DAVID BARNES @ Milbrae
QUICKER, smarter and much more accurate, Melrose had this game wrapped up by the break. Ayr did well during a spirited second half to avoid complete humiliation because when they were 27 points down just a few minutes before the interval it looked like the hosts could be on the receiving end of the same sort of drubbing as they have been more used to handing out to hapless opponents in recent seasons. But they never really looked like making this game a real contest.
That Ayr avoided the ignominy of a 50-pointer says as much about Melrose losing their sense of urgency (which is only natural when you are so in command) as it does about the home team working out a way to break down their incredibly well drilled opponents.
“The first 15 minutes were pretty good, I thought, in terms of the way we attacked and the speed we were playing at, but throughout a game the opposition is always going to have moments and they had a few from 50 minutes onwards, so we probably need to look at how we manage that a bit better,” said Melrose head coach Rob Chrystie, trying desperately to keep a lid on soaring expectations from out-with the camp.
“Ayr have got some bloody good players in their squad as well. You’re not champions and then just fall off it, so we didn’t take anything for granted at half-time, and we had to battle it out a bit there in the second half,” he added.
The big question for the rest of the league now is what can they do to stop the Melrose juggernaut. At least Ayr don’t have to think about that until the two sides meet again at The Greenyards on 9th December, so their focus in the meantime can be purely on getting their own house in order.
This is their fourth defeat on the trot at Millbrae this season [17-19 to GHA in a pre-season friendly, 31-44 to Melrose in the Charity Shield and 18-28 to Glasgow Hawks in the league last week]. Even the one league victory they have managed, away to Boroughmuir on the opening weekend, was secured in a far from convincing fashion. No prizes in the Premiership were ever won in September, but head coach Calum Forrester is understandably concerned about this sort of form becoming a habit.
“You can’t afford to start games as slowly as that. Melrose were clinical, they were in our 22 just five times in the first half and they came away with points every single time,” he said. “In the second half we showed more glimpses of what we are all about but we need to make sure we start games like that because you can’t afford to fall behind and then be chasing it, especially against a team like Melrose who were able to slow it down and kill the clock when they needed to.”
“It is a long season but that’s two games in a row now so the big thing for us is that we need to stick together as a group. It is going to be us that fixes it as a coaching team and as a squad of players.”
Melrose laid down an early marker when they kicked a midfield penalty to the corner then drove the line-out over the chalk for hooker Russell Anderson to dot down after just four minutes, but the Premiership pace-setters looked rather less authoritative when Iain Moody dropped the restart and Ross McCann failed to deal with the loose ball, which gifted Ayr a five-yard line-out. When the visitors were then penalised for illegally thwarting the driving maul, the hosts played advantage and Fraser Thomson can count himself rather lucky that referee David Sutherland decided to call it back rather brandish a card towards the full-back for knocking-on as he tried to cut out a two-man overlap on the right. The hosts had to make do instead with three points from Scott Lyle’s boot.
Melrose struck again with a second try in the 12th minute, when Sam Pecqueur sneaked in under the shadow of the posts after some crisp handling had stretched a hole in Ayr’s midfield defence.
Ross McCann rode two tackles to grab try number three on the half hour mark. Craig Jackson had an off day with the boot against Boroughmuir last weekend, but he was bang on form in this match, nailing a third successful conversion, this time from just a foot inside the right touchline; and he also sent home a penalty a few minutes later.
Ayr wing Craig Gossman, perhaps the the smallest player on the park, outwitted the behemoths of the Melrose pack by sneaking round the back to collect the restart after that penalty, which set up a golden opportunity for the hosts to grab a foothold in the contest – but they lost their composure, with Stafford McDowall firing a pass off Tommy Spinks’ chest, and McCann exacted a ruthless punishment by scooping up the ball then darting the length of the pitch for a bonus point clinching score.
Ayr managed to grasp a life-line just before the break with Gossman sending Grant Anderson over and Lyle firing home the tricky conversion, but it was still an awfully long way back from 10-31 down.
Melrose started the second half just as they had done the first when Ally Miller powered 40-yards up the right touchline, and even when Ayr did get a break they could not take advantage – captain Pete McCallum’s knock-on from a Melrose line-out overthrow was emblematic of their afternoon.
Ayr eventually got the shot in the arm they so desperately needed when they were awarded a penalty try and saw Melrose prop Ruairi McLeod sent to the sin-bin for pulling down a line-out drive as it marched towards the line.
It was now or never for the Millbrae men, and they knew it, but their quest to inject some more urgency into their performance floundered when Rob McAlpine gifted Jason Baggott an interception in midfield, which allowed the Borderers to run down the remainder of that ten minute spell of being a man down safely encamped in opposition territory.
One of the few causes of encouragement for Forrester as he surveyed the debris of this defeat will be the character shown by youngster Paddy Dewhirst when he came on at stand-off for the final ten minutes, and he nearly jinked over for a consolation try near the death, but lost control of the ball as he dived for the line.
Ayr: G Anderson; D McCluskey, S McDowall, S Lyle, C Gossman; F Climo, H Warr; R Grant, L Anderson, S Longwell, R McAlpine, J Agnew, B Macpherson, T Spinks, P McCallum. Subs: D Young, M Badenhorst, R Smith, P Dewhirst, J Bova.
Melrose: F Thomson; R McCann, N Godsmark, C Jackson, S Pecqueur; J Baggott, M McAndrew; G Shiells, R Anderson, R McLeod, A Runcimaan, I Moody, N Irvine-Hess, G Runciman, A Miller. Subs: R Ferguson, C Crookshanks, R Knott, B Colvine, J Johnstone.
Ayr: Try: Anderson, Penalty Try; Con: Lyle; Pen: Lyle
Melrose: Try: Anderson, Pecqueur, McCann 2; Con: Jackson 4; Pen: Jackson 2
Scoring sequence (Ayr first): 0-5; 0-7; 3-7; 3-12; 3-14; 3-19; 3-2; 3-24; 3-29; 3-31; 8-31; 10-31 (h-t) 10-34; 17-34
Yellow cards –
Referee: D Sutherland
Man-of-the-Match: Take your pick from a squadron of black and gold soldiers, but Jason Baggott kept them playing in the right places.
Talking point: Another tough mission for Ayr when they take on undefeated Currie Chieftains at Malleny Park next weekend. Is it too early to be talking about make or break games?