STUART RUTHERFORD @ Netherdale
A POWERFUL first-half performance from Ayr, which saw them breeze to a 24-0 lead, was enough to secure a victory despite a spirited second half performance making the Millbrae outfit sweat a little for the points.
With a low fog covering the pitch at Netherdale prior to kick-off, it was neigh-on-impossible to make out any of the early action. However, as the weather improved, so did Ayr’s performance and with Frazier Climo pulling the strings, they were able to flex their attacking muscles.
With only a minute on the clock, it was the visitors who took the lead after their compact pack displayed excellent leg drive to work a rolling maul into Gala’s twenty-two. Following several pick-and-goes, Ayr’s sniping scum-half David Armstrong showed initiative by breaking down the blind side where he effortlessly brushed off a tackle from Rob Louw. With full-back Graham Spiers bearing down on him, Armstrong did excellently to plant the ball with one hand in the corner to give his side an early advantage.
The early set back did not seem to dent the home side’s confidence, however, and they were soon given a chance to get themselves on the score-sheet. Following an attacking lineout in the visitor’s twenty-two, the ball was eventually fed to Matt Carryer, who hit an excellent short line off the shoulder of scrum-half Connor Adams. With the Borders’ side looking to recycle the ball swiftly, Ayr were penalised for not rolling away quickly enough, giving Gregor Hunter a chance to kick the penalty in front of the posts, however, his usual accuracy deserted him and he pushed his effort wide.
Moments later the visitors doubled their advantage and again their bulky pack were the catalyst behind the score. Following a lineout deep inside the home side’s twenty-two, Ayr worked the ball with a handful of pick-and-goes to Gala’s line. With the Border pack under intense pressure, Ayr’s Pat MacArthur looked to be in the motion of stretching over the line, when referee Keith Allen deemed Gala to have collapsed the maul, awarding the penalty try. It seemed a fairly harsh call and to add insult to injury, Gregor Hunter was sent to the bin. Climo chipped over the simple conversion to make it 12-0.
The home side fell further behind following superb work from the classy Climo. Following a lackadaisical clearance kick from Gala’s Paul Hendry, the ball was collected by the mercurial New Zealander at the halfway line. With the two defenders bearing down on him, the stand-off showed his elusiveness by sidestepping them both, then showed his cunning by putting in a perfectly weighted grubber kick into space. With the ball bouncing towards the Gala try line, it was down to foot-race between Ross Curle and Alex Northam; and it was the Ayr man who came out on top. In one motion, Curle scooped up the ball before stretching over the whitewash to extend the visitors’ lead.
By this time the locals were becoming restless with the way Ayr were effortlessly controlling the match and they were even more disgruntled when the visitors secured the bonus point with only 24 minutes on the clock. The script was becoming quite repetitive by this point. The Millbrae outfit would kick the ball to the corner, before using their superior pack to drive relentlessly towards the whitewash. On this occasion, after the ball was recycled from the back of the lineout, prop Steven Longwell was the man in the right place at the right time to power over the line.
The moans from the home crowd seemed to kick-start the Borders outfit into action, however, and they did eventually get themselves on the scoreboard on the stroke of half-time, when Adams showed his rugby intelligence by putting in a neat grubber kick down the blindside. The ball ricocheted off a number of Ayr defenders standing on the fringe before it fortunately bounced into the arms of Matt Carryer. The hooker, who had been Gala’s stand-out performer by far, displayed his finishing ability when he powered over in the corner, while Hunter nailed the tricky conversion to leave the score 24-7 at the break.
Ayr picked up their fifth almost straight from the restart. Having made significant ground with slick handling from their dynamic back line, a quick recycle allowed Climo to put in a deft chip, which was collected by half-time replacement Danny McCluskey, who dived over the whitewash.
With a 24 point advantage, it looked as though the visitors had put themselves in an unassailable position, however, Gala have often grown stronger during the second-half of matches and that was the case again here, with two quick-fire scores dragging them back into the contest.
With Gala in possession of the ball at the halfway line, it looked as if they were going nowhere as each drive into contact was met by Ayr’s stout defence. This was before an outrageous dummy from replacement Alan Emond opened up space form him to charge into visitors’ half. The number eight made up significant ground before offloading to the supporting Gregor Hunter. The stand-off looked to pop the ball to the oncoming Lewis Berg, but Archie Russell slapped the ball out of his hands, much to the displeasure of the home supporters. With the crowd baying for blood, the referee had no other option but to sin-bin the centre, however, much to the surprise of the Netherdale faithful, he additionally awarded the penalty try.
This moment of madness seemed to spur on the Borders’ outfit and they soon scored their third try of the afternoon after some slicking handling by the backline. With a scrum in the Ayr twenty-two, the ball was fed to Hunter who was positioned on the blind side. The stand-off showed great awareness by drawing his man before passing to Sasa Tofilau. The inside centre, who had shown his physicality throughout the match, put in a deft flat pass to the onrushing Craig Robertson who dived acrobatically for the corner. With Hunter hitting the conversion the score was left at 21-31 and you could sense that Ayr, perhaps, were starting to feel the increasing pressure.
Gala huffed and puffed; and for a stretch it appeared as though they might just pull off an unlikely comeback, however, Pete McCallum applied the coup-de-grace when he finished off a clinical Ayr attack. Alex Northam touched down for Gala at the death.
Gala: G Speirs(c); A Northam, L Berg, S Tofilau, P Hendry; G Hunter, C Adams; C Keen, M Carryer, G Robertson, R Louw, H Borthwick, F Hunter, S Cairns. Subs: T Skeet, D Brooker, A Emond, R Jeffrey, C Robertson.
Ayr: G Anderson; R Dalgliesh, A Russell, R Curle, C Gossman; F Climo, D Armstrong; G Hunter, P MacArthur, S Longwell, R McKenzie, R McAlpine, B Macpherson, W Bordill, P McCallum (c). Subs: J Malcolm, D Sears-Duru, D Young, D McCluskey, S McDowall.
Referee: Keith Allen
Gala: Tries: Carryer, Robertson, Penalty Try; Northam; Cons: G Hunter 4.
Ayr: Tries: Armstrong, Penalty Try, Curle, Longwell, McCluskey, McAllum; Cons: Climo 4.
Yellow cards –
Gala: Hunter, Louw
Ayr: A Russell, R McKenzie
Man-of-the-Match: Apart from being sent to the sin-bin for cynical play, Ayr’s Archie Russell had a commanding afternoon. The inside centre was solid in defence, matching up well against his opposite number Sasa Tofilau, whilst his dynamism in attack was critical in his side building up a first half lead.
Talking point: Referee Keith Allen sent four players to the sin-bin and was quick to blow his whistle all afternoon. Undoubtedly you should play to the letter of the law, but surely some leeway has to be given? Especially when conditions are so poor.
Image: David Gibson – FotoSport