Aberdeen Grammar 26
DAVID BARNES @ Bridgehaugh
THIS was not a match for the feint-hearted. Urged on by a raucous crowd, both teams threw the kitchen sink at it – and while there were plenty of mistakes and some hair-brained indiscipline, it was a compelling spectacle if you enjoy your sport with warts and all. Highland started brightly but couldn’t sustain it against a bigger, more experienced and ultimately better organised Aberdeen side, who were worthy winners in the end.
“Full credit to Highland, I thought they were superb with the physical challenge they produced, and we’re really happy to finish in fairly dominant fashion after a really tight game,” said Ali O’Connor, the victorious head coach. “We anticipated that they would really come at us in that first 20-minutes, and the crowd support they had was absolutely superb which clearly geed them on. But we came back into it when we tightened things up and cut out the errors, and that ultimately won the day for us.”
Grammar finished fourth in National One this year and will play in the new-look Premiership next season. “We’ve got a programme pf physical development for the boys over the summer because we know that is an area we have to be better,” said O’Connor. “There will be a recruitment strategy of some kind, but we really have to sit down and think about where we go with that. A couple of lads are leaving – second-row Ewan Stewart is graduating and will probably move away, and flanker Alec Dravitski is going back to New Zealand – but the rest are staying on, so we will be able to keep the core of the team together.
Highland head coach Davie Carson rejected the suggestion that the difference between the two sides was Aberdeen’s experience of regularly playing a higher standard of rugby this season.
“I thought the first half was a fantastic advert for us in National Two and them in National One – it was a brutal, fast game of rugby – but their size eventually told in the end,” he said. “In the second half, we never got the ball, we made too many mistakes in set-piece and they strangled the game after that with pick-and-go for 20 minutes, which we just couldn’t defend.
“Our guys have learned a lot this year coming up from National Three, and that’s us bouncing up again [having finished second in National Two]. They have now seen the kind of size they are going to be up against.”
Highland took the lead after nine feisty minutes with a Rory Carson penalty, and the Inverness outfit continued to dominate territory and possession for the next ten minutes, eventually stretching their advantage to 10 points when full-back Rupeni Rokoduguni offloaded out of contact to send Callum Carson under the posts for a converted try.
That was the jolt Aberdeen needed and they responded almost immediately with captain Sam Knudson putting scrum-half Tom Morrison in for their opening score; and it got even better for Grammar when they crossed the try-line again almost straight from the restart, with winger Douglas Russell making the initial indent, the barrelling Tom Aplin carrying the move on, and a slice of good fortune seeing his pass inside ricochet back the way it came into Bryn Perrott’s hands for the full-back to dart home unchallenged from 20-yards. Perrott converted both those quick-fire scores to make 14-10 with 25 breathless minutes on the clock.
Aberdeen second-row Robin Cessford was yellow-carded just before half-time for offside, but Highland failed to take full benefit when Carson missed the tricky penalty from the right. And it was soon down to 14-aside when Calum MacPherson was sent to the cooler for not rolling away.
Aberdeen looked certain to score try number three when Murray Mitchell closed in on the line during the last play of this epic opening period, but Highland somehow managed to pull the outside-centre down just short of the whitewash.
Bulk and power is key
With their scrum well on top, Aberdeen began to really turn the screw at the start of the second half. They shoved Highland off their own ball, No 8 Greig Ryan was held up over the line, and Aberdeen then splintered Highland from the resulting set-piece to earn penalty try.
Perrott missed a penalty which would have extended Aberdeen’s lead to 14 points, but the traffic was all one-way by this point, and there was a real sense of inevitability about what was coming when Aplin burst onto a short ball and powered in for try number four with 66 minutes played.
With Grammar flanker Dravitski the third player in the match to see yellow, Highland rallied bravely to set up camp Aberdeen’s 22 for the final five minutes, but they were now playing for nothing more than pride. They didn’t get the consolation score they deseved, but their head coach could not speak highly enough of his team’s collective effort.
“By hell they put their heart and soul into that,” concluded Carson. “Although we didn’t get much ball in the second half, we made sure they only scored two tries – and our boys were on their knees at the end. They are just an awesome bunch of guys, and what a hell of a season they’ve had.”
Highland: R Rokoduguni; C Ross, R Cross, S Ross, J Nawacaleru; R Carson, R MacDonald; L Sinclair, K Brown, M Paterson, O Baird, S Blair, C Carson, G Gregor, C Macpherson. Subs: S Watson, J Milton, B Gordon, N McLaughlin, I Chisholm, C Irvine, M Henry.
Aberdeen Grammar: B Perrott; N Coe, M Mitchell, T Aplin, D Russell; S Knudson, T Morrison; M Schosser, A Cook, C Reddish, R Cessford, E Stewart, A Dravitski, C Jollands, G Ryan. Subs: B Inglis, R Anderson, J Robertson, W Alton, S Mills, A Robertson, C Shepherd.
Referee: John Shaw
Highland: Try: C Carson; Con: R Carson; Pen: R Carson.
Aberdeen: Tries: Morrison, Perrott, Penalty Try, Aplin; Cons: Perrott 2.
Scoring sequence (Highland first): 3-0; 8-0; 10-0; 10-5; 10-7; 10-12; 10-14 (h-t) 10-21; 10-26
Yellow cards –
Man-of-the-Match: Aberdeen centre Tom Aplin was a rock in the middle of the park – a focal point in both attack and defence – and he has a huge boot which helped relieve the pressure on a number of occasions.
Talking point: A cracking advert for what club rugby should be about … from two teams north of the central belt! Scottish rugby needs these great clubs to continue on their current upward trajectory.