BT Premiership play-off: Ayr’s strength up front kills off Chieftains’ title hopes

Ayr hit back to take charge of the second half, running out worthy if narrow winners

Frazier Climo of Mike Vernel, Jamie Forbes and Robbie Nelson of Currie Chieftains
Frazier Climo of Mike Vernel, Jamie Forbes and Robbie Nelson of Currie Chieftains ***Image: David Gibson***

Currie Chieftains 21

Ayr 24


AYR  may not have been the model of clinical consistency this season that they were last, but they have played at their best when it mattered most, which is why they once more find themselves heading to the Greenyards for the BT Premiership final.

There were times in this game when they were in danger of falling out of contention, just as there have been times this season when even a place in the play-offs appeared to be in jeopardy. But, after trailing 21-3 at one point in the first half, they hit back to take charge of the second, running out worthy if narrow winners.

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Their scrum was dominant throughout, and on another day they might well have been awarded a penalty try. Their defence was under the cosh at times in the first half, conceding three tries, but they performed heroics in the second. There were six minutes added on for stoppages at the end of the game, but by then Currie Chieftains had run out of ideas and never looked like getting back on top.

Purvis Marquees support Currie Chieftains

Forrester praises his men

“Currie played the conditions well in the first half when the breeze began to gust a little bit,” Ayr coach Calum Forrester said. “It was really important for us to get a score on the stroke of half-time. That made it 21-10, it was a 10-point anyway, so I said ‘Show them how hard it is to play out of their own 22’.

“The effort across the pitch made it an outstanding game – it was always teed up to be with the strength that both teams had. We’re in a good place now going into the final in two weeks’ time.

“Our pack has been outstanding all season. I’m really proud of the effort from everyone.”

Chieftans on the front foot

It was the Chieftains pressed relentlessly right from kick-off, and took a fourth-minute lead when Mike Vernel slalomed through three defenders to touch down behind the posts, giving Jamie Forbes a simple conversion.

A scrum penalty allowed Scott Lyle to open Ayr’s account after 11 minutes, and the visitors continued to enjoy the upper hand in the set-piece. With nearly half an hour played, however, they were themselves penalised in the scrum, and a Forbes kick set up good position deep in the Ayr half.

The throw-in was cleanly collected, the maul was driven infield then back out to the right, and referee David Sutherland was perfectly positioned to see Richie Vernon touch down. Forbes’ conversion made it 14-3.

It was a one-sided score that gave a misleading impression of how closely contested the breakdown in particular had been, and worse was to follow for Ayr in the closing minutes of the half after lock Rob McAlpine was yellow-carded for kicking the ball out of Charlie Shiel’s hands. Currie made immediate use of the numerical advantage with their third try. Again the penalty went to touch, again the maul picked up instant momentum, and this time flanker Thomas Gordon was the one to finish it off, with Forbes once more adding the two points.

Ayr needed to hit back quickly to stay in contention, and they did in the last minute of the half when Steven Longwell crossed from close range after some persistent pressure. Lyle’s conversion put his team into double figures, giving a truer reflection of the balance of play.

Ayr grow in stature during the second period

The Chieftains were first to threaten after the break when Ratu Tagive gathered a spilled ball and raced upfield, but the cover defence got back in time to bring down the big winger. It was the last time the home side would break the first line of defence, as Ayr grew stronger the more the game went on.

In 53 minutes a drive by the visitors was held up, but the pressure was soon back on, and Robin Hislop scored to put Ayr right back in it, with Lyle’s conversion narrowing the gap to four points. With quarter of an hour left, Ayr took a leaf out of the Currie playbook with a try from a penalty kicked to touch. Lewis Anderson was the one to finish this one off, with Lyle again converting, and Ayr were ahead for the first time in the game.

Vernon sees red

Vernel, who had had a head cut stapled at the break, went off bleeding with 10 minutes to go after the cut reopened, and a lot of the Chieftains’ impetus disappeared with him. Some more vanished five minutes after that, as Vernon was sent off after what was deemed to be a dangerous tackle on Pete McCallum.

The Glasgow professional may have released the Ayr man a little early rather than bringing him to ground, but McCallum did not appear to land head first. Vernon saw no reason to waste any time by complaining about the decision, but a yellow card would probably have been a fairer punishment, and it will be interesting to see if the red is rescinded.

If playing with a man down made the home team’s task all the tougher, the game looked beyond them by that stage in any case. Lyle was wide with a penalty from the Currie 10-metre line, and then, in what Forrester reckoned was one of the longest passages of play of the season, the Chieftains hammered away futilely at the Ayr defence for almost all of the six minutes of added time.

“We were happy with the position at half-time,” Chieftains coach Ben Cairns said. “We struggled to get a foothold in the second half just by coughing up the ball too many times. Ultimately that’s cost us.”

WG McHarg and Co are proud to support Ayr Rugby Club

Teams –

Currie Chieftains: H Elms; R Tagive, R Vernon, R Nelson, B Robbins; J Forbes, C Shiel; K Burney, F Scott, A McWilliam, H Bain, V Wright, M Vernel, T Gordon, L Crosbie. Subs: G Carson, C MacKintosh, S Ainslie, S McGinley, R Davies, M O’Neil, C Gray.

Ayr: G Anderson; R Hughes, R Fergusson, F Climo, C Gossman; S Lyle, D Armstrong; R Hislop, L Anderson, S Longwell, G Hunter, R McAlpine, B Macpherson, T Spinks, P McCallum. Subs: D Young, J Agnew, Michael Badenhorst, G Stokes, H Warr, P Dewhirst, M Davidson.

Scorers: Currie Chieftains: Tries: Vernel, Vernon, Gordon. Cons: Forbes 3.

Ayr: Tries: Longwell, Hislop, Anderson. Cons: Lyle 3. Pen: Lyle.

Scoring sequence: 5-0, 7-0, 7-3, 12-3, 14-3, 19-3, 21-3, 21-8, 21-10 half-time, 21-15, 21-17, 21-22, 21-24.

Yellow card: Ayr: McAlpine:

Red card: Currie Chieftains: Vernon.

Referee: D Sutherland.

Man of the match: George Hunter epitomised the never-say-die attitude of the Ayr pack, playing a big role in their control of the set piece and also working tirelessly in the loose.

Talking point: The Richie Vernon red card again highlighted how difficult it is to get the tackle law right, and to find a balance between the desire to protect players and the recognition that this is a brutally punitive sport.

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About Stuart Bathgate 1407 Articles
Stuart has been the rugby correspondent for both The Scotsman and The Herald, and was also The Scotsman’s chief sports writer for 14 years from 2000.