ALAN LORIMER @ The Greenyards
MELROSE completed a clean sweep in the first half of this BT Premiership season after achieving what was an almost guaranteed win over bottom-of-the-table Hawick to secure their ninth bonus point in nine rounds of the championship.
Yet, such has been the whirlwind way that Melrose have swept through the league to date, this victory over their Border rivals, by their smallest margin in nine games, brought a more muted celebration than might otherwise have been expected – not least because of the Greens’ stirring performance after the break which allowed the visitors to take the second half honours.
Melrose might be excused for a less-than-convincing victory given the need to rejig their backline in the absence of three players, wingers Ross McCann and Sam Pecqueur plus centre Nyle Godsmark, all on sevens duty. Moreover, they were also without back-row Ally Miller, a stand-out player at Goldenacre against Heriot’s.
The forced change in personnel resulted in the inclusion of the exciting George Taylor. In the event the young centre showed that, while still feeling his way back into the game after missing the start of the season through injury, he is not far away from good form.
“I thought George played well when he came on and certainly defended very well when they came at us in the second half,” observed Melrose head coach Rob Chrystie, who also praised replacement scrum-half Struan Hutchison.
“In all we made seven changes for the match against Hawick. But we had quality players to come in. As a result, I thought we managed the first half pretty well and were clinical when we had the ball. I thought Hawick played very well in the second half.”
Perhaps because Melrose had to make so many changes behind the scrum they opted to keep the ball tight and use the experience of their forward pack to punch holes in the Hawick defence.
That deployment of forward strength certainly worked early in the game when, not for the first time, stand-off Jason Baggott kicked to the corner at penalty time, allowing Melrose to drive over from the subsequent line-out, resulting in a try for hooker Richard Ferguson, converted by Craig Jackson.
Both teams were reduced to fourteen men with the temporary dismissal of the Melrose lock Angus Runciman and Hawick flanker Stuart Graham for a tip tackle and retaliation.
Shortly afterwards Fraser Thomson, a prolific try scorer this season, showed good footwork in picking his way through the Hawick defence before scorching to the line.
Then after a succession of five metre line-outs and driving mauls, scrum-half Murdo McAndrew broke the monotony by dashing round the blind side for the third Melrose try.
All that was needed was another score and it duly came, again courtesy of the Melrose forwards, ending in a close range try from prop Grant Shiels. Jackson added the conversion for a 24-6 interval lead.
The anticipated second-half points avalanche for Melrose simply did not happen as Hawick suddenly discovered some form with crisp handling and efficient ball retention which produced a classic try on the right wing for Gary Munro, converted by Ally Weir, who had also kicked two first half penalty goals.
Two penalty goals by Jackson in quick succession pulled Melrose away again before the Greens made their all-out attacking game tell with a second try for Munro. Weir again adding the extras.
Melrose: F Thomson; G Wood, P Anderson, C Jackson, B Chalmers; J Baggot, M McAndrew; G Shiels, R Ferguson, N Beavon, J Head, A Runciman, N Irvine-Hess, R Knott, I Moody. Subs used: D Elkington, R McLeod, G Runciman, S Hutchison, G Taylor.
Hawick: A Weir; G Munro, G Johnstone, D Buckely, L Ferguson; L Armstrong, G Cottrell; S Muir, M Carryer, N Little, C Hamilton, D Redpath, G Graham, S Graham, B McNeil. Subs used: F Renwick, R Sutherland, K Davies, M Tait.
Melrose: Tries Ferguson, Thomson, McAndrew, Shiels; Cons: Jackson 2, Pens: Jackson 2.
Hawick: Tries: Munro 2; Cons: Weir 2; Pens: Weir 2.
Scoring Sequence (Melrose first): 0-3, 5-3, 7-3, 7-6, 12-6, 17-6, 22-6, 24-6 (ht) 24-11, 24-13, 27-13, 30-13, 30-18, 30-2o.
Yellow cards –
Melrose: A Runciman, G Runciman
Hawick: S Graham
Referee: I Kenny
Man-of-the-Match: He has been around but Grant Shiels is playing some of the best rugby of his career with Melrose. Against Hawick, the loose-head prop was at the heart of the Melrose forward effort that secured the game and the bonus point for the Greenyards men.
Talking point: Melrose have reached the half way stage of the BT Premiership in the best shape possible. The question now is whether they can dominate the second half of the season so convincingly or will the loss of players to Scotland Sevens and possibly to Edinburgh (Ally Miller and Jason Baggott), plus an expected deterioration in the weather, change fortunes at The Greenyards?