DAVID BARNES @ The Greenyards
NOT particularly pretty but this was impressive. Melrose bullied their way to a BT Premiership Grand Final showdown against Ayr on 7th April with a ruthless display of power, organisation, discipline and controlled aggression – and worryingly for the teams who still have to play the Borderers this season, there was a ring of truth about Rob Chrystie’s observation afterwards that there is plenty scope for improvement in his side’s overall performance.
Melrose’s defence was excellent. Time and time again they knocked their opponents backwards with big, well-timed hits. The only try they conceded was when full-back Fraser Thomson was caught dilly-dallying near his own line and turned over. That apart, they did not give Watsonians a sniff – it must have felt like 80 minutes of running at a brick wall for the men in maroon and white.
“It was a good shift. Watsonians kept the ball for long periods of time, and they’ve got some dangerous runners in guys like Rory Hutton, Michael Allen, Michael Fedo and so on, so if you don’t defend well against them then you are going to spend a fair amount of time under the sticks,” reflected Chrystie afterwards. “To be fair, they did line-break us a few times, but I thought our scramble defence was really good as well as that front-line defence.”
“If I’m being honest, I probably would have liked a little bit more territory – maybe if we had kept the ball longer at the right times we could have put them under a little bit more pressure – so there are bits and bobs that we can still improve on, and we’ll look at that during the week,” added the Melrose head coach, which is particularly ominous for Watsonians, who provide the opposition again this coming Saturday, this time at Myreside in the BT Cup.
Stevie Lawrie concedes
Watsonians head coach Stevie Lawrie was quick to acknowledge that the final score was a fair reflection of the match, but insisted that his team can turn things around within seven days.
“I think when we analyse it we’ll see that it was a 29-point game. Melrose were really good in contact today, they managed the game really well.
“We saw our points come when we managed the game appropriately so we just need to become a little bit more mature in what we are doing, but Melrose were the better side,” he said.
“When we turned the ball over they were clinical in how they scored their tries, and the game just got away from us. I honestly believe that we’ll be stronger for that experience today, and if we can fix those couple of things than we’ll give them a good run next week – but if we don’t it will be another 30-pointer.”
An early warning
Thomson showed how dangerous he can be from full-back for the home team in the opening minutes when be broke from his own 22 then released Lockington on the right touchline. The winger pinned back his ears and pumped his knees as he zoned in on the corner, but Mark Bertram did exceptionally well to make it across from the opposite side of the pitch and bundle the Melrose man in to touch just a few metres short of the chalk.
The hosts had to make do instead with three points from the trusty boot of Craig Jackson a few minutes later after Watsonians were called for not rolling away.
In a ruse to nullify Melrose’s powerful line-out drive, the Watsonians pack started stepping back and not engaging the catcher as he brought the ball down. That meant Melrose couldn’t shift possession to the back of the bus as they trundled towards the line, and the visitors were able to stun momentum by ‘tackling’ the ball carrier [no maul had been formed].
It caused some confusion amongst the home pack on the first couple of occasions, but they soon got wise to it, and it was from a touchline catch-and-drive that they scored their first try, with Russell Anderson getting the ball down.
At this point, Watsonians were a man down, after Sean Crombie was shown yellow for coming round the side and impeding Murdo McAndrew as he tried to get the ball away from a ruck.
Jackson slotted the conversion, and then Ross McCann piled the misery on for Watsonians by running in a 60-yard interception score.
Watsonians finally got off the mark just before half-time, when Ali Harris kicked the points from straight under the posts after Craig Jackson was penalised – and shown a yellow-card – for a high tackle on Rory Hutton.
Second half and Watsonians battling
Melrose drew first blood at the start of the second half, with that man Thomson cutting through Watsonians’ defensive line like a scalpel, and running in the try from 30 metres.
Watsonians’ season was hanging by the thinnest of threads, and they rallied bravely, aided by an uncharacteristic moment of indecision from Thomson, who was snaffled by Bertram after gathering a well-weighted kick into the corner. James Miller was quick to the scene, ripped the ball clear and scuttled over.
Jackson responded with another penalty for Melrose, and Watsonians’ faint hopes of mounting a remarkable comeback were killed off once and for all when wonderful sleight of hand from Thomson gave McCann all the space he needed, and the winger danced back in field and under the posts amid a flurry of sidesteps.
Jackson’s easy conversion stretched the difference in the scores to 24 points, with 23 minutes still to go. It is to Watsonians’ enormous credit that they kept battling right through the final quarter – dominating territory and possession – in a desperate crusade for respectability on the score-board.
Melrose’s physicality was unyielding, however, and Watsonians just couldn’t find a way through. Every time a half opportunity opened up, it was immediately snapped closed again by the home team’s scramble defence.
Right at the death, McCann snatched his hat-trick up the left touch-line after the visitors had coughed the ball up as they tried to attack from their own 22.
“It’s been tough the last couple of months since Christmas because we have kind of just been waiting for this,” reflected Chrystie. “A few of the boys were away with the Club XV last weekend, and the group did get a little bit split-up, so it was good to get everyone back and I thought the bench had a huge impact today as well – which bodes well because we’ve got at least two, and hopefully three, big games left. We are going to need everyone firing.”
It is hard to see past Melrose for a league and cup double at this stage, but we said the same thing 12 months ago.
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, I Moody, G Runciman, A Miller. Subs: R Ferguson, D Elkington, R McLeod, R Knott, B Colvine, G Wood, P Anderson.
Watsonians: A Chalmers; M Bertram, M Allen, D Innes, E Miller; R Hutton, A Harris; N Fraser, S Crombie, N Borel, E Dods, C Borthwick, J Miller, G Nelson, M Fedo. Subs: D Miller, F Hobbis, K Whyte, A O’Neill, W Thomson, E Fox, R Steele.
Melrose: Tries: Anderson, McCann 3, Thomson; Cons: Jackson 3; Pen: Jackson 2
Watsonians: Try: Miller; Pen: Harris
Scoring sequence (Melrose first): 3-0; 8-0; 10-0; 15-0; 17-0; 17-3 (h-t) 22-3; 22-8; 25-8; 30-8; 32-8; 37-8
Yellow cards –
Man-of-the-Match: What an engine this Melrose team has, with the back five of the scrum providing so much of the horsepower, and James Head set the tone with a thunderous performance.
Talking point: Melrose have been in the play-offs in each of the three years since this format was introduced (as semi-finalists in 2016 and finalists in 2015 and 2017), so they know all about the anguish of falling just short. Can they consign the pain of those defeats to the dustbin of history when they take on Ayr at the Greenyards (just as they did last year) in the 2018 Grand Final on 7th April?