DAVID BARNES @ Millbrae
IT was an occasion and a match befitting of the final game of the Premiership era before the arrival of Super 6 next season. Both these sides will be involved in that new competition when it kicks off in November, and if they manage to reproduce the sort of high-octane and fully-committed rugby we saw here then the other four teams in the league better watch-out.
It was edge-of-the-seat drama from start to finish and, on the basis of both this 80 minutes and the season as a whole, the right conclusion was reached. It wouldn’t have been a huge injustice if Heriot’s had edged it, but in the final reckoning they lacked the killer bite to see off a team who have built up an impressive capacity for resilience under head coach Peter Murchie this season.
Ayr fell 10 points behind during the first quarter and battled back to take the lead just before the break, they then fell behind again early in the second half only to show huge levels of composure and self-belief to send a kickable penalty to the corner with 12 minutes to go (when they only needed one point to regain the lead), from which they rumbled a line-out maul over the chalk for the game’s decisive score
“I think we felt we had the edge in the scrum and maul at that point and when you feel that momentum then sometimes you need to have the balls to go for it,” said Murchie. “The guys made the call on the pitch, and it was absolutely the right decision.
“Heriot’s are a good team, especially with the ball in hand, and they started very quickly to put us under pressure,” he added. “But this group of players just keep showing time and time again that they have that belief that they can come back from anything. They did it in both our semi-finals against Melrose during the last fortnight, and they did it again here. I’m just really proud at the way they came back.
There were no complaints from Heriot’s head coach Phil Smith. “That was a real game of rugby” he said. “It was high-intensity – great end-to-end stuff – great passages of play which were error-free – and Ayr deserved to win it so fair play to them.
“I was hoping we could get one more possession in their half at the end there, because we looked dangerous most of the day in their area, so it would have been good to apply a bit of pressure to see how they reacted – but we didn’t manage it. The boys are disappointed but we get to play them again in the Cup Final in three weeks’ time so that is a cracking opportunity to go hard again.”
Stuart Edwards gave Heriot’s a third minute lead after several sharp phases straight from kick-off took the game deep into Ayr territory, although the stand-off’s decision to go for the drop-goal was slightly curious given that his team were playing a penalty advantage at the time.
Ayr had an opportunity to bounce back when Josh Scott was penalised for dropping a scrum, but Frazier Climo’s shot at goal from wide on the right didn’t have the legs. And Heriot’s wasted no time in capitalising on that let-off with Iain Wilson, Michael Liness, Rob Kay and Charlie Simpson all adding impetus to a passage of play which took possession the length of the field before Andrew Simmers and Jack Blain combined to send Ross Jones over in the corner.
Jones converted his own try for good measure, and Ayr needed to strike next – which is exactly what they did, with two tries in quick succession around the 20-minute mark transforming the complexion of the game.
First, David Corbenici found himself in possession in midfield with not much going on, until he shrugged off Wilson’s uncharacteristically loose challenge and the pitch suddenly opened right up. The second-row thundered up field and barely broke stride when blasting past last man Simpson on his way to the line. Climo tapped over the conversion from right in front of the posts, and it was game on.
Ayr then grabbed the lead when Stafford McDowall fed back inside to Kyle Rowe, who was already in full flight and had more than enough gas to get round the outside of Heriots’ frantically scrambling defence, with Climo once again firing home the conversion.
There was barely chance to draw breath before Heriot’s struck back, when Edwards – whilst playing a penalty advantage – angled an inch-perfect cross-field kick for Craig Robertson to collect in the in-goal area and dot down.
But the pendulum then swung back the other way once more with the excellent Rowe setting off from halfway – skipping, dancing and finally sprinting past Heriots’ ragged back-field defence – for a scintillating solo try.
Jones missed a penalty opportunity straight from the restart but was on target with a slightly trickier one – for a crossing offence – a few minutes later, which brought it back to a single point game (19-18 in the home team’s favour) at the end of a breathless, tumultuous first half.
Ayr struck first after the break with an offside penalty from Climo, but that did little to settle the home team’s nerves because Heriot’s blasted right back at them, with Simpson breaking up the middle of the park to set the move in motion, and then popping up again a few phases later to send Blain in for the try which restored the capital outfit’s lead.
The scoring then dried up for 20 minutes, but the tension didn’t subside. Climo missed one penalty shot at goal around the 50-minute mark, which perhaps coloured his thinking when Ayr were awarded another kickable off-side decision as the game creeped towards the final 10 minutes. He opted to go to the corner instead of the sticks, and that decision was vindicated when the hosts caught and drove over the line, with Robbie Smith getting the ball down. And to top it off, Climo fired home the touchline conversion.
It proved to be the game’s decisive moment. Heriot’s kept plugging away. Callum Marshall stole a line-out ball with just three minutes left on the clock to give the visitors one last tilt at glory, but they couldn’t find a way through and Jason Hill ended up knocking-on.
Ayr’s scrum had found a way to get on top, picking up three penalties during the last quarter of an hour – and then they held on during one final high-pressure set-piece deep into injury time as Heriot’s threw everything they had at it. When Climo collected Harry Warr‘s pass from the base and sent the ball high over the Millbrae stand, it was the cue for some raucous celebrations which were destined to carry on long into the night.
“It has been three really tough weeks, so we’ll have a bit of down-time next week,” concluded Murchie. “Some of the guys will play Melrose Sevens and then we’ll refocus. Heriot’s will throw everything they’ve got at us in the Cup Final on 27th April, so we’ll need to throw everything we’ve got at them. It is another chance to win a trophy, you don’t get those chances too often in life, so you have to make the most of it.”
Ayr: G Anderson; D McCluskey, P Kelly, S McDowall, K Rowe; F Climo, H Warr; R Sayce, R Smith, S Longwell, D Corbenici (A North 78), L Morrice, B Macpherson, T Spinks, P McCallum©.
Heriot’s: C Simpson; J Blain, R Jones, R Kay, C Robertson; S Edwards (R Carmichael 74), A Simmers (A Ball 71); J Scott (S Mustard 75), M Liness (A Johnstone 71), S Cessford, C Marshall, A Sinclair (R Leishman 54), I Wilson©, J McLean, S Dewar (J Hill 54).
Referee: Lloyd Linton
Ayr: Try: Corbenici, Rowe 2, Smith; Con: Climo 3; Pen: Climo.
Heriot’s: Try: Jones, Robertson, Blain; Con: Jones; Pen: Jones; DG: Edwards.
Scoring sequence (Ayr first): 0-3; 0-8; 0-10; 5-10; 7-10; 12-10; 14-10; 14-15; 19-15; 19-18 (h-t) 22-18; 22-23; 27-23; 29-23
Man-of-the-Match: Ayr winger Kyle Rowe scored two scintillating tries and was excellent in both attack and defence throughout. He is a player with a big future.
Talking point: Beat that, Super 6!