BT Cup Final: Melrose 23-18 Ayr

Image: Fotosport/David Gibson

DAVID BARNES @ BT Murrayfield

IT might not have been the blockbuster occasion we had hoped for, but we did witness an uplifting tale of redemption for a Melrose team which was hit hard by last week’s agonising loss to the same opposition in the BT Premiership Grand Final. This might not be the prize they had targeted all season, but missing out on it as well would have been almost unbearable for head coach Rob Chrystie and his squad.

The fact that the Borderers have lost five finals at Murrayfield (three of them against Ayr) since their last Cup success in 2008 added to the tension inside the camp.

“It has been a long seven days and there has been a lot of emotion, which we saw in the performance – it wasn’t the prettiest – but the desire was definitely there,” said Chrystie.

“They are a confident group but its about having that calm head at the right time. I thought we did certain important things a lot better this week, like the breakdown which we have spent a lot of time on because it was a key thing to create our momentum, and our driving line-outs put them under pressure.”

“It is a final, and there’s always mistakes, but just to eventually get over the line is quite relieving.”

“We’ve lost a lot of finals out there [on the main pitch at Murrayfield] and to get that monkey off the back is a big thing for the club. I think there’s a lot of growth in this team as well, they are all going to stay together and push on next year to play some better rugby, which is the key message we keep talking about as a group – it is not about winning things, it is about getting better and that is our driver.”

Ayr know all about the pain Melrose endured last week. They harbored a similar sort of grievance for 12 months after losing to Heriot’s in the 2016 Grand Final. But that wasn’t going to stop the men in pink and black going at it tooth-and-nail in their pursuit of a league and cup double, and they sent out an early declaration of intent when Pete McCallum sent Danny McLuskey over in the right hand corner with just 43 seconds on the clock.

Well done Ayr, but Melrose will have been kicking themselves for failing to deal with the kick-off; and that was not the last time this important part of the game was not up to scratch. Later in the match, they twice conceded points almost immediately after scoring themselves as a direct consequence of their failure to ensure that the next set-piece was back in the opposition’s half.

On the plus side, Melrose demonstrated that their line-out attack had been sharpened up when a catch-and-drive allowed Grant Runciman to square the contest in the 18th minute.

Ayr looked a good bet to reclaim the lead when Steven Longwell peeled round the front of a line-out and found himself ten yards from the scoring zone with only the diminutive figure of Patrick Anderson to beat. Both mass and velocity were on the tight-head prop’s side, but the Melrose teenager (who had been called into the team as a late replacement for flu-ridden Josh Pecquer) held on heroically until reinforcements arrived and ultimately won his team a penalty.

Jason Baggott pushed Melrose ahead with a long range penalty, only to see that advantage immediately wiped out when his forwards managed to catch the restart but were then penalised for holding onto the ball on the deck, allowing Frazier Climo to fire home the points.

It was a similar sort of scenario at the start of the second half: when Baggott helped himself to three points, only for the usually ultra-reliable Fraser Thomson to have his clearance from the restart charged down. The ball bounced kindly and Melrose managed to regain possession, but Baggott then fired his kick straight at another oncoming opponent. It took Ayr a few minutes to capitalise on this gift from Melrose, but when they did cut loose it was well worth the wait. David Armstrong threw a majestic dummy to open the pitch up, before sending Will Bordill home unchallenged with an excellent inside pass.

With their tails now up, Ayr looked to kill the game off. Ross Curle had a rousing breakout from his own 22 and Climo kept the scoreboard ticking over with his third penalty of the afternoon, but there was an awful lot of careless handling and loose kicking from both sides.

And it was a wayward up-and-under by Climo which provided the opportunity for Melrose to get themselves back on level terms. The bouncing ball ended up in Murdo McAndrew’s hands, and he sent George Taylor on an unchallenged 40 yard bolt to the line, with Jackson adding the conversion to tie the scores.

Extra time looked like the best bet during the next ten minutes until Melrose managed to build up a head of steam with three minutes to go. Playing a penalty advantage, they ripped through a couple of slick phases close to the Ayr line, and engineered an overlap on the left for outside centre Nyle Godsmark to claim the winner.

“If you look at the way Ayr operate, you do generally score quite a lot of tries in the last twenty minutes if you can can keep in touch. It was exactly the same when we played the at The Greenyards in the league, where we ended up winning fairly comfortably on the scoreboard, but it did take 70 minutes to get that gap – so we had talked about that during the week and I’m just delighted that we pulled it off,” said Chrystie.

It wasn’t the end to the season Ayr head coach Calum Forrester had been hoping for, but having landed the big prize last weekend he was able to take a rather sanguine view of the situation.

“We just weren’t accurate enough when we got into that final third, and Melrose disrupted the breakdown very well – so fair play to them,” he shrugged.

“Last year we missed out on the league and this year we made it; but we’ve got a pretty good record here [at Murrayfield] as well and we wanted to come and back that up. It is not very nice being on the other side of it – you forget about that.”

Teams –

Melrose: F Thomson; G Taylor, N Godsmark, C Jackson, P Anderson; J Baggott (M McAndrew 50mins), B Colvine; J Bhatti, R Anderson, N Beavon, J Head, R Knott (P Eccles 60mins), N Irvine-Hess, G Runciman, I Moody.

Ayr: G Anderson; D McCluskey, R Curle, S McDowall (A Russell 78), C Gossman; F Climo, D Armstrong; G Hunter, L Anderson (D Young 78), S Longwell (D Sears-Duru 78), C Stevenson (G Henry 78), S Sutherland, B MacPherson, W Bordill, P McCallum©.

Referee: L Linton.

Scorers –

Melrose: Try: Runciman, Taylor, Godsmark; Con: Jackson; Pen: Baggott 2.

Ayr: Try: McCluskey, Bordill, Pen: Climo 3.

Scoring sequence (Melrose first): 0-5; 5-5; 8-5; 8-8 (h-t) 11-8; 11-13; 11-15; 11-18; 16-18; 18-18; 23-18

Attendance: 6,438

Man-of-the-Match: Both coaches acknowledged afterwards that a key factor in this match was that Melrose were a lot more effective at the breakdown than they had been a week earlier, and Grant Runciman led the charge on that front.

Talking Point: Players welcome the opportunity to play at the national stadium, but surely a smaller ground would help generate more of a Cup Final atmosphere. The vast empty stands at Murrayfield suck the vitality out of the occasion. Mind you, Blairgowrie and Portobello in the Men’s Bowl Final, and Carrick and Murrayfeld Wanderers in the Men’s Plate Final, made a pretty good fist of creating a real buzz.

About David Barnes 3989 Articles
David has worked as a freelance rugby journalist since 2004 covering every level of the game in Scotland for publications including The Herald/Sunday Herald, The Sunday Times, The Telegraph, The Scotsman/Scotland on Sunday/Evening News, The Daily Record, The Daily Mail/Mail on Sunday and The Sun.