A LATE, late try forced Helensburgh Rugby Club to settle for a share of the spoils from their opening league match of the new season on Saturday.

But despite the agony of missing out on what looked like a certain an opening-day win, club president John Cashmore says there are plenty of reasons to be cheerful in the Helensburgh camp.

Leading Wigtownshire 22-10 at Ardencaple, the Greens looked in control – only for their visitors to reduce the deficit to five points with a dubious penalty try, and then to snatch a draw with the very last play of the match.

But Cashmore says you need only look back to the last time Helensburgh played away to Wigtownshire, in October 2019, to see the progress the club has made – even without any rugby during the long Covid lockdowns.

"The club had to borrow spare players from their opponents to make up the fifteen required to start," Cashmore said, recalling that trip to Stranraer, "and the defeat – 105-0 – was the heaviest endured for many a year.

Helensburgh Advertiser: Action from Saturday's match at ArdencapleAction from Saturday's match at Ardencaple

"From a purely playing perspective, it was undoubtedly the club’s nadir and a sad reflection of where the club was, ultimately readying itself for relegation to the bottom tier of regional rugby in the west of Scotland.

"Several weeks later we were to face Paisley away. They are, and still are, our nearest same-league opposition, and for that match we had eight players available.

"Had a frozen Paisley pitch not made the match unplayable, the club would have had to postpone and accept yet another three-point penalty for failing to fulfil the fixture."

Fast-forward to the run-up to Saturday's league opener – once more against Wigtownshire, who, coincidentally, were also the last club to occupy the away dressing room for a league match at Ardencaple, way back in January 2020, before bad weather, and then Covid, put club rugby into cold storage.

"Coach Cammy Kerr had to explain to six players that they were surplus to requirements," Cashmore revealed, "and the news that we were fielding a full team, along with seven replacements, hopefully, tells us that perhaps a new era is upon us."

Helensburgh Advertiser: Action from Saturday's match at ArdencapleAction from Saturday's match at Ardencaple

Wigtownshire arrived in Helensburgh more than two hours before kick-off – an indication, perhaps, of their eagerness to play what was also their first league game of the season.

Not traditionally known for their away form, a number of spectators commented that this was by far the best Wigtownshire away team that Helensburgh had ever played against: they were a big, brawny and fit-looking side who fronted up and took the game to Helensburgh early on, happy to move the ball from well within their own half, and making ground with their powerful runners.

Helensburgh’s first-up tackling needed to be sound, and it was; the blue-jerseyed Shire players were consistently grounded by superb tackling from every home team player, but they kept coming, and did so throughout the whole 80 minutes.

It took 20 minutes for the Burgh to get properly into the match, having enjoyed very little ball during that first quarter – and the Grizzlies soon showed their teeth as a penalty was followed by a quick tap-and-go by Sean Alton, who couldn't be prevented from crossing the Wigtownshire line for the game's opening try.

Warren Smith, one of several Burgh players fresh out of the under-18s, converted to give Helensburgh the lead, but Wigtownshire fought back and eventually scored an unconverted try.

Helensburgh Advertiser: Action from Saturday's match at ArdencapleAction from Saturday's match at Ardencaple

It was a nip and tuck affair, but Helensburgh stretched their lead after the break with another score by Alton and an opportunistic try by youngster Nicol Gray, who had replaced Josh Powell at number nine.

The home side's 22-10 advantage, given the control and endeavour shown by the Helensburgh team up till this point, looked unassailable – but Wigtownshire, to their credit, flung everything at their hosts, and reduced the gap with a seven-point penalty try – following what, to the home supporters' eyes at least, was a long list of incredibly frustrating refereeing decisions during the match.

And with the very last play of the match, and only seconds remaining, the visitors' forwards drove lineout ball to score another try out wide and level the scores, followed only by a sigh of relief in the Helensburgh camp when Wigtownshire's kicker missed what would have been a winning conversion with the last kick of the match.

"A draw is not a loss," Cashmore reflected, "but everyone agreed it felt like one – and the body language of the Burgh players as they shook hands with the Wigtonshire lads couldn’t mask what they felt was failure, their faces showing ultimate disappointment while the south coasters congratulated each other as if they had won."

Once the dust had settled on that initial disappointment, though, Cashmore insists there were plenty of reasons to be cheerful from the first 80 minutes of the league campaign.

Helensburgh Advertiser: Action from Saturday's match at ArdencapleAction from Saturday's match at Ardencaple

"Here we are," he said, "with a team full of home-grown Burgh boys, straight out of the U18s and flung into grown-up league rugby. They didn’t disappoint, not one of them.

"Helensburgh RFC needs these young men to help ease the club away from the doldrums of the past 10 years and carry us forward into a rosier future. We need them to look after us – after all, hasn’t the club invested huge amounts of time, energy and expense in them?

"Everything they have learned in rugby is due to this great wee club’s efforts. That’s the investment the club makes in its mini and youth rugby – to ideally set up a conveyor belt of raw and fearless talent that can be moulded into green and gold.

"We’ve given them everything, now it’s time to reap the reward.

"Coaches Cammy Kerr, Ali Rogers, Liam Flanagan and Mark Sloan have worked hard to develop first XV players and fine-tune a playing system that best utilises our strengths and not our weaknesses. It looks fun to play for Helensburgh RFC at the moment and the players certainly seem to be enjoying doing so.

Helensburgh Advertiser: Action from Saturday's match at ArdencapleAction from Saturday's match at Ardencaple

"New skipper Mark Robertson and team manager Alex Macaulay have helped attract a good group of services lads to the club and a number of them were genuinely proud to put on a Burgh top against Wigtownshire, as they will against Paisley this coming Saturday.

"We hope injuries to Connor McLellan, Craig Calderwood, Reece Court and James Wales aren’t serious and that they are all available on the 18th."

The second of Helensburgh's back-to-back home fixtures, against Paisley, kicks off at 3pm at Ardencaple this Saturday, September 18.

Cashmore added: "We ask the local community to come along and be vociferous but, of course, respectful, and support your local rugby club against the Buddies of Paisley. Mon the Burgh!"