JACK NIXON @ Canal Park
PREMIERSHIP table-toppers Marr squeezed into the last four of the Scottish Cup, but only after seeing off the considerable challenge of heroic National One upstarts Highland, who had the temerity to lead until the 72nd minute of a pulsating tie in windswept Inverness.
Craig Redpath, the Marr head coach of 12 successful years was a relieved man at the end of the game. ”It was touch and go right until the final whistle,” he acknowledged. “All credit to Highland, they had done their homework on us, keeping it tight, even when playing with the wind. It wasn’t our best performance, but then we were pretty well contained for much of the game. I am just happy to be in the semi-finals.”
His opposite number Dave Carson was disappointed and proud in equal measure. ”With a little more composure in the first half when playing with the wind, we could have gone on to win the game,” he said. “As it was being 12-7 to the good was just not enough.
“But this is a Marr side who have been putting 30 points plus past teams in the Premiership every week. By the end of the game they had given us their total respect. We reduced them to pick-and-go tactics, but most of all I am proud of each and every squad member because it was a tremendous effort. We can now concentrate on getting second place in National League One. I like to think this close run thing has put rugby in Inverness on the national map.”
Playing with a strong wind coming down from Loch Ness, the homesters sought to take full advantage, getting a quick return in 11 minutes when winger Mike Gordon scampered through some poor defending after stand-off Scott Fraser had set his line in motion.
Spurred by this early reward, the northerners pushed on, bidding to take a substantial lead into the second half, only to be let down by some poor finishing, enabling the Ayrshire visitors to get back into the game.
This they did in 35 minutes, displaying the kind of form which has taken them nine points clear at the top of the Premiership table. Not for the first time this season, winger Scott Bickerstaff spotted a gap in the opposing defence, racing in after astute work by half-back Jack Preston and Colin Sturgeon. The latter despite having a groin injury was once again a key figure for Marr.
Centre Gregor Paxton kicked the conversion to give what looked to be a 7-5 lead at the interval, but that did not reckon on Highland’s enterprise, as delivered by scrum-half Rharidh MacDonald who nipped over at the posts, supported by his eager back-rowers, including the irrepressible Gordon Gregor who was in the thick of all things good in the home pack. Fraser converted to give his side a shock 12-7 lead at half-time.
Not surprisingly, Marr upped the pace in the second half, but had only a Paxton penalty to show for their efforts, giving the substantial home support a glimpse of victory going into the last 10 minutes. It was not to be, as in a frantic attempt to rescue the game hooker Curran McMillan plunged over after a number of near things, and with Paxton adding the extras it was then Highland’s turn to chase the game, but to no avail.
And while it was Marr who progress to the last four of the competition, it was Highland who were winning the plaudits when referee Jonny Perriam blew for time.
”We were made to fight all the way by a heroic Highland, but we are through, and will now get on with winning the Premiership,” said Marr president Steve Alam. “We are lucky to have in head coach Craig Redpath the best club coach in the country. It has been a pleasure to enjoy some Highland hospitality.”
Highland: R Rokoduguni; J Nawacaleuv, I Chisholm, S Ross, M Gordon; S Fraser, R MacDonald. S Murray, C Carson, L Sinclair, S MacDonald-Butler, S Blair, O Baird, G Gregor, A Findlater. Subs: M Paterson, K Brown, T Smith, H Crush, C Irvine, R Cross.
Marr: G Montgomery; S Bickerstaff, G Paxton, C Bickerstaff, J Scott; C Sturgeon, J Preston. W Farquhar, C MacMillan, C Henderson, E Hamilton-Bulger, F Grant, M Pearse, R Brown, B Grant. Subs: O Rossi, B Sweet, I Renucci, C Inglis, G Ness, T Steven.
Referee: Jonny Perriam
Highland: Tries: Gordon, MacDonald; Con: Fraser.
Marr: Tries: S Bickerstaff, MacMillan; Cons: Paxton 2; Pen: Paxton.
Scoring sequence (Highland first): 5-0; 5-5; 5-7′ 10-7; 12-7 (h-t) 12-10, 12-15; 12-17.
Man-of-the-Match: There were a number of candidates, mostly from the home side in keeping the Marr pack at bay. Gordon Gregor was an industrious flanker, but it was No 8 Andrew Findlater with his organisational skills and attacking flair who caught the eye
Talking point: The remarkable progress both sides have made in recent years, gaining successive promotions in the process, giving great hope for the amateur game in Scotland at a time when there is deep concern about growth at grassroots.