STUART RUTHERFORD @ The Greenyards
On paper this looked like the perfect chance to rebound for Melrose. A home match against a side yet to win away from home on a beautiful, dry autumn afternoon. It looked as though Melrose would add to their hefty points difference which is already the highest in the league. However, it didn’t quite pan out that way and if it hadn’t been for a late flurry of tries, the Borders outfit could have fallen even further behind in the title race.
There is no denying that last weekend’s loss at Millbrae would have stung Melrose and that certainly showed in the opening half. The defeat seven days earlier knocked the Greenyards side off their Premiership perch and no doubt the long bus ride home would have felt even longer for Rob Chrystie as he came to grips with the agonising loss. However, the head coach was more than happy with how his team rebounded. He said “I was really chuffed with the performance. The guts that we showed in grinding out the win was great. We had a lot of so-called first team players out today and the young guys that stepped in gave a lot of effort. We had opportunities up in Ayr to win the game but we didn’t manage them properly and it was really pleasing to see how we bounced back today.”
However, Stirling were not just here to make up the numbers. David Adamson’s squad arrived fresh off of a convincing home win against Gala where their front five dominated the breakdown and his side must have felt optimistic that they could compete against a wounded Melrose side. They would also have been boosted by the late withdrawal of the Border side’s top try scorer Ross McCann. The winger has been in sensational form but was absent due to tonsillitis.
It was the visitors who started the strongest, however, and they went ahead after only eight minutes. Much had been said in the build-up about Stirling’s ability to drive at the lineout and they showed that the praise was much deserved when they kicked a penalty to the corner and drove the ball masterfully to the home side’s five metre line. The ball was recycled and fed through the backs before it landed in hands of Craig Pringle. The winger did brilliantly to fend off his opposite number before touching it down in the corner with one hand. Jonny Hope nailed the tricky conversion and to make matters worse for Melrose their talisman speedster Austin Lockington, who was filling in at fullback for Fraser Thompson, left the field injured to be replaced by David Colvine.
This early setback did not seem to deter the home side as they pinned County back inside their own 22, with wave after wave of attacks. Richard Taylor showed his importance to the Melrose back line by playing with a maturity beyond his years. The young centre kept hold of the ball and hit up when needed, but also made several half breaks when the time was right. Stirling finally succumbed to the pressure when they gave away a penalty in front of their posts. Stand-off Jason Baggott chipped over to make it 3-7.
With points on the board, the home side continued to play with their tails up and the Melrose pack showed why they are a force to be reckoned with on any given Saturday. On the half hour mark, Melrose went ahead and it was most definitely a case of ‘anything you can do we can do better’. After winning a penalty and kicking to the corner, the strong Melrose pack set up a driving maul that powerfully crashed over the whitewash. Back row Ruaridh Knott was the man to touch down and with Baggott missing the conversion, the score was left at 8-7 which was still the case at the break.
Stirling were clearly encouraged by their defensive efforts in keeping Melrose to only eight points and it showed as they came out all guns blazing to start the second half. A lengthy penalty from Hope put the visitors ahead before a mazy run from Sam Johnson was halted by an offence that resulted in a yellow card for the hosts. The inside centre carried the ball 30 metres into the Melrose half before being brought down, and when Baggott interfered in Nemia Kenatale’s efforts to quickly pass the ball, he was duly sent to the bin. County stand-off Ross Jones came up short with the resulting penalty but the visitors were undoubtedly spurred on by their man advantage.
The game ebbed and flowed, with both sides sharing possession and for a while it looked as though Stirling were going to grind out the victory. However, Melrose are second in the league for a reason and they showed their mental toughness in the closing quarter.
After the visitors’ scrum-half Kenatale was yellow carded for handling in the ruck, Melrose increased the intensity and for a lengthy period were camped on the visitors’ five metre line. When the ball was fed out wide it looked as though the move had stalled when replacement Colvine was tackled only metres out, however, the young full-back did excellently to pop the ball up to the oncoming Craig Jackson who acrobatically dived into the corner for the score. Baggott added the extras to put the Greenyards side up 15-10 going into the last five minutes.
It looked as though prop Jamie Bhatti had administered the coup-de-grace when he breezed under the posts to stretch the score to 22-10. However, Adamson’s men fought back almost immediately. After brilliant play amongst the County backs, the ball was eventually recycled and fed to Shaun McDonald. The replacement back row had come on for the injured number eight Alex Taylor and he didn’t waste any time in making an impact when he touched down in the corner. Hope hit a spectacular conversion from the touchline to bring the visitors within a score at 22-17.
Stirling huffed and puffed but simply could not get hold of the ball in the closing minutes and when Baggott hit another penalty in injury time the game was all but over. Melrose avoid a post-Millbrae hangover whilst Stirling still search for that all elusive first away win of the season.
Melrose: A Lockington; N Godsmark, C Jackson (c), R Taylor, G Wood; J Baggott, M McAndrew; J Bhatti, R Anderson, N Beavon, J Head, A Grieve, N Irvine Hess, R Knott, I Moody. Subs: C Mckay, D Elkington, R McLeod, D Colvine, S Hutchison.
Stirling County: J Hope (c); C Pringle, N Grigg, S Johnson, B Sorbie; R Jones, N Kenatale; M MacDonald, R Kennedy, A Nicol, H Burr, A Sinclair, R Leishman, S Robertson, A Taylor. Subs: M Emmison, F Bradbury, S McDonald, M Donaldson, J Cresswell, C McNeil.
Melrose: Tries: Knott, Jackson, Bhatti; Cons: Baggot (2) Pens: Baggot (2).
Stirling County: Tries: Pringle, McDonald; Cons: Hope (2) Pens: Hope
Scoring sequence: 0-7, 3-7, 8-7 (h-t) 8-10, 15-10, 22-10, 22-17, 25-17.
Yellow cards –
Stirling County: Kenatale
Referee: Neil Muir
Man-of-the-Match: Melrose back row Ruaridh Knott put in an eye catching display and was constantly around the ball all afternoon. The hardworking open-side capped off his performance with a well taken try.
Talking point: A mass brawl after the full time whistle marred proceedings. The game had been played in the right manner all afternoon but emotions clearly spilled over following Melrose’s late victory.
Image courtesy: Douglas Hardie