STUART BATHGATE @ Goldenacre
AFTER being knocked out of the BT Cup by Edinburgh Accies in their last outing, Heriot’s needed a convincing win to put their season back on track, and they got it with a five-try display against relegation-threatened Marr. The Ayrshire team were level at the break and ahead in the early stages of the first half, but were unable to make anything approaching adequate use of the heaps of possession they had. Heriot’s, by contrast, consistently proved themselves capable of creating tries out of very little, and thwarted their opponents time after time with a defensive effort that was both dynamic and well organised.
“It took me about five days to get over it,” Heriot’s coach Phil Smith said of that defeat two weeks ago at Raeburn Place. “It wrenches at my gut. We had a meeting on the Thursday night and talked about the rest of the season. The first thing we said was we have to forget about the Accies game – but that might have been a shot in the arm to help us focus on getting the top four in the league.”
Heriot’s were already in the play-off places before this match, and, while there is still some way to go, they look increasingly likely to stay there. They will be without openside flanker Jack McClean until after Christmas, as the openside flanker suffered his second head knock of the season and faces a compulsory spell on the sidelines. But otherwise their squad is close to full strength, and has the combination of qualities needed to produce efficient displays at this level.
They certainly enjoyed an efficient start to the game, going ahead after three minutes. Awarded three penalties in quick succession, they opted not to kick any of them for goal, and were rewarded when Jack Turley touched down by the posts after a well-worked lineout drive. Ross Jones’ conversion put further emphasis on the fine start made by the home team, but they then spent the following 20 minutes under heavy pressure.
There appeared to be some unwritten pact between the sides not to go for goal, because for the rest of the half Marr, like their hosts before them, either sent penalties for lineouts or simply ran the ball. The first time they kicked to touch, their subsequent drive was halted by a turnover; when they tried the same ploy, they lost 20 metres to some well-drilled defending. Regrouping, they should have scored off a good break by Gregor Paxton, but the centre held the ball when a pass to Dougie Steele might well have produced a try.
When Heriot’s finally relieved the siege, Turley came close to scoring again from a quick break, only to lose the ball forward in the tackle. Marr then regained the initiative and went on to dominate what remained of the half, finally getting on the scoreboard with the last play before the break.
Heriot’s had conceded several more penalties in the build-up to the try, but also showed superb organisation in defence to hold the Marr attack up on the line. In the end, however, the pressure told, and a drive by the visiting forwards saw Mackenzie Pearce force his way over.
Steele’s conversion made it level pegging at the break, which was certainly the least Marr deserved. The question was, however, whether so much effort for so little reward would take its toll in the second half.
The early signs were that it would not, as Steele, bucking the trend of the opening 40, kicked for goal with the first award of the half and put his team ahead. But Heriot’s then began to make their fitness tell, and with 50 minutes on the clock hooker Michael Liness popped up on the right wing to round off a good passing move. Jones’ conversion attempt curled teasingly wide of the posts.
Smith’s team might have been expected to press home their advantage from that point, but there was still a lot of life in Marr, who, as in the first half, began to enjoy a lot of territorial advantage for little reward – or as it turned out in this case, for no reward. In fact, they were almost punished severely when Charlie Simpson just failed to hold an interception that would have put him through for a score.
Steele had a similar effort at the other end as Heriot’s fought back, and then, after the home team sent a penalty to touch, Liness again got on the score sheet, this time from the lineout drive. Jones added the two points to put his side more than a full score ahead for the first time, and they visibly grew in confidence as they realised the game was close to being sewn up.
A couple of minutes later it was, as Struan Cessford scored the bonus-point try after some adventurous running rugby down the left. Jones converted again, and although there was still time for Marr to hit back, at least in the hope of getting a losing bonus, they were hampered by the sin-binning of Ross Miller for an offence close to his own try line.
Heriot’s made swift use of the numerical advantage, and Stewart Mustard scored their fifth try from close range after they had run the penalty. Jones converted to produce a wide margin of victory that, while giving no indication of how close the contest had been for the first hour or so, was a fair summary of Heriot’s superior cutting edge and defensive solidity.
“They had lots of ball [in the first half], and that was a frustration in that when we had the ball I thought we looked really good,” Smith added. “But we gave them a lot of possession, which was disappointing. But there wasn’t a lot of a threat – there was a lot of possession, but not a lot of threat, and I thought we defended brilliantly, to be honest.
“We had the first five minutes and the middle two minutes in the first half. Second half, the message was ‘Can we just keep the ball for a bit longer and try and apply some pressure?’ And I think we did that.”
Heriot’s: R Jones; C Robertson, R Mulveena, R Kay, J Rae; R Carmichael©, T Wilson; M Bouab, M Liness, S Cessford, C Marshall, J Turley, M Maltman, J McLean, S Dewar. Subs used: A Sinclair, S Edwards, L Steele, N Campbell, S Mustard.
Marr: D Steele; T Buchanan, R Dalgleish, G Paxton, T Steven; C Kolarik, K Barreto; W Farquhar, O Rossi, F Watt, E Bulger, K Hetherall, M Pearce, A Johnston, R Miller. Subs used: G Jackson, S Adair, R Jackson.
Scorers: Heriot’s: Tries: Turley, Liness 2, Cessford, Mustard. Cons: Jones 4.
Marr: Try: Pearce. Con: Steele. Pen: Steele.
Scoring sequence: 5-0, 7-0, 7-5, 7-7 half-time, 7-10, 12-10, 17-10, 19-10, 24-10, 26-10, 31-10, 33-10.
Yellow card: Marr: Miller.
Referee: K Allen.
Man of the match: blindside flanker Michael Maltman was a key element of the Heriot’s defensive effort that did so much to turn the tide after Marr’s territorial domination in the first half.
Talking point: Can cup defeats be blessings in disguise? That certainly seemed to be the case here, as Heriot’s bounced back from that loss against Accies to produce arguably their best all-round display of the season so far.