DAVID BARNES @ Millbrae
THE controversial sending off of Hawks centre Brendan McGroarty killed this top of the table clash as a contest and left everyone associated with the visiting team harbouring a bitter sense of injustice. It is a crying shame because this had been an enthralling ding-dong battle up until that point early in the second half, and with Hawks having just scored a try which put them back within four points of their opponents, it was shaping up for a grandstand finish. Red cards have such a monumental impact on how games pan out that there must be absolutely no doubt that the issuing of one is entirely justified, and in this instance that was categorically not the case.
Not that home coach Calum Forrester was going to let any such controversy detract from his team’s achievement, pointing out that Ayr had worked their way in to a cracking position – largely thanks to their dominant scrum – even before McGroarty’s demise skewed the balance of the game.
“For me, the pleasing thing was that everything we highlighted about Hawks, and ourselves after last week’s game versus Stirling, and everything we worked on during training, was played out in the game. We tightened up our defence and our set-piece was a real focus for us,” he said.
Unsurprisingly, opposite number Finlay Gillies was rather less sanguine.
“It was 17-13 at that point, we had just scored a try, had some wind in our sails and then … boom … game-changer. We played that game with 15 men for something like ten minutes today [Hawks also received two yellow cards] and you can’t do that against Ayr, its as simple as that,” he said.
“I’ll have to watch the video, but I certainly didn’t think it was a red card. The referee has made that decision and we’ll just have to deal with it, I suppose.”
Hawks showed from the start that they would not compromise the adventurous brand of rugby they have been playing all season just because Millbrae is a notoriously tricky place to get a result – but they couldn’t make the final pass stick.
A Grayson Hart snipe and offload out of contact almost sent Kerr Gossman over but the ball was slightly behind the winger and he couldn’t gather. Junior Bulumakau collected an Ayr chip ahead and beat his first challenger to open up the park, but his bullet pass to Robert Beattie was uncatchable.
One breath-taking passage of play around the 20 minute mark felt more like a Harlem Globetrotters basketball demonstration than a tense top of the table rugby clash, but Ayr’s defence somehow managed to contain it, and having weathered that storm it was the home team’s turn to set out their stall. Their rather more direct route yielded a near immediate dividend when Blair Macpherson picked up from the base of a scrum on the Hawks line and dived over.
It was perhaps the best outcome Hawks could have hoped for given that they had already given away two scrum penalties with Ayr opting to reset on both occasions. To make matters worse for the visitors, Hart had been sent to the sin-bin when the initial penalty was awarded for killing the ball at a ruck.
Ayr’s dominant scrum set up their second try five minutes later when the Hawks eight disintegrated at a set-piece 30 yards from their own line. The resulting penalty was sent into the corner, and George Hunter was the man who grounded the ball after the line-out was driven over the whitewash. Ross Curle nailed the conversion from the touchline for good measure.
Hawks squandered a golden opportunity to strike back when Bulumakau fumbled Grant Stewart’s pop off the deck with the line at his mercy. Eventually second-row Andy Kirkland showed the fast lads out back how it should be done by collecting the ball and rumbling over on the stroke of half-time.
The gap was reduced further at the start of the second half when Stewart scrambled over after Hart’s neat kick into the corner forced Richard Dalgliesh to concede a line-out just short of his own line. But then Hawks’ chances of further hunting down Ayr’s lead were dealt that grievous blow when McGroarty was sent-off for what was deemed to be a dangerous tip tackle on Scott Sutherland.
It didn’t go down well with anyone. The Hawks supporters were incensed, the coaching staff were clearly baffled and even Grant Anderson, the home team’s captain, made a point of telling referee Keith Allen that he thought his decision was unduly harsh.
Allen was unfazed, however, and when an overly pumped up Bulumakau took out Craig Gossman slightly late and slightly high a few minutes later, he allowed the move to run its course before pulling the Glasgow pro aside to issue a yellow card – reducing Hawks to 13 men for the next ten minutes.
Ayr made the most of it. Macpherson grabbed his second and his team’s third try after another series of pulverising scrums against Hawks’ now heavily depleted pack, then the hosts made their extra numbers counts in open play with Anderson finally capitalising from the space which inevitably opened up after just a few phases.
To add to the visiting team’s sense of injustice, when Hawks playmaker George Horne was taken out with a pretty high looking hit from Hunter after the whistle had gone, there was no penalty awarded.
Backrow Ruaridh Mackenzie has just arrived in this country from New Zealand on a partnership contract with Glasgow Warriors. He came off the Ayr bench with about 15 minutes to go and didn’t take long to make his presence felt, coming onto a short ball to claim try number five for the hosts. Blair Macpherson’s hat-trick score was the last action of the match.
The big question now for Hawks is how they respond to this set-back. At least they can compartmentalise it as they look to move on, because regardless of their own failings – of which there were a few – they really weren’t given a fair chance in this game.
“I feel for my boys because they haven’t been able to give a good account of themselves. From the moment we got that red card we were fighting fire, and then we got that yellow for Junior which I didn’t think was a yellow either. Even that first one for Grayson, I’m not really sure what that was for and neither is Grayson,” said Gillies.
“We probably won’t get a better chance to beat them with the weather and the squad we had so it’s really disappointing. I don’t want to get negative because these boys will be hurting enough already – we’ll move on and be a better team because of this experience.”
Ayr: G Anderson; R Dalgliesh, A Russell, S McDowell, C Gossman; R Curle, D Armstrong; D Sears-Duru, D Young, S Longwell, R McAlpine, S Sutherland, G Hunter, W Bordill, B MacPherson. Subs used: C Stevenson, P Dewhirst, R Smith, R Mackenzie, J Bova.
Hawks: P Murchie; J Bulumakau. R Beattie, B McGroarty, K Gossman; G Horne, G Hart; S Findlay, S Rodgers. G Strain, A Linton, A Kirkland, A Redmayne, G Stewart, T Spinks. Subs: B Cullinane, M Fagerson, S Thompson, D Milne, J Steel.
Referee: K Allen
Ayr: Try: Macpherson 3, Hunter, Anderson, Mackenzie; Con: Curle 2, Dewhirst; Pen: Curle
Hawks: Ties: Kirkland, Stewart; Pen: Horne
Scoring Sequence (Ayr first): 0-3, 3-3, 8-3, 10-3, 15-3, 17-8 (h-t) 17-13, 22-13, 27-13, 32-13, 34-13, 39-13.
Yellow cards –
Hawks: Hart, Bulumakau
Red cards –
Man-of-the-Match: It has to be hat-trick hero Blair Macpherson.
Talking point: What did the red carding achieve in terms of reinforcing the rules, ensuring player safety, promoting natural justice or encouraging the game as a contest?
Image courtesy: Alan Graham