Stirling County 26
GARY HEATLY @ Myreside
TEENAGE stand-off Ceitidh Ainsworth starred as Stirling County won the Women’s Premiership title for the second year in a row by coming back from 19-0 down to win the final 26-19 against Watsonians at Myreside.
The final was played at Watsonians home ground because they had finished top of the regular season standings – after 13 wins and a draw – while County finished second.
And it was the Edinburgh side who used home comforts – and the wind – to build up that big advantage in the first half. However, this County team is a resilient one that has belief in their abilities and once they got one try back on the half hour mark they never really looked back.
They had a lot of possession over the next 50 minutes and, in the second half, were pretty clinical when their chances came along and managed to score from three of them with two being converted.
Watsonians should have pressed home the advantage when they were 19-0 up, but County kept their main danger Briar McNamara, the centre, relatively quiet after that point.
The hosts were held up and then, a few minutes later, were adjudged to have knocked the ball on over the line late on, and they will be kicking themselves after such a good league campaign to have missed out on the big prize.
Credit must go to County, though, and Ainsworth was run close for player-of-the-match by the marauding second-row Sophie Murphy, while the bench, especially Kiera MacDonald, made a real impact.
Head coach Mark Ainsworth, father of Ceitidh and centre Ciorstaidh, said: “We came into the game with total confidence. We knew Watsonians would be a tough team to beat, but we knew that we could win it and we knew that the last time we played them we underperformed [in a 39-21 loss in October].
“I knew that we couldn’t play that poorly again and going in at half-time 19-7 down I said to the players: ‘You have to believe in yourselves and our fitness will tell in the end’.
“We just had to keep making yards up the middle and moving the ball: we did that and the girls went on to win it so I am really proud of them.
“Every player played their part and the bench gave us fresh momentum and the group should enjoy this as it isn’t east to win two league titles in a row.”
Watsonians got off to the perfect start with a try after just two minutes. After they won a penalty centrally 25 metres out from the County try line they decided to scrum it and the score came from there, with No 8 Freya Walker, captain Rachel Law, stand-off Susie Clements combining to send full-back Shannon Macey, running a good angle, over for the score. McNamara could not convert.
The hosts continued to be on the front foot and in the ninth minute winger Minala Taoi went close. In the build up to her being tackled into touch there had been a high tackle and, from the resultant penalty, Watsonians took a tap. After a couple of phases scrum-half Law set up hooker Molly Poolman who powered over.
This time the try was converted by McNamara to make it 12-0 and, to add insult to injury for County, loose-head Ailsa Luke traipsed off at the same time having been yellow carded after the try for what seemed to be a high tackle when Poolman was scoring – although it looked like a case of mistaken identity.
Just as the first quarter came to an end – and just before Luke returned – Watsonians scored try number three through back-row Lucy Winter, the Scotland cap, who went over from short range with a little help from second-row Kaeli King. McNamara converted and it was 19-0 as Stirling returned to 15.
Back at full strength, County began to get their dangerous attacking game going with Ceitidh Ainsworth pulling the strings, but the ‘Sonians defence stood firm.
Then, on the half hour mark, the visitors did get themselves on the scoresheet when the No 10 Ainsworth glided past two tackles and dotted down to give her side a big boost. The same player converted to make it 19-7.
That gave Stirling a foothold and minutes later they nearly put winger Fi Keys away up the right hand side, but the ball went forward and the potential opportunity was lost.
County were starting to get their big carriers like Murphy into the game through the middle of the pitch and this game was slowly turning on its head.
Watsonians managed to win a defensive penalty in their own 22 with the clock in the red at the end of the half, but then McNamara’s kick to touch was kept in expertly by Keys. A few phases later, Murphy almost charged over the try line for County, but scrambling defence saw the ball lost forward and it remained 19-7 at the interval.
A run through the middle from County openside Hev Davis five minutes after half-time warmed everyone in the healthy crowd up as the temperature began to plummet.
Two minutes later, a quick tap penalty from Stirling captain Jodie Murdoch set up centre Claudia McLaren who looked for all the world like she had scored, but Watsonians second-row Sophie Anderson somehow managed to tackle her and hold her up.
At this point, all the momentum was with the visitors and they were rewarded with their second try when a tap-penalty by Murdoch set up tight-head Chloe Brown who powered over with the help of Luke. Rachel Cox banged over the conversion and it was 19-14 after 53 minutes.
When they won that penalty under their own sticks, Watsonians vice-captain Ailie Tucker celebrated like her team had scored as she tried to ‘gee up’ her tiring troops.
It nearly had the desired effect a few minutes later as New Zealander McNamara burst away up the left and then kicked ahead. Winger Ami Conchie then hacked it on too, but County winger Saz Murdoch did well to cover and avert the danger.
With 11 minutes to go, County showed great patience to go ahead for the first time in the contest. After some big carries by Murphy, McDonald, Cox and others, Ceitidh Ainsworth showed excellent awareness and footwork to go over under the posts. The same player converted and suddenly it was 21-19.
There was plenty more drama to come and, after Watsonians were held up over the try line as they searched for a winner, the resultant goal-line drop-out was blocked by replacement Sarah Donnelly and County had to touch down behind their own line.
From the resultant five-metre scrum, Watsonians thought they had scored through Walker who launched from the back of the pack, but referee Chelsea Gillespie signalled a knock-on over the line and County celebrated.
And they celebrated even harder when a nice offload out of contact with the touchline beckoning at the other end of the park saw McLaren set up winger Keys who dived in at the corner with just a minute or so left. Cox could not convert, but soon after, a couple of phases after the restart, skipper Murdoch booted the ball into the stand and Stirling were the winners.
Watsonians head coach Bruce Millar said: “I am gutted as are the girls, it has been an almost flawless league season and we came into this game feeling good, but it just wasn’t to be.
“We scored a few points early on, but we never really got going the way that we know we can. We didn’t create a whole lot of chances and we didn’t look after the ball well enough.
“Towards the end we nearly got over for our fourth try which would have made things interesting, but it wasn’t to be and credit to Stirling County, the best team won on the day.
“There is not much I can say to the Watsonians girls just now because they are dejected, but they are a good team and there are some excellent players within the group.”
Meanwhile, Garioch secured their spot in the women’s Premiership for 2024-25 with a 37-10 bonus point home win over Cartha Queens Park.
Laura Milne, Lindsey McDiarmid, captain Sammy Ross, Louise Sneddon, Nikki Simpson, Megan Hyland and Lesley Davis scored tries for the hosts with Morgan Stewart converting one.
Sammy Djoh and Charlie Boan scored tries for Cartha.
Garioch finish in seventh place in the eight-team league with Cartha sixth and Stewartry, who have a game to play, will be eighth and will now have to play-off with regional league winners in the new year to try and remain in the top flight for next term.
Watsonians: S Macey; M Taoi, R Philipps, B McNamara, A Conchie; S Clements, R Law©; A Tucker, M Poolman, C Abernethy, S Anderson, K King, L Winter, G Laverty, F Walker. Subs: L-A Lawrie, A Swan, S Donnelly, L Buckingham, M Nelson, J Elliott, J Lyons.
Stirling County: Stirling County: S Phimister; F Keys, C McLaren, Ciorstaidh Ainsworth, S Murdoch; Ceitidh Ainsworth, J Murdoch©; A Luke, A Sutcliffe, C Brown, H Bogan, S Murphy, S Taganekurukuru, H Davis, R Cox. Subs: K MacDonald, P Aitken-Robinson, E Fleming, E Graham, E Quigley, J Fletcher, R Moore.
Referee: Chelsea Gillespie.
Watsonians: Tries: Macey, Poolman, Winter. Cons: McNamara 2.
Stirling County: Tries: Ceitidh Ainsworth 2, Brown, Keys. Cons: Ceitidh Ainsworth 2, Cox.
Scoring sequence (Watsonians first): 5-0; 10-0; 12-0; 17-0; 19-0; 19-5; 19-7 (h-t) 19-12; 19-14; 19-19; 19-21; 19-26.
Yellow card –
Stirling County: Ailsa Luke (10 minutes).
Player-of-the-Match: In the 2022-23 women’s Premiership final win over Corstorphine, County’s Lucy MacRae, then 17 and now starring for Edinburgh University, was player-of-the-match and, this time around, fellow youngster Ceitidh Ainsworth of Stirling takes the honour. She is a running 10 who took the ball to the line and made good decisions under pressure here.
Talking point: This really was an excellent advert for the women’s game in Scotland which is growing all of the time and there are some exciting young talents like 19-year-old playmaker Ceitidh Ainsworth coming through who we are likely to see in the upcoming Celtic Challenge. Hopefully she and others can use that event as a platform to follow the likes of Emma Orr and Francesca McGhie to full national honours down the line.
Enjoyed this article? Quality journalism like ours is made possible by readers like you. If you value our in-depth coverage of Scottish rugby at all levels and want to see more, please consider supporting us with a subscription or donation. It helps us keep delivering the news you love. Thank you for being a part of The Offside Line community!