deals with the council and National Trust for Scotland to secure land allowing access to Millbrae from Murdoch’s Loan and to buy Dam Park from the local authority.

Plans are being drawn up for an exhibition in the new year showcasing the first stage of the proposed development of Millbrae.

Further south, Carrick RFC’s first XV face a tough task in the new year, too, after winning just one of their opening 10 matches in West Division One − leaving the Maybole men with a major battle on their hands if they’re to avoid relegation.