Stirling County 16
STEPHEN BRUNSDON @ Bridgehaugh
A STIRRING second half performance helped Ayr overturn a 13 point deficit to keep themselves well positioned in the race for the play-offs.
Calum Forrester’s men looked the beaten side as County, playing their first match since the beginning of December, dominated the opening half an hour. Two Jonny Hope penalties and a try from back-rower Hamilton Burr gave the home side a healthy advantage, before Steven Longwell’s try brought Ayr in to the match approaching half-time.
Indiscipline and handling errors proved costly in a fractious second period for County as Ayr struck twice late on via Craig Gossman and Scott Lyle’s tries.
With Currie claiming an important away win at Melrose, Forrester was relieved to have kept pace with their rivals in the east.
“First and foremost, great character from the boys to come back the way they did in the second half, but that first half was unacceptable,” he said. “It’s one job going down to Melrose and getting the result, but we need to be able to back that up.
“Individually, I think we got the reaction we wanted in the second half and everybody stepped up and looked after the ball, which we didn’t do in the first half.
“Our aim is still to get a home play-off, but we need to keep this momentum towards the end of January.”
Given their long winter break, few would have anticipated County being as dominant in possession and territory as they were in the first half. Pulling the strings from the off was fly-half Grant Hughes, whose series of probing kicks in behind a rushing Ayr defence got the home side to within yards of the visitors’ line.
A clumsy knock-on and increasing Ayr indiscipline meant County had to make do with an eminently kickable penalty, which Hope converted after 10 minutes.
County were then handed gift-wrapped try by returning Ayr fly-half Frazier Climo, whose midfield kick was charged down by Burr. The flanker showed a great turn of pace to outstrip Ayr winger Gossman in a race to the line for the opening try of the match.
Ayr finally mounted a first meaningful attack in the County 22 from a penalty line-out. It paid dividends as prop forward Longwell crashed over from short-distance for a try converted by Lyle.
After a lacklustre opening half, Ayr were perhaps thankful to be as close to County as they were, trailing 13-7 at the break.
After being forced into frantic defence at the start of the second half – County’s captain Peter Jericevich combining brilliantly with Hughes to burst down the blind-side – Ayr suddenly found themselves on the front foot with two penalties in as many minutes allowing Lyle to reduce the margin to three points.
County replied immediately but Hope’s 51st minute penalty were the last points the hosts secured, largely thanks to a catalogue of errors and indiscipline at the breakdown.
Now a much tighter unit in the second period and with possession to boot, Ayr showed themselves to be the far more composed side as the game entered the closing quarter.
“We managed to secure the ball in the second half and that was vitally important. Stirling is a hard place to come and you have to dig deep to get the victory,” explained Forrester. “We’ve learnt how to win hard games like this and I thought the boys put in a great effort when it counted the most.”
County, feeling the brunt of referee Dunx McClement’s decisions, were pinned in their own half and forced into desperate defence.
They defended bravely but eventually crumbled on 62 minutes when Gossman sprinted over for a tide-turning score on the far side.
The forwards did the hard graft initially, with replacement prop Ryan Grant getting to within a few yards of the line. Lyle then superbly scooped up a loose ball to go in unopposed. Lyle’s touchline conversion attempt strayed wide of the uprights, setting up a frenetic final quarter.
Lyle made amends with a crucial penalty with 13 minutes remaining, as County were once more caught offside at the base of the ruck, before the centre struck the fatal blow in the final minute with a great counter-attack seven-pointer under the sticks.
Chasing the game, County were willing to try anything, with Jericevich’s attempted stab through the Ayr defence ricocheting off one of his own players. Lyle then hacked on down field and finally finished off a stubborn County by touching down. His conversion took away the losing bonus point from the home side.
For Ayr, this victory was as crucial as any they have had this season, with a home play-off spot hanging in the balance. Forrester’s men will surely be licking their lips ahead of a home derby against Marr next weekend, but they will also be wiping their brows after this close shave.
Stirling County: J Hope; L Trotter, E Macgarvie, R Curle, K Gossman; G Hughes, P Jericevich; R Chies, R Kennedy, G Holborn, C Hunter-Hill, J Beech, H Burr, L Wynne, R Leishman. Subs used: M Emmsion, A Wood, J Pow, S MacDonald, G Gilliland.
Ayr: G Anderson; P Dewhirst, S Lyle, S McDowall, C Gossman; F Climo, D Armstrong; R Hislop, R Smith, S Longwell, R McAlpine, J Agnew, T Spinks, G Stokes, B Macpherson. Subs used: L Anderson, R Grant, G Hunter, D McCluskey, M Davidson.
Stirling County: Tries: Burr; Cons: Hope; Pens Hope 3.
Ayr: Tries: Longwell, Lyle 2; Cons Lyle 2; Pens Lyle 2.
Scoring sequence (Stirling County first): 3-0; 8-0; 10-0; 13-0; 13-5; 13-7 (h-t); 13-10; 16-10; 16-15; 16-23; 16-25.
Referee: D McClement
Man-of-the-Match: It was impossible to look past Scott Lyle today. The centre controlled things superbly for the visitors, especially when the match appeared to be slipping away from them in a frankly awful first 40 minutes. He almost kicked County into submission with three second half penalties, before finally finishing the hosts off with an opportunistic try in the closing stages. The best all-round performance on the pitch.
Talking point: County were mightily impressive in the first half and took the game to Calum Forrester’s men. They even looked like holding on in the second period, but a lack of execution and too many handling errors ultimately extinguished any chances they had of competing for the win, once Ayr got into their stride.