Currie Chieftains 31
DAVID BARNES @ The Greenyards
THIS was a much harder fought victory for Chieftains than the final score-line suggests. It really could have gone either way with just over five minutes to play, before two late tries secured the bonus point win which means the Malleny Park men sit second in the table tonight, one point ahead of Heriot’s, with Melrose having fallen to fourth. The good news for the Borderers is that they can’t drop any lower, with Watsonians’ defeat to Edinburgh Accies at Raeburn Place raising the white flag over their remote play-off aspirations.
Melrose deserve credit for their battling spirit. They ran out of steam in the end, but it is little wonder given how hard their depleted squad had worked to stay with a Chieftains side who were sharper in both attack and defence but had to wait a long time to see that reflected on the scoreboard.
“I just felt that although they had a lot of possession, we looked more dangerous when we were on the ball, and that our defence was coping really well with what they were throwing at us,” said winning head coach Mark Cairns. “I knew from them carrying a few knocks, and having to make a few replacements, that as long as we continued to be solid and disciplined then eventually the game would open up in the last 20 minutes, and that’s what happened.
“We’ve had a really big January, which is what I asked for from the boys, so we can enjoy what we’ve achieved tonight – but after that we have the final game of the regular season against Accies to prepare for, and we know they will play with real freedom and be dangerous, so we have to make sure we play with control but also get that expansive style we are known for out there.”
Ben Robbins gave Chieftains a sixth minute lead when he stretched out of the tackle and over the line following a period of pressure prompted by a midfield break from stand-off Gregor Hunter. The conversion was successful, and the visitors were straight back on the attack from the restart, with Thomas Gordon brushing off several tackles on 30-yard rampage up the park. The flanker – who made his pro debut as a late replacement for Glasgow Warriors against Ospreys on Friday night – lost control of the ball as he looked to offload, but the momentum of this first quarter was now firmly established.
With 18 minutes played, Hunter turned down a shot at goal to send a ruck penalty in the middle of the park to the corner, and it was the correct decision, with scrum-half Chris Davies nipping over from close range after a powerful drive from the line-out and muscular burst from inside centre by Robbie Nelson.
This time Chieftains failed to deal with the restart, and Melrose worked hard to get back into it. Chieftains didn’t help themselves with some careless handling and wayward kicking preventing them from activating the pressure release valve, but their first-up tackling was resolute, although in the case of Mike Vernel – who was carded for a no-arms challenge – it was, on that occasion, reckless.
Eventually, with an extra man, and after 22 minutes of banging at the door, the pressure finally paid, when, in the final play of the half, Neil Irvine-Hess got the ball down from a driven line-out after Craig Jackson had twice kicked penalties to the corner. Jackson added the conversion as his team-mates sloped off down the tunnel.
They’d had to work hard for it, but Melrose were back in the contest. Chieftains responded superbly by firing out of the blocks at the start of the second half, with a combination of slick hands and powerful running harassing the home defence into conceding a penalty under the shadow of the posts for hands in the ruck. Hunter took the three points.
Despite losing Irvine-Hess and influential full-back Fraser Thomson to injury, Melrose batted back onto the game, and after another punishing period of pressure, a high tackle allowed Jackson to pull it back to a seven-point game.
It was tense stuff, with plenty of kicking, and both teams making mistakes in slippery conditions. You felt that one moment a magic (or madness) was going to win (or lose) it.
And that moment arrived with just eight minutes to go, when – after another lengthy period of aerial ping-pong – Matthew Hooks managed to spin out of a couple of tackles and over the line for a try which finally snapped Melrose’s resolve.
Two minutes later, Joe Reynolds broke through the middle then fed Robbins, who sent Vince Wright galloping home for the bonus-point score.
“I thought the boys showed a lot of spirit,” said Melrose head coach Rob Chrystie. “It was a seven-point game going into that last five minutes, and to be fair to them they nailed it when they got their opportunity. So, well done to Currie.
“From our point of view, we have a lot of young boys who will be better for that experience, and we have a lot of senior boys coming back in the next two weeks – so we’re keen to get into this Watsonians cup tie (on 16th February), and then see where we end up in the play-offs.
“We are where we are. We’ll probably be going away to Ayr for the play-off semi-final, and we like going there, so we’ll be looking forward to it.”
Melrose: F Thomson; D Colvine, P Anderson, G Wood, M Muelace-Julyan; C Jackson, M McAndrew; G Shiells, R Ferguson, C Young, A Runciman, R Knott, N Irvine-Hess, G Runciman, C Wilde. Subs used: B McLean, C Crookshanks, M Wilson, S Hutchison, A Jardine.
Currie Chieftains: J Forbes; B Robbins, J Reynolds, R Nelson©, S Hamilton; G Hunter, C Davies; M Argiro, F Scott, F Watt, V Wright, K McDonald, M Vernel, T Gordon, S McGinley. Subs: G Carson, A McWilliam, M Kelly, R Davies, M Hooks.
Referee: G Ormiston
Melrose: Try: Irvine-Hess; Con: Jackson; Pen: Jackson
Currie Chieftains: Try: Robbins, C Davies, Hooks, Wright; Con: Hunter 4; Pen: Hunter.
Scoring sequence (Melrose first): 0-5; 0-7; 0-12; 0-14; 5-14; 7-14 (h-t) 7-17; 10-17; 10-22; 10-24 10-29; 10-31.
Yellow cards –
Currie Chieftains: Vernel
Man-of-the-Match: There was an awful lot of kicking back and forward in this match so having the cultured boot and tactical nous of Gregor Hunter at stand-off was a big plus for Chieftains, plus he also did some damage with his flat passing game.
Talking point: Melrose have had it tough these last few weeks with injuries stretching their squad, but that’s life. The fascinating question is how they bounce back from a run of three losses in their last four Premiership outings