Currie Chieftains 24
DAVID BARNES @ Malleny Park
BEN CAIRNS emerged from the Currie Chieftains dressing room 30 minutes after the end of this match with the walls shaking behind him to the noise of his full squad singing along at the top of their voices to Creedence Clearwater Revival’s ‘Have You Ever Seen The Rain’. It was the song played at Graham ‘Greco’ Hogg’s funeral last August. Hogg was the driving force behind Currie’s remarkable rise up the leagues during the 1980s to become one of the leading clubs in the country and this was a victory forged in his mould.
The Chieftains were gritty when they needed to be gritty, they were smart when they needed to be smart, and, crucially, they kept on going – without even contemplating the possibility of taking a backward step – for the full 80 minutes. Hogg would have called it resilience.
“We only get to play that song when we win,” explained head coach Cairns. “We have a game-plan sheet every week and at the bottom of that sheet I always put a note of the thing we think is most important for that game, and all I put at the bottom of this one was: ‘Greco’. That was a performance for him.”
The sudden death of Hogg last summer shook the club to its core, and there is a clear determination to pay tribute to his huge influence at Malleny Park over more than three decades in the manner which would have pleased him most. This result keeps the Chieftains ahead of Ayr in the race for the second home play-off slot, and on this sort of form there is no reason why they should not be considered serious contenders for the title.
This was Melrose’s second defeat in as many weeks, but they should have enough credit in the bank from their swashbuckling start to the campaign to be assured of finishing top of the pile at the end of the regular season – although, it must be said, this is no longer an absolute certainty.
They are still 11 points clear with four games to go, and while this blip will offer the chasing pack some hope, it would be a mistake to read too much into this particular result. It wasn’t a bad performance, they just happened to come up against a talented, well-organised and determined opposition, who were quite simply better on the day.
“That’s a quality squad there – it should be a good performance,” acknowledged Cairns.
The professional influence was obvious. As well as drafted Glasgow Warriors pros Adam Hastings and Richie Vernon, there was Ratu Tagive at outside centre (who is on a partnership contract with the Warriors), Luke Crosbie (who signed a pro contract with Edinburgh last month) and Charlie Shiel (who is still a member of the Scottish Rugby Academy but has been with Edinburgh almost full-time this season).
However, these individuals were not operating in isolation. Captain Robbie Nelson’s physicality and midfield defence was monumental, Jamie Forbes was a box of tricks at stand-off and then full-back, and the wingers looked lively.
The pack recovered from a shaky start – especially at scrum-time – to give as good as they got in every facet of play.
“We’ve worked really hard on our scrum and we’ve got a lot of boys who have developed really well this season. Ayr have the best scrum in the league so we found it pretty hard down there [just before Christmas], but we dominated Boroughmuir’s scrum last week and we brought that confidence into this week. Yes, we struggled early on, but we were able to rotate our front-row really well, and that paid dividends,” said Cairns.
The Chieftains drew first blood within four minutes of kick-off when Cammy Gray came off his wing to make good yardage up the middle of the park, which generated the momentum from which Hastings scuttled over a couple of sharp phases later.
Melrose responded promptly when their powerful set-piece put the squeeze on in the right-hand corner, before the ball was slickly transferred across the park – with one hit-up in the middle from George Taylor – before Craig Jackson sniffed out the line.
These highlights apart, it was a fairly stodgy affair during the first 30 minutes, until a sweeping Melrose counter-attack threatened to spark the game into life. That, unfortunately, came to nothing when Neil Irvine-Hess couldn’t hold on to Iain Moody’s pass, but Melrose kept up the pressure by bulldozing their way to a penalty at the resulting scrum. They then kicked to the corner and Grant Shiels rumbled over after a series of tight drives.
That livened the game up, and the Chieftains finally found a way to get the ball moving for the first time since the opening exchanges. It was pretty harem-scarem at times, and they were nearly caught out on a couple of notable occasions when risky passes didn’t go to hand and the ball was hacked downfield by the visitors. But that determination to play at tempo finally paid off in the last play before half-time, when Charlie Shiel picked up at the base of a ruck and nipped in under the posts. Jamie Forbes kicked the easy conversion to give the home side a slender 14-12 lead.
The second half started with a bang. With Duncan Ferguson added to the Chieftains front-row (along with Callum Mackintosh just before the break), the hosts managed to win a scrum penalty just inside the Melrose half. Forbes shaped to kick for touch but then took a quick tap and worked a scissors with Hastings, who ghosted past one tackle with the most casual of dummies, then powered through at least three more fairly lacklustre challenges on his way to a fine score.
Jackson struck back with a penalty after a high tackle, and he then dashed straight back out of his own 22 straight from the restart, but couldn’t quite find the support on his left when he was eventually closed down near the halfway line.
Hastings had switched up to stand-off at half-time and Forbes had dropped to full-back, and both were exerting significant influence on the game. An excellently judged cross-kick from Hastings required some excellent tidying up work from Gavin Wood, while Forbes sniffed out a gap and would have had Melrose in all sorts of trouble if he had made better contact with his kick ahead.
“It was always in the back of my head that I would give Adam a bit of a run at ten if I could. I thought Jamie played really well last week against Boroughmuir so that’s why he got the start, but I just felt there was a few things in the first half that didn’t go as well as I would have liked and it was a good opportunity to make a change because I knew the game would open up and Adam is really dangerous in that situation,” said Cairns afterwards.
“It meant we could have two first receivers stepping up either side of the ruck during phase play and it worked really well.”
Melrose narrowed their focus and looked to their pack to muscle their way back into the lead, but the Chieftains faced it down; and when the Borderers tried to move the ball wide they lacked that composure which characterised their charge to the top of the league during the first dozen games of the campaign.
A scrum penalty allowed Chieftains to activate the pressure release valve, but an overthrown line-out handed the initiative back to Melrose, only for the visitors to kick the ball away. The home team were ready to capitalise this time – with Vernon finishing off a sweeping attack with about ten minutes to go.
That score initially knocked the wind out of Melrose’s sales. Their restart didn’t go ten and their previously dominant scrum disintegrated, gifting Chieftains a penalty.
But they regrouped enough to win a long-range penalty in the final play of the match which would have earned a losing bonus-point at the death, but Jackson’s effort hit the post. Hastings collected the rebound and coolly fired the ball out of play to secure the win.
“We just have to take it on the chin. I don’t think there was much in the game. Adam Hastings had a few good moments. I think we switched off a couple of time while they stayed really focussed for the full 80 minutes so full credit to them,” said Melrose head coach Rob Chrystie.
“I think we were better this week than against Ayr last week so I’m happy with that, but we need to get back and start grafting again – being critical of each other and working hard. We’ll be better for tight games like this. Our game management maybe wasn’t the best at times.”
Currie Chieftains: A Hastings; C Gray, R Tagive, R Nelson, B Robbins; J Forbes, C Shiel; K Burney, G Carson, A McWilliam, H Bain, V Wright; L Crosbie; T Gordon, R Vernon. Subs: C Mackintosh, D Ferguson, M Vernel, M Hooks.
Melrose: C Jackson; G Wood, N Godsmark, G Taylor, R McCann; J Baggott, B Colvine; G Shiels, R Anderson, N Beavon, A Runciman, R Knott, N Irvine-Hess, G Runciman, I Moody. Subs: R Ferguson, R McLeod, M McAndrew, A Lockington.
Chieftains: Tries: Hastings 2, Shiel, Vernon; Cons: Forbes 2.
Melrose: Tries: Jackson, Shiels; Cons: Jackson; Pen: Jackson
Scoring sequence (Chieftains first): 5-0; 7-0; 7-5; 7-10; 7-12; 12-12; 14-12 (h-t) 19-12; 19-15; 24-15.
Referee: Julien Castaignade (France)
Man-of-the-Match: Plenty of contenders amongst the home ranks but Robbie Nelson’s all-round physicality and controlled aggression in defence set the tone.
Talking point: This title race is no longer a foregone conclusion, but can the Chieftains maintain the head of steam they have built up in recent outings?