DAVID BARNES @ Fullarton Park
A FAIRLY predictable outcome from a match which pitched the top team in BT National One at home against the bottom side, and from the moment Marr centre Conor Bickerstaff bounced two tacklers and sent Tom Steven over in the corner for his team’s second try after just six minutes, the narrative of this match was never really in doubt.
Home stand-off Craig Kolaric had already scrambled in for the opening score three minutes earlier, and although Howe struck next when Stewart Lathangie escaped his man to dot down under the posts and Dom Martin sent home the easy conversion to make it 14-7 with 18 minutes played, there was never any danger that this would be anything more than a minor road-bump in Marr’s procession towards five league points, which keeps them on track for automatic promotion to the BT Premiership next season.
The South Ayrshire side came agonisingly close to reaching the top flight when they finished second in their league last year then lost to Gala (who had finished second bottom in the Premiership) in the play-off, but have come back stronger and wiser for the experience and are now in pole position to make it this time round without going through the ordeal of trying to beat a team (which has spent the whole season playing at a higher level) in a one-off match.
With eight games to go, Marr are two points clear of nearest challengers Edinburgh Academicals. The two sides have already played each other twice, with the home team coming out on top on each occasion. Jed-Forest are also lurking in third place, although their loss this weekend at home to Stewart’s-Melville leaves them eleven points off the pace. However, Marr head coach Craig Redpath is certain that there will be a few more twists in the tale before the final standings are confirmed.
“All three of us are looking at the same goal. There’s a long way to go and I think we have a tougher run-in. We’ve still got to go to the borders twice [to play Jed-Forest and Selkirk], we’ve still got to go to Falkirk, and we’ve got Dundee to play. It’s a real tough league so if you are not in the right frame of mind all the time then you will pay the price,” he said.
“It was a job well done today,” he continued. “We started very positively and played with the tempo that we expect. We made a few mistakes and dropped off a wee bit in the second half, but it was a dark and wet day and it is hard to keep going at that level for the full 80.”
Redpath was surprisingly relaxed as he talked after the match, in stark contrast to his intensity on the sideline whilst watching the action. He lived through every play and despite his team’s commanding lead there was no relaxation in the standards he demanded of his players.
Marr grabbed try number three through number eight Ben Johnston, and then continued to pile on the points with two scores from driven line-outs for Ollie Rossi and Johnston again, but still the coach wasn’t happy. Howe second-row Nye Rees had been yellow-carded for collapsing the first maul but as far as Redpath was concerned his forwards were culpable of allowing that to happen by not being tight enough – and a few curt instructions were despatched onto the pitch.
It is an attitude the players seem to have embraced and emulated, with every dropped pass or missed tackle on a horribly greasy day prompting a vicious bout of self-flagellation.
“I set very high standards, coming from my background at Melrose – the detail we have and the level of commitment we ask for is really important. We haven’t performed for 80 minutes in any game. The disappointing thing is that we gave away a soft score at the end by switching off. This is a really tight league and it might come down to points difference, so we can’t afford to take our eye off the ball,” said Redpath.
Howe enjoyed more of the play in the second half, but struggled to sniff out any gaps in Marr’s well-drilled defence, and as the weather continued to deteriorate so to did the visiting team’s hopes of grasping any sort of comfort from the final score-line, with Rossi eventually going over for his second score before a scything attack straight from the restart saw Colin Sturgeon romp home unchallenged off a neat switch with Kolarik.
Conor Bickerstaff rounded off Marr’s account with a powerful midfield burst, but Howe had the final say when former Scotland club internationalist Graham Thomson scuttled up the left touchline and over for a consolation score.
“Fair play to Howe, they came back in the second half, and they kept going right to the end – but I feel we left a few points out there,” lamented Redpath.
Having scrambled their way up from the lower reaches of the regional leagues in little more than a decade, reaching the Premiership would be a remarkable achievement. There is an understandable reluctance at committee level to put the cart before the horse, but Redpath makes no bones about his ambition for the club.
“I want to win everything. I don’t know anything else in my life. Sometimes you can forget the progression we have made as a club and individuals – it has been phenomenal – but from my point of view it is about looking forward and the next goal is there. It is a fair way away yet, but we want to go as high as we can,” he said.
As impressive as Marr have been this season, there is no hiding from the fact that the Premiership will represent a significant step-up. Their set-piece would not enjoy the sort of dominance it had in this game in the top flight, and the pace of the game will take some getting used to.
Redpath made his name as a player out of Melrose and had a number of successful years coaching at nearby Ayr so he knows exactly what is expected from his players if they do move up – but reckons that the club will take the challenge in its stride, just as it has done with previous promotions.
“We have brought in a couple of boys in the last two or three years but I’d say 75 percent of the squad have come through Marr and the school. It is a hard job. The seconds are going quite well, but they’re young and not quite ready at the level we are at yet. When we were coming up through the leagues it was easier because a good 17 or 18-year-old could walk into your team, whereas now they have to be exceptional to get a look-in, but that all comes with the territory,” he said.
“We know what we want to achieve and to do that we need to say that next week is the most important game of the season and then it is the game after that.”
There is an elephant in the room – or more accurately a highly successful club just down the road – so what is Redpath’s view on welcoming his old friends at Ayr to Fullarton Estate.
“It would certainly get a really good crowd. I’ve deliberately not played them [in a friendly] because that’s not what our focus is on, but if it is a competitive fixture then we’d give it our best shot,” he smiled.
“They are a different animal. They are in the top three or four teams in the Premiership every season – they are a phenomenal club with phenomenal resources and that’s why they are up there. We are not at that level at this moment in time but we’ll keep trying to close the gap. We can only focus on ourselves.”
Marr: S Howie; S Bickerstaff, C Bickerstaff, C Sturgeon, T Steven; C Kolarik, G Baird; C Nisbet, O Rossi, A Acton, A Johnston, D Law, M Pearce, B Johnston, K Vallance. Subs used: F Ferguson, S Adair, E Bulger, G Ness, A Mill.
Howe of Fife: S Gray; B Mitchell, G Thomson, S Lathangie, E Cruikshank; D Martin, A Harley; S Player, C Crawford, E Bisset, N Rees, G Henderson, C Mann, S Steedman, J Macdonald. Subs used: C McBain, L Wilson, J Douglas, C Patrick, I Bousie.
Referee: D McClement
Marr: Tries: Kolaric, Steven, Johnston 2, Rossi 2, Sturgeon, C Bickerstaff; Cons: Sturgeon 4
Howe of Fife: Tries: Lathangie, Thomson; Con; Martin.
Scoring Sequence (Marr first): 5-0; 7-0; 12-0; 14-0; 14-5; 14-7; 19-7; 24-7; 26-7; 31-7 (h-t) 36-7; 41-7; 46-7; 48-7
Yellow cards –
Marr: Rees, Mann
Man-of-the-Match: Everybody loves to see the big men in the second-row get their hands on the ball and set-off on a gallop up the middle of the park, and Daniel Law certainly put on a show.
Talking Point: If the borders can consistently support two or three teams competing in the top flight then why can’t South Ayrshire?
Image courtesy: Ken Ferguson