DAVID BARNES @ Bridgehaugh
MELROSE arrived at Bridgehaugh needing to pick up just one bonus point at the same time as avoiding a loss by 42 or more in order to finish top of the BT Premiership table at the end of the regular season, but a heavily depleted Stirling County side did not make it easy for them.
On a cabbage patch pitch, there was a distinct lack of dancing feet and slick handling, but visiting head coach Rob Chrystie declared himself pretty satisfied with how his team got the job done.
“I think we showed a lot of ambition in terms of the style of rugby we were trying to play in difficult conditions, and we created loads of opportunities, but on days like this the ball is a bit slippy and its difficult,” he said.
“It was a really good effort from the whole squad and there was a couple of young boys who came on and really added to what we are trying to do. Coming to Stirling is really tough and they gave us a real battle.”
“We’re obviously delighted to finish top at the end of the regular season. Over the 18 matches the boys have been outstanding – they’ve played some really good stuff and they’ve shown loads of guts when it has been required – but we know how the competition works and the job isn’t done yet. We’ve given ourselves the best route to the championship but we’ve got a few big game left to play,” he added.
The hosts actually led 7-3 after half an hour thanks to a Mark Hunter try from a powerful lineout drive plus a Jonny Hope conversion, which eclipsed an early Jason Baggott penalty.
Then a terrible mix-up by Stirling, when they dropped the ball as they tried to get moving from a scrum just outside the Melrose 22, allowed the visitors to hack ahead and launch a footrace which culminated in Baggott dotting down under the shadow of the posts.
The must have been a painful blow for the hosts but they refused to buckle, and because Baggott somehow managed to hit the post with what should have been the simplest of conversions, there was only a single point in it at the break.
Melrose extended their lead after seven minutes of the second half when second-row Ali Grieve rumbled over after a sustained period of pressure, and the Borderers were then handed another gift of a try when Hope – so often a rock of reliability for Stirling – had an uncharacteristic moment of madness as he tried to run the ball from his own line only to get his wires crossed with Shaun MacDonald coming in from the wing on a scissors, and ended up literally handing the ball and an easy score to a grateful Nyle Godsmark.
By now the game had fallen into the pattern which had been widely anticipated before kick-off, with Melrose well on top. Russell Anderson grounded after a line-out drive and Austin Lockington scampered over six minutes later, allowing Baggott to slot his first successful conversion of the afternoon after five attempts.
Stirling kept plugging away and replacement hooker Matt Emmison nearly sent Hope over, but he was scragged down a foot short of the line.
These two side will lock horns again in two weeks time, when The Greenyards will host their Cup semi-final clash. County will hope to have several frontline players back for that challenge; but Melrose will also be bolstered by the return from injury of flanker Neil Irvine-Hess, utility-back Craig Jackson, and perhaps also props Nick Beavon and Jamie Bhatti.
However, there will be no Ross McCann, who has been ruled out for 12 weeks due to tendon damage in a finger suffered playing for Scotland Under-20 against Wales a fortnight ago.
Stirling: L Bonar; S MacDonald, J Hope©, C Mundell, O Jarvie; R Jones, C Turnbull; M Hunter, R Kennedy, C Black, H Burr, R Leishman, A Taylor, A Grant-Suttie, H Henderson. Subs: M Emmison, D Jamieson, R Bundy, C Fail, K Gammie.
Melrose: F Thomson; A Lockington, N Godsmark, G Taylor, G Wood; J Baggott, B Colvine©; D Elkington, R Anderson, R McLeod, A Grieve, A Bresler, R Knott, G Runciman, I Moody. Subs: C McKay, C Crookshanks, A Welsh, M McAndrew, D Colvine.
Referee: Cammy Rudkin
Stirling: Try: Hunter; Con: Hope.
Melrose: Try: Baggott, Grieve, Godsmark, Anderson, Lockington; Con: Baggott; Pen: Baggott .
Scoring Sequence (Stirling First): 0-3; 5-3; 7-3; 7-8 (h-t) 7-13; 7-18; 7-23; 7-28; 7-30.
Man-of-the-Match: It was a day for the hard men at the pit-face to get the job done and Melrose hooker Russell Anderson set the tone.
Talking Point: That thorny issue of season structure was topical once again. Stirling had six key players away playing national age-grade rugby which inevitably impacted on their ability to challenge in this match. Is that just the way the cookie crumbles or do we have to find a way of putting the league on hold during the Six Nations window?
Image courtesy: Alastair Cunningham