DAVID BARNES @ The Greenyards
MELROSE might have finished the regular season four points clear at the top of the BT Premiership table, but it is Ayr who will be recorded in the history books as the champion team of Scotland after beating the Borderers in their own back yard in the only game that really mattered.
As a rugby spectacle, it maybe did not match up to the standards set in the previous two BT Premiership Grand Finals, but for edge-of-the-seat drama it was right up there with both those modern classics. Ayr held on against a furious Melrose onslaught during a frantic last ten minutes, before Scott Sutherland soared heroically into the Border sky to steel a high pressure line-out and secure a famous win.
The best two club sides in Scotland this year by a considerable distance went toe-to-toe for 80 enthralling minutes. There was only one try in the match, but whatever this contest lacked in terms of gilt edged opportunities was more than compensated for in intensity and commitment to the cause. There was thrills, spills and, ultimately, heartache at the end for Melrose – but at least they have an opportunity for some sort of redemption next Saturday, when the same two teams will do it all again in the BT Cup Final at Murrayfield.
Ayr started with a bang when captain Pete McCallum picked up at the base of a ruck on the halfway line and rampaged to deep inside the home team’s 22, before feeding scrum-half David Armstrong, who was bundled into touch just short of the line.
Melrose took the lead in the 13th minute thanks to a Jason Baggott penalty awarded a few phases after Ayr shot themselves in the foot by getting caught behind their own line when trying to run a quick line-out.
The visitors bounced back almost immediately with a sustained period of pressure, and they almost certainly would have scored the first try of the match had Archie Russell not misfired his pass to Danny McCluskey as he tried to exploit an overlap up the right touchline, meaning Ayr had to make do with three points instead, with Frazier Climo doing the honours after Lewis Anderson was penalised for a high tackle on Craig Gossman.
Teenager Stafford McDowall showed great poise and balance when gracefully ghosting through a gap and then breaking 30 yards up field to establish the field position from which Climo soon doubled his own and his team’s account courtesy of an offside penalty.
Climo stayed down for treatment after being caught slightly late by Nick Beavon just before the break, but he bounced back on his feet after touch judge Keith Allen had finished advising referee Mike Adamson to award a penalty for that offence, and he seemed to be suffering few ill effects from the collision as he fired home another vital three points.
That meant Ayr took a six-point lead into the break, but Melrose will have been the happier of the two sides with how the game was balanced at that stage given that they had just spent 40 minutes playing into a strong wind. They had been stretched pretty thin on a handful of occasions but, crucially, they had not conceded a try.
When Ayr let the kick-off at the start of the second half bounce, then got themselves in a couple of horrible messes with throwers, lifters and jumpers completely out of sync at consecutive line-outs, it looked highly unlikely that their six point cushion was going to be enough.
But they weathered that storm and then extended their lead with another Climo penalty; before Melrose snatched a lifeline with seventeen minutes to go, when an extended period of pressure finally created a mismatch on the right which allowed second-row Ruaridh Knott to bowl over scrum-half David Armstrong on his way to the line.
Melrose broke clear again a few moments later with an exquisite offload from Craig Jackson putting Fraser Thosmon into space, but Nyle Godsmark couldn’t quite get to the kick ahead before it bounced harmlessly over the dead-ball line.
As the game started to open up, nerves also began to fray, with neither side prepared to yield an inch. Ayr’s Robert McApline rode his luck with a high tackle on Melrose captain Grant Runciman, which could easily have prompted a yellow card from a referee less in tune with the players than Mike Adamson (the former Glasgow Warriors and Scotland Sevens star).
The tense finale to this absorbing contest was prompted by an exquisite 60-yard kick into the corner by Baggott. Jackson was held up over the line a few minutes later and Ayr breathed a huge sigh of relief, but when Pete McCallum was sin-binned for collapsing yet another powerful line-out drive it looked like history was going to repeat itself. The memory of losing last year’s final in very similar circumstances has left a deep wound in the collective psyche at Millbrae.
Fortunately for the men from the west, on this occasion a penalty try was not also awarded. Melrose kicked to the corner again and planned to rumble their line-out drive over the chalk, but this time veteran second-row Sutherland was able to read the throw and make what will almost certainly be the most important interception of his long career.
“Scott getting that turnover at the line-out shows the experience he has, he saw an opportunity and took it. We saw today the level of professionalism both these clubs have. Melrose played a really clever game in the second half, keeping the ball down near our line, while our boys defended really well at points as well,” said jubilant Ayr coach Calum Forrester afterwards.
“The next challenge for us is to back this up when we go to Murrayfield for the Cup final next Saturday, against a Melrose team who are going to be hurting and really desperate to get something out of their season,” he added.
Melrose head coach Rob Chrystie did his best to be philosophical about the set-back.
“We had quite a few chances but we didn’t take them. We said before the game it was going to come down to small margins and that’s the way it was at the end. To be fair to Ayr, they came here with a pretty good plan – they dominated the breakdown, especially in the first half, and controlled the game as a result of that – but once we got playing we showed what we are about,” he said.
“I’m really proud of the effort of the boys and it was a pretty good game in relation to putting the BT Premiership in a good light.”
“You go into our changing room now and you know that this was the only match that counts, but the boys will reflect back and see that hey have had a great season playing some brilliant rugby, so they’ve got loads to be proud of.”
“Its sore just now but we’ll be better for it. The good thing is that we’ve got one week now to prepare to do it all over again. This was the one we wanted, but next week is a huge game, too. Which is fortunate because if that had been the last game it would have been a long summer.”
Melrose: F Thomson; A Lockington (G Taylor 24min), N Godsmark, C Jackson, S Pecqueur; J Baggott (N Beavon 25min), M McAndrew (B Colvine 55min); J Bhatti (D Elkington 66min), R Anderson, R McLeod, J Head (A Grieve 55min), R Knott, N Irvine-Hess, G Runciman©, I Moody.
Ayr: G Anderson; D McCluskey (D Young 79min), A Russell, S McDowall, C Gossman; F Climo, D Armstrong; G Hunter, L Anderson, S Longwell, R McAlpine (D Sears-Duru 76min), S Sutherland, B MacPherson, W Bordill (G Henry 65), P McCallum©.
Referee: Mike Adamson
Melrose: Try: Knott; Cons: Pens: Baggott
Ayr: Pens: Climo 4
Scoring sequence (Melrose first): 3-0; 3-3; 3-6; 3-9 (h-t) 3-12; 8-12
Yellow cards –
Ayr: McCallum (78min)
Man-of-the-Match: He got yellow-carded at the end but Ayr skipper Pete McCallum led by example.
Talking Point: A real shame that the two top club teams in Scotland playing at one of the most iconic grounds in world rugby in a winner-takes-all clash on a cold but dry spring afternoon could not attract a bigger crowd than 1000 at best. Where were all the neutrals?