DAVID BARNES @ The Greenyards
A ROYAL RUMBLE of a rugby match. Lacking, perhaps, in finesse, but compelling because of its brutality – and, of course, because of the tension. Both teams went toe-to-toe for the full 80 minutes, and it was the right outcome in the end – not only because Melrose were the better team on the day, but, more importantly, because they were the better team over the whole season.
The pitch was heavy and the ball was greasy, so after a few early attempts to put some sparkle into proceedings, the match became a war of attrition. The power of Melrose’s scrum, the discipline of their defence and the control of Craig Jackson and Jason Baggott in midfield were the decisive factors.
Home head coach Rob Chrystie was surprisingly flat when he spoke afterwards. He seemed to be suffering from nervous exhaustion. The play-off system is great fun so long as you are not the team which has dominated the league all season and is now running risk of having everything you have worked so hard for snatched away at the last moment. Melrose know from last year’s bitter experience what it feels like to fall at the final hurdle in identical circumstances to this – the thought of it happening again must have been terrifying.
“The players talked about it a little bit. I think we learned a lot last year in terms of how to manage the game,” said Chrystie. “What’s really interesting is that if you look at the last three line-outs, Iain Moody went to Angus Runciman on each occasion, whereas last year when he backed himself and then got picked-off by Scott Sutherland … so he has learned from that. Ayr were looking for it to go to Moody and he held his nerve. He did really well.”
And that, fundamentally, was the difference. Melrose are too hot for anyone in this league to handle when they get into their stride on a dry day and a fast track, but they can come unstuck when they don’t get the basics right. In this match they played the percentages and were happy to build the win in three-point increments through a series of scrum penalties.
“We’ve been quietly going about our business behind closed doors in relation to our scrum because clearly that is where Ayr get a lot of purchase in terms of penalties and squeezing into the corner. So, we knew that was going to be a crucial part of the game, and we’ve got a pretty dominant front-row as well in Nick Beavon, Russell Anderson and Grant Shiells,” reasoned Chrystie.
“We’re a team that wants to play, everybody knows that, and at times in the first half you saw that when we had two really good counter-attacks and probably should have scored – but once we got into the lead, Craig Jackson really stood up and managed the game excellently.”
This was Ayr coach Calum Forrester’s last game after four seasons at the helm. He was fairly philosophical afterwards.
“Melrose played a pretty text book second half. They perhaps tried to play a little bit too much in the first half but their half-backs pinned us back in that bottom right hand corner for their entire second half and made it very difficult for us to get out,” he said.
“I hate to go back to it, but our old issues with discipline killed us again, in stupid areas of the pitch. It makes life so difficult if you are giving away cheap penalties on halfway which lead to getting pinned back in your own 22. That is something that this group of players are just going to have to learn from going forward.
“I was disappointed with a few of the scrum decisions. It is an area where we have come down here and dominated in the past, and a couple went our way early on, so I’m just a wee bit disappointed with how that unfolded,” he added.
Scott Lyle gave Ayr a three-point lead in the sixth minute after James Head was penalised for not releasing the tackled man under the shadow of his own posts; but Melrose bounced back pretty promptly through the boot of Jackson after George Stokes was called for languishing on the wrong side of a ruck as Murdo McAndrew tried to get the ball away.
Fraser Thomson made up for an earlier uncharacteristic misjudgement of a kick receipt by expertly gathering a Lyle clearance before it floated out of play and launching a counter-attack which led to Ross McCann wriggling clear on his left wing, but having done the hard work the former Scotland Under-20s star overcomplicated things with a backhanded flip towards the support on his inside, when a conventional pass would have been easier and would not have caught Austin Lockington unawares, leading to a knock-on.
Ayr got the scrum, but Melrose got the penalty when it went down, and Jackson edged the home team into the lead with another three points – but it could, and probably should, have been seven.
The visitors then claimed their first and only try when David Armstrong broke from the base of a scrum then sent a flat pass to Stafford McDowall, who broke the line and then executed a simple two-on-one to send Rory Hughes over.
Lyle added the easy conversion, then collected three more points with a monstrous penalty from beyond Melrose’s ten metre line – a hell of a distance considering the conditions – which stretched Ayr’s advantage to seven.
Thomson launched another slicing counter-attack just before the break, but Grant Runciman couldn’t quite hold on to the full-back’s pass back inside, meaning Ayr got the scrum – which was probably the last thing the visitors wanted given the way things had been going for them at set-piece time.
Melrose duly won the scrum penalty – their fourth of the half – and Jackson kicked the points. Worse still for Ayr, referee Keith Allen also sent loose-head Robin Hislop to the bin for repeated infringement.
That meant George Hunter moved up from the second-row to his primary loose-head prop position for ten minutes, while Scott Sutherland came on to add some serious bulk to the engine-room, with outside centre Matt Davidson making way. The reshuffle didn’t make much difference, Melrose marched Ayr back at the first scrum of the second half to earn yet another penalty – although Jackson was off target with his shot at goal on this occasion.
Melrose kept building the pressure, and eventually got their reward when Jackson had the foresight to cut back behind the ruck from which he had just received the ball, then sent Grant Runcman in for the try with an excellent flat pass.
The remainder of the match was a real slug-fest, but Melrose were equal to everything Ayr threw in their direction, and held their nerve tactically, to secure a well-deserved win.
Melrose: F Thomson; A Lockington, G Taylor, C Jackson, R McCann; J Baggott, M McAndrew; G Shiels, R Anderson, N Beavon, J Head, A Runciman, R Knott, G Runciman, I Moody. Substitutes:R Ford.
Ayr: G Anderson; R Hughes, M Davidson, S McDowall, C Gossman; S Lyle, D Armstrong; R Hislop, L Anderson, S Longwell, G Hunter, R McAlpine, T Spinks, G Stokes, B Macpherson. Subs: D Young,S Sutherland, P Dewhirst.
Referee: Keith Allen
Melrose: Pen: Runciman; Con: Jackson; Pen: Jackson 3.
Ayr: Try: Hughes; Con: Lyle; Pen: Lyle 2;
Scoring sequence (Melrose first): 0-3; 3-3; 6-3; 6-8; 6-10; 6-13; 9-13 (h-t) 14-13; 16-13
Yellow cards –
Man-of-the-Match: Nick Beavon is a serious contender after a huge scrummaging performance which provided the platform for Melrose’s win, but Craig Jackson edges it for another outstanding exhibition of game management, which included two excellent diagonals into the corner during that tense final 20-minutes to keep Ayr pinned back when they needed to break out.
Talking point: If any two Super 6 franchises can replicate this level of intensity – and passion – during the initial five-year cycle of the new league, then the Murrayfield performance department may be on to something. Time will tell.