DAVID BARNES @ Millbrae
UNLIKE last week’s damp squib of a BT Cup semi-final, when Ayr were too good for Hawks in almost every department; this rematch, with a place in the Grand Final of the BT Premiership play-offs at stake, was a cracking battle between two sides determined to match each other in terms of both physicality and attacking ambition.
The best team won in the end. Ayr made less mistakes and showed more composure at key moments. In stand-off Frazier Climo they have probably the best game manager in the league, and he once again pulled the strings like a master puppeteer. There were periods when Hawks were on the front foot, but the home team’s well–drilled defence continually mopped up the pressure.
“We knew Hawks would be hurting after last week so the challenge we gave the boys this week was to take it to the next level in terms of physicality and speed. I can’t praise the effort of the players enough and that maturity they showed to wipe the scoreboard clean at half-time and go out and execute what we’ve been practicing over the last couple of weeks to ail down the win,” said home head coach Calum Forrester.
Ayr now face a double-header against Melrose as they go for the league and cup double.
“It will be a great challenge for the boys. The two clubs have had some great tussles over the last decade so it will be a couple of great days out for the club, first at The Greenyards in two weeks’ time and then at Murrayfield the week after that,” added Forrester.
Hawks were dead and buried within 20 minutes of the start of last week’s match, but they came out with all guns blazing this time, and had an opportunity to take the lead in the opening minutes after Ayr conceded a penalty when trying to stop a quick recycle – but George Horne snatched at the kick, meaning it came up short and to the left of the posts.
It was Ayr, instead, who drew first blood, when Archie Russell propelled himself over from close range after Danny McCluskey had taken play deep into Hawks territory by coming off his wing and bursting through midfield.
Hawks were unperturbed, and they dominated the next fifteen minutes, with Matt Fagerson and Bruce Flockhart rampant in the back-row, while some clever line-kicking from half-backs George Horne and Hagan Schulte made sure the visitors were operating in the right areas of the park.
Even after the prop Stephen Findlay had been sent to the sin-bin for recklessly clattering into Ayr hooker Lewis Anderson after the ball was gone, the visitors managed to keep their foot on the accelerator. Two athletic line-out takes from Scott Cummings, accompanied by two powerful drives from the visiting pack, was rewarded when Horne was handed another kickable penalty opportunity, and this time he had no problem helping his team to three points.
The game continued at a furious pace, with plenty of niggle bubbling just below the surface, and spilling over into minor skirmishes at fairly regular intervals.
No sooner had Hawks returned for full strength than they lost Sean Yacoubian to a yellow-card, and this one seemed particularly harsh. Pete McCallum fell awkwardly after being tackled , but it did not look like he was deliberately lifted by the Hawks winger, and Yacoubian clearly made an effort to ensure that the Ayr number eight landed as safely as possible.
The drain of playing twenty minutes with a numerical disadvantage began to show for Hawks. Ayr helped themselves to two tries before the break, with an exquisite offload from Frazier Climo sending Grant Anderson over, and then several phases of slick passing eventually opening up an overlap on the right for McCluskey to scamper in.
Ayr started the second half as they had finished the first and grabbed their fourth try when Robert McApline picked up and stretched over from close range after several punishing phases.
Hawks grabbed a lifeline when Fagerson scrambled over ten minute later, but they then immediately shot themselves in the foot when Kerr Gossman fumbled the restart to hand Ayr a scrum ten yards from his own line. The visitors did not concede any points at that point but they spent almost all of the next ten minutes battling in vain to get back out of their own half, before Ayr pressure finally paid when Ross Curle and McCluskey combined to send Anderson over for his second try.
With 20 minutes still to go, Hawks knew that they needed to throw caution to the wind, and with Ayr seeming to lose some of their focus the game became pretty loose. Horne and Gossman both made inroads up the middle of the park, but could not quite shake themselves clear.
Then Horne tried to break out of his own 22, but McCallum read his offload, intercepted, and sent Curle home unchallenged. The notoriously cocksure centre couldn’t resist a bit of showboating, trotting round behind the posts then all the way out towards the right wing before touching down.
In fairness, he then stroked home the conversion to justify that unnecessary bravado – but he didn’t look quite so clever a few moments later when he was shown a red card for a no arms tackle on Jack Steel. Hawks were also awarded a penalty try.
Curle, who is in his last season with Ayr, will now face an anxious wait to find out if he will be suspended for his team’s play-off and cup final matches against Melrose on the 15th and 22nd April respectively. If he does miss out it would be a crying shame for a player who has consistently been one of the best operators in the Scottish club game since returning home from playing professionally in Italy eight years ago (despite the fact he has never quite managed to shake the habit of getting himself in hot water with with these sorts of moments of madness).
It was a good day for Ayr, but their lack of discipline during the final ten minutes was a blot on their copybook. Anderson was also yellow-carded during the final minutes for a high tackle on Horne, meaning they were down to thirteen men when Fagerson went over for his second try of the afternoon, to give the final score-line a respectability the visitors thoroughly deserved.
“We did make a better fist of it this week but they are a good team – a big, robust, well-coached side, with a great infrastructure – and we were second best today. In fact, we have been second best to them four times this year so we have no complaints,” reflected Hawks coach Finlay Gillies.
Ayr: G Anderson; D McCluskey, A Russell, R Curle, C Gossman; F Climo, D Armstrong; G Hunter, L Anderson, S Longwell, R McAlpine, S Sutherland, B MacPherson, W Bordill, P McCallum©. Subs: D Young, D Sears-Duru, A Prentice, G Henry, H Warr, S McDowall, R Dalgleish.
Hawks: J Steel; S Yacoubian, P Kelly, B McGroarty, K Gossman; H Schulte, G Horne; S Findlay©, C Fenton, G Strain, S Cummings, A Kirkland, S Leckey, M Fagerson, B Flockhart. Subs: G Stewart, C Barnes, L Archer, R Miller, T Uainivi, P Boyer, D Milne.
Ayr: Try: Russell, Anderson 2, McCluskey, McAlpine, Curle; Con: Climo 3, Curle
Hawks: Try: Fagerson 2; Con: Horne; Pen: Horne
Scoring Sequence (Ayr first): 5-0; 5-3; 10-3; 12-3; 17-3 (h-t) 22-3; 24-3; 24-8; 24-10; 29-10; 31-10; 36-10; 38-10; 38-15; 38-17; 38-22.
Yellow Cards –
Hawks: Findlay, Yacoubian
Red Cards –
Man-of-the-Match: With his socks habitually round his ankles and his languid demeanor, David Armstrong is something of a cult hero at Millbrae, and he showed again in this match just how important he is to the team with that instinctive understanding of what sort of ball is worth moving wide.
Talking Point: Albert Einstein said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Why, oh, why did Ross Curle not see that red card coming? It didn’t need Einstein to predict what was coming!