DAVID BARNES @ Millbrae
THIS was rugby in the raw, with two well matched teams battling against each other and the elements to produce a spectacle which was a compelling contest of courage and rugby nous. On a wet and blustery afternoon in South Ayrshire, there was no shortage of coughed-up possession, squint line-out throws, miscued kicks and scrappy penalties – but that all added to the drama.
Ayr now sit top of the BT Premiership table having shown greater composure at the moments that really mattered. They had already had to dig deep for wins against Heriot’s and Gala this season, and that must have stood them in good stead. They thoroughly deserved this victory.
Melrose had come into this match on a high after four very convincing wins and were perhaps not quite ready for a game in which they would not have it all their own way, but they have far too much class littered throughout their squad to let this be anything more than a frustrating hiccup.
The hosts had lost their influential centre pairing of Ross Climo (calf) and Archie Russell (hand) on Thursday night, meaning that teenager Stafford McDowell made his first start at this level alongside Danny McCluskey, who moved in from the wing – and Ayr took it all in their stride.
“These guys ran in the team on Thursday night, so it was just the Warriors boys [hooker James Malcom and prop Djustice Sears-Duru] who got pulled – but it didn’t affect us too much because we had the same pack and subs as had last week so everybody knew exactly what we were looking to do,” said Ayr coach Calum Forrester.
“Fair play to Stafford, you are not going to play against a harder team first up and he did everything asked for him and I think he’s put himself in the window.”
“I think we played the conditions really well today,” he added. “For the majority of the game, Melrose were pinned back inside their own third of the pitch. They scored a great breakaway try ion the first half, but I think we had a really good temperament throughout the whole game in terms of controlling the set-piece. A few odd things [went wrong] but the majority of it was pretty spot-on.”
Ayr had plenty of possession and territory in the opening quarter but kept on coughing up possession when they got within striking distance, with three penalties and a scrappy ruck turnover being conceded inside the Melrose 22 during that early period.
And they paid a heavy price for that turnover as it allowed Grant Runciman to launch a searing counter-attack from his own line, with the excellent Neil Irvine-Hess also making valuable yards, before a series of quick rucks generated a glimpse of the whitewash for Murdo McAndrew to scramble over.
It was an excellent move on any day, let alone in such treacherous conditions, but it did come at a cost for the Borderers, with influential full-back Fraser Thomson snagging his hamstring as he charged up field in support, meaning he had to be replaced by Nyle Godsmark.
Ayr had an immediate chance to respond with a long range penalty straight from kick-off, but Frazier Climo pulled his effort to the left of the sticks.
The New Zealander was bang on the money a few minutes later, however, when Russell Anderson gave away a completely needless penalty by reaching out from the bottom of the ruck and scooping the ball back in as Ayr scrum-half David Armstrong tried to get it away. It was right in front of the referee, right in front of the posts, and he was lucky not to see a yellow card for cynical play.
Melrose prop Nick Beavon and referee Lloyd Linton were not seeing eye-to-eye at scrum-time and that allowed Climo to cut the deficit to a single point with his second penalty.
It was a horrible day to be a goal-kicker so Melrose stand-off Jason Baggott and Climo have some excuse for missing a penalty each at the start of the second half.
With Beavon in the sin-bin for not rolling away from a tackle, Ayr began to really pile on the pressure. Melrose had sent on prop Dan Elkington in place of winger Ross McCann in order to stack up their scrum, but in treacherous conditions the home team took their time in finding the right moment to capitalise on their advantage out wide, and it wasn’t until just before the ten minutes was up that they cut loose, with a long miss pass opening up room on the right and Cammy Taylor doing well to cut inside the scramble defence on his way to the try line.
Melrose fought back and had Ayr on the ropes for a while. Their scrum had struggled all afternoon but with five minutes to go they managed to get a shunt on and earn what could have been a crucial penalty. They kicked for the corner but then coughed up possession at the line-out. Frustratingly for the visitors, this was not a one-off lapse – it happened three times.
“Credit to Ayr, I thought they played the conditions really well. They made less mistakes than us and didn’t give away as many penalties, so they deserved the win – but we’ll learn from it,” said Melrose coach Rob Chrystie.
Ayr: G Anderson©; C Taylor, D McCluskey, S McDowall, C Gossman; F Climo, D Armstrong; G Hunter, D Young, R McAlpine, S Sutherland, W Bordill, G Henry, B Macpherson.
Melrose: F Thomson; A Lockington, R Taylor, C Jackson, R McCann; J Baggott, M McAndrew; J Bhatti, R Anderson, N Beavon, J Head, R Knott, N Irvine-Hess, G Runciman©, I Moody.
Ayr: Try: Taylor; Pen: Climo 2
Melrose: Try: McAndrew; Con: Baggott.
Yellow cards –
Melrose: Beavon, Bhatti.
Man-of-the-Match: This was a day for the big men to stand up and be counted, and Robert McApline did that in every department. To top it off, when Melrose had a chance to steel the win at the end, he derailed them with his line-out heroics.
Talking point: Why did Melrose stop throwing to Neil Irvine-Hess at the front, when they were struggling so badly in the middle and at the tail of the line-out?
Scoring sequence (Ayr first): 0-5, 0-7, 3-7, 6-7 (h-t) 11-7.
Image courtesy: George McMillan