DAVID BARNES @ Stoneyhill
FOR the first 20 minutes of this frost-surviving contest, it looked very much like the top-of-the-table defending champions – battle-hardened after a tough hit-out against Currie Chieftains last weekend – were going to steamroll the host side (who had been out of action for the last five weeks).
But Musselburgh recovered from that disorientating start to control possession and territory for significant chunks of the remainder of the match, only to be continually repelled by Hawick’s resolute defence, which has been the defining factor in this team’s success during the last 18 or so months.
“They had a decent scaffolding from their game last week,” reflected Musselburgh head coach Derek O’Riordan afterwards. “We watched the video and that was a really physical battle against Currie, and they carried that into this week, whereas we were a bit rusty and gun-shy in the first half.
“I thought we were better in the second half, when we came into the game physically, but the damage was done with those three tries before half-time.”
The defeat does not kill off Musselburgh’s hopes of making the play-offs, but that is now reliant on Edinburgh Accies, Heriot’s Blues and Kelso all dropping points.
“We have two games left against Hawks (away next weekend) and Marr (at home the week after), and I am genuinely only concerned about having our best ever finish,” O’Riardan stressed. “Sixth would be huge for us, fifth even better, and the play-offs would be a bonus, but the reality is that is not really in our hands anymore.”
During that early period, Hawick twice threatened to score through powerhouse centre Andrew Mitchell, but on the first occasion he overcooked his kick ahead and sent the ball dead after winning a foot race initiated when Lee Armstrong hacked a dropped Musselburgh pass downfield, and on the second occasion an accidental obstruction meant the try was chalked off.
Then, eventually, the breakthrough came on 13 minutes when Hawick No 8 Stuart Graham did well to tidy up at the base of a creaking scrum right in front of Musselburgh’s posts and deliver clean ball which was transferred along the backline for Kirk Ford to scoot over on the left, for a try which he converted himself, as he did for all four of the Borderers’ touch-downs.
To add to Musselburgh’s woes, they lost influential flanker Michael Maltman to injury at this point, and Hawick struck again six minutes later when Mitchell finally got his score, bursting over the line off a pass from scrum-half Deaglan Lightfoot which looked like it may have drifted slightly forward.
However, just as it was beginning to seem inevitable that Hawick were going to run away with this game, Musselburgh started to get a foothold in the battle for possession, allowing them to build through phases and ask some questions through scrum-half Fionn Call‘s tactical kicking.
The hosts did not manage to trouble the scoreboard operator during the second quarter, but they did slow down the scoring at the other end, until tight-head prop Nicky Little marked his 150th appearance for Hawick with a close range try on the stroke of half-time.
Hawick secured the bonus-point with only five minutes of the second half played when Armstrong intercepted and carried from 22 to 22 before working a scissors to send Morgan Tait over, and that was the end of the scoring.
Musselburgh managed to blow away the cobwebs of their long Christmas/New Year break to mount a sustained onslaught deep inside Hawick’s half, but they were unable to breakdown Hawick’s brick wall defence. While one particular tackle from green flanker Callum Renwick which drove his hapless opponent back 10 yards caught the eye, it was the unity of purpose which really impressed, to provide head coach Matty Douglas with a sense of optimism as we enter the business-end of the season.
“I’m chuffed to bits with that performance,” he said. “I think we maybe left a few opportunities out there in the first half, but credit to the boys for their second half performance playing up the hill and into the conditions … our defence was outstanding.
“Our game is built on defence, and some of the shots we put in, and our energy to get off the line, was phenomenal,” he added. “A lot of players stood up today which we maybe missed a little but last week.
“If I’m honest, we probably dipped in our form a little bit last season after Christmas, so we’ve touched on that this week – that we are on a tough run of three away games so it is just about building confidence and building performance – and I felt we did that today at a difficult place to go.”
Musselburgh: P Cunningham (O Craig 46); L Brook (T Foley 46), R Watt, B Heber, S Watt; M McMillan, F Call; C Arthur (D Miller 41), C Owenson, N McNairn (E Bonthron 41), M Badenhorst, J Lister, M Maltman (M Outram 13), M Crawford, P Bogie.
Hawick: K Ford; M Tait, C Welsh, A Mitchell, R McKean (K Brunton 65); L Armstrong, D Lightfoot (G Welsh 41); S Muir, F Renwick (C Renwick 70), N Little (R Graham 58), D Redpath, C Sutherland (S Frizzel 41), D Brooker, C Renwick (R Anderson 58), S Graham.
Musselburgh: No scorers.
Hawick: Tries: Ford, Mitchell, Little, Tait; Cons: Ford 4.
Scoring sequence (Musselburgh first): 0-5; 0-7; 01-12; 0-14; 0-19; 0-21 (h-t) 0-26; 0-28.
Man-of-the-Match: Lee Armstrong’s game management and eye for an opportunity was a big asset at stand-off for Hawick, but this game was won at the pit-face, with Fraser Renwick edging the award, just ahead of Shawn Muir and Start Graham, who were also outstanding on both sides of the ball.
Talking point: Five weeks without a game was a hell of a handicap for Musselburgh to overcome against the dominant club in the Premiership during recent seasons. Season structure is running sore – and there are plenty of other issues needing addressed as a matter of urgency – but surely it is time to come up with a schedule which doesn’t lose momentum so dramatically three-quarters of the way through the campaign.