ALAN LORIMER @ Netherdale
YOU could go ski-ing on the day after Christmas or you could experience the same temperatures altitude by watching the annual Boxing Day challenge between two of the oldest rugby rivals in Scotland, Gala and Melrose. This year, in conditions that varied little between sleet showers and longer sleet showers and temperatures that barely rose above zero, Gala and Melrose played out the latest iteration of this long standing event between these two proud clubs to provide, for the many who watched the match, a much needed antidote to the previous day’s excesses.
The 26th December fixture is rugby history in itself, dating back to the late 19th century when the two Borders clubs first clashed. So significant is the game for many Borders rugby fans that they regard it as the focus of the festive season to the extent that one Gala supporter has dubbed Christmas Day: Boxing Day Eve!
Now rebranded as the Waverley Cup, the game returned to the rugby calendar this year after a Covid-enforced break and in the event provided a much needed win for a Gala side rocked by three successive defeats in National One and furthermore by the resignations of their head coach, Stuart Johnson, and their director of rugby, Bill Noble. Moreover, it allowed the Maroons to gain revenge for their recent 63-15 league defeat to Melrose.
Helping to coach Gala to their win is former Scotland assistant coach and international hooker, Steve Scott, who in his pre-professional days always looked forward to the Boxing Day game. Speaking after Gala’s win, he said: “For me, personally, this fixture is huge. I said that to the boys before the game. When I was an amateur player – in both camps – this was the best game of the year. I made sure the boys understood how important this game is. It’s a great fixture and you could see by the way it was played by both teams they enjoyed it despite the difficult conditions.”
Commenting specifically on the Gala display, Scott praised his charges for their commitment, saying: “It was a really good performance from the boys. Their attitude was excellent. They needed to respond to the defeat at The Greenyards. And they did, both physically and emotionally.”
Meanwhile Bert Griggs, the Melrose coach, attributed the turnaround in fortunes to his squad having an extended rest before this game. “The boys had a good time yesterday. We let them have time off and they hadn’t played for a couple of weeks before that. We just weren’t really at the races at times today. Gala got up a bit of a head of steam and they had good home support behind them. That made a big difference. But it was good to see so many people there.”
Gala were boosted by the return of several of their Scotland under-20 squad players and in the event they contributed handsomely, stand-off Harris Rutherford bringing a poise to the Maroons’ back division and Murray Wilson showing sharpness in attack and strength in defence. Missing from the Gala team was Kerr Johnston, who has just commenced a strength conditioning programme. Gala also had exciting displays by Scotland under-18 aspirants, Fraser Wilson and James Glendinning.
As to the match itself, Gala, playing front foot rugby for most of the first half and defying the tricky overhead conditions by using their talented back-line to purposeful effect, led 17-3 at the break with two tries from full-back Scott Peffers and one from back-row Angus Dun, plus a conversion from Craig Dods. The Melrose points coming from a penalty goal by Struan Hutchison.
Then, in the second half, despite Melrose finally discovering their mojo to score try by back-row Ben McLean and a touchdown and conversion by Hutchison, Gala were able to extend their lead with tries by replacement scrum-half Fergus Johnston, hooker Jack Easson, replacement Glendinning and skipper Liam Scott, together with two further conversions by Dods and one by Rutherford.
Gala: S Peffers; A Mitchell, M Wilson, C Dods, B Gill; H Rutherford, L Johnston; K Scott, J Easson, J Williamson, F Wilson, G McCrum, T Wilson, L Scott, A Dun. Replacements: M Angus, J Glendinning, D Weir, F Johnston, C Pate, K Young, R Kerr, J Turnbull.
Melrose: H Makowski; A Pilcher, D Crawford, Z Ramage, R Sharp; S Hutchison, E Lindsay; J Dobie, S Fairbairn, C Crookshanks, T Brown, G Lindsay, W Ferrie, E Ruthven, B McLean. Replacements: W Owen, R McConnell, K Buchan, E Compton, B Colvine, L Townsend, C Spence, C Robertson.