DAVID BARNES @ Bridgehaugh
HAWKS head coach Finlay Gillies keeps telling his players that they are the best kept secret in the Premiership – but that won’t last for much longer if they carry on like this. If last week’s dispiriting defeat at home to Melrose dented the team’s self-belief, then they responded in all the right ways in this game – and poor Stirling County bore the brunt of the backlash.
You could sense that the visitors had not quite fully worked the psychological hangover from that defeat out of their system during the early exchanges, but they determinedly worked their way back into form, and by the time they had secured their bonus point try they were back to their swaggering best.
Last week may well prove to be an important moment in the learning curve of this young team. Having been ruthlessly punished for fairly minor mistakes, they now know what sort of level they have to be at to compete against the best teams in the league.
The visitors were undoubtedly boosted by the release of four Glasgow Warriors players for this match, and Grayson Hart was the most influential figure on the pitch with his sniping breaks and seamless link play wreaking all sorts of havoc in the home ranks.
The pace and power Junior Bulumakau on the wing was a constant threat, Peter Murchie was a tower of reassurance at full-back, and Greg Peterson added serious grunt to the pack.
But the really significant thing about all this was the way that the other players were lifted by the presence of this quartet. Outside centre Robert Beattie made several scintillating breaks, Josh Henderson was lively at stand-off, and hooker Grant Stewart – who must be playing himself into contention for the club international team – seemed to be having the time of his life with a series of rampaging runs.
“We are pleased with our result but there are a lot of things to clean up in our performance. I think we could have had that score-line wrapped up by half-time if we had been clinical,” said Gillies, who clearly has lofty ambitions for his team this year.
There weren’t many positives for Stirling, although they did at least attempt to expand their game after a flat performance against Boroughmuir last week.
“It’s about trying to get the ball wide and stretch teams at the right times. It’s about learning the structures we are trying to play to. This is a pretty new side so we just need to keep working at it and I think we are getting closer to where we want to be,” said their coach David Adamson.
“We maybe stood off them a bit too much, and gave them too much respect. We were quite passive in defence when we really needed to close the space down. In attack it took us a while to get going. The penalty count was the highest we have had for a while, and I don’t really know why – but overall, Hawks were just really good on the day,” he added.
Hawks took the lead with less than five minutes played when a Kiran McDonald popped the ball back inside to send Henderson under the sticks, and in the process set up an easy conversion for Hart.
County responded with a penalty from in front of the posts from Jonny Hope, but they then lost Adam Sinclair for ten minutes when referee Keith Allen took exception to the second-row slowing the ball down at a ruck beneath his own posts. The hosts had to dig deep to weather a period of pressure, before the numbers were evened up when visiting hooker Grant Stewart was sent to the cooler for what was deemed to be a dangerous tackle.
Both teams clearly wanted to make full use of the perfect weather conditions and excellent playing surface but scrappiness at key moments foiled much of that noble intent early on. As the half wore on, however, Hawks seemed to find their groove, not least in the build-up to their second try, when a combination of neat handling and intuitive support running took play deep into Stirling territory, before lightening quick hands from Murchie created space for Stephen Findlay on the left. The loose-head prop had Bulumakau outside, but boldly chose to go it alone – and that faith in his own ability was shown to be well placed when he eluded the cover defence with a mazy run to the try line.
Not to be outdone by his front-row partner, Stewart came onto a flat pass at the start of the second half and stepped inside winger Craig Pringle and showed plenty of wheels on a dash up the left touchline. He didn’t quite make it, and Bulumakau’s foot slipped into touch as he tried to pick up the loose ball and flop over.
Unperturbed by that near miss, Stewart kept plugging away, and he got his reward ten minutes later when he burst from 30 yards and this time had the pace to make it all the way to the line. The bonus try was wrapped up just after the hour ark, when slick hands gave George Horne plenty of space on the left to go over.
County responded with a try from Rory Hughes and they enjoyed a brief period of ascendancy, with Hope going close after jinking down the right touchline – but Hawks were soon back on the top, and Beattie grabbed a richly-deserved score after some great link play from Hart and Horne.
Hawks scored their sixth and final try just as the match clock reached the 80 minute mark, with replacement hooker Scott Rodgers grounding the ball after a line-out drive was marched over the whitewash.
Stirling: J Hope; C Pringle, J Cresswell, F Lyle, R Hughes; R Thomas, M Donaldson; M McDonald, R Kennedy, A Nicol, C Hunter-Hill©, A Sinclair, R Leishman, S MacDonald, A Taylor. Subs: M Emmison, C Hutton, H Burr, S Robertson, R Elliston.
Hawks: P Murchie; J Bulumakau, R Beattie, P Kelly, K Gossman; J Henderson, G Hart; S Findlay, G Stewart, G Strain, K McDonald, G Peterson, A Hill, A Kirkland, T Spinks©. Subs: S Rodgers, P Cairncross, D Milne, G Horne, H Schulte.
Stirling: Try: Hughes; Pen: Hope.
Hawks: Try: Henderson, Findlay, Stewart, Horne, Beattie, Rodgers; Con: Hart 2, Horne 2.
Yellow cards –
Stirling: Sinclair, Doanldson.
Hawks: Stewart, Hill.
Referee: Keith Allen
Man-of-the-Match: The professionals made a difference but a hooker that can outstrip defenders whilst running 30 yards to the line (not once but twice) deserve all the plaudits that come their way – take a bow Grant Stewart.
Talking point: Would Hawks have got the bonus point so easily without four professionals? Does it matter?
Scoring sequence (Stirling first): 0-5, 0-7, 3-7, 3-12 (h-t) 3-17, 3-19, 3-24, 8-24, 8-29, 8-31.