STEPHEN BRUNSDON @ Stoneyhill
MUSSELBURGH finally opened their Tennents Premiership account with a gritty but no less effective victory over Marr. It wasn’t pretty but it didn’t matter as the home side claimed a morale-boosting first triumph of the season.
Both sides had come into the weekend with a point to prove. The home team were looking to stop a seven-match rot at the start of the season while Marr have desperately been trying to find the sort of form that took them to the title last year.
In the end, the boot of fly-half Matthew McMillan made the difference as his two penalties either side of half-time kept Burgh just about ahead when it mattered.
For Burgh head coach Derek O’Riordan, the relief usurped the exaltation at the end of a closely fought encounter. “We’re at the bottom of the table so there’s nothing to lose in the second half of the season,” he said.
“It’s like starting from zero now. We’ve got that confidence now that we can win matches and there are no surprises for us as a team.”
Early-afternoon rain made conditions tricky throughout a rather cagey opening 40 minutes, with Musselburgh bossing the early possession and territory stats as Marr struggled under the numerous high balls from scrum-half Fionn Call.
O’Riordan’s men got their just rewards after three minutes as Marr went off their feet at a ruck, handing McMillan an easy chance from short range to get off Burgh off the mark.
Neither side got a serious foothold in the game, which in turn led to niggle between both sets of players. Burgh also felt that they were not getting the rub of referee Grant Stephen’s decisions either, with full-back Ruaridh Young sin-binned for a high tackle approaching the end of the opening quarter.
Marr had few attacking chances early doors but now a concerted period in the Burgh half nearly yielded points as the hosts’ indiscipline got the better of them. Twice Marr got close to the line, but Burgh staved off the assaults each time, eventually clearing their lines via Call’s boot.
Despite going down to 14 men, Burgh were invigorated and actually produced their best piece of play of the half and were rewarded for their efforts through the first try of the match.
McMillan had kicked his side to inside the Marr 22 with a penalty then winger Sandy Watt was held up over the line. Marr cleared the immediate danger but infringed again on their own 22, allowing Burgh another penalty line-out five metres out.
This time the home side would not be denied as hooker Robert Stott burrowed over to score. McMillan’s conversion strayed wide of the uprights, but Burgh crucially held the upper hand on the scoreboard.
Keen to make the most of the numerical advantage, Marr knew they needed to produce something to wear down a stubborn Burgh side, and they nearly did just that after the half-hour mark.
With fly-half Colin Sturgeon pulling the strings, Marr turned back the years as centre Scott Bickerstaff burst through a gaping hole in the Burgh defensive line up-field, eventually being dragged down just short of the opposite 22m line.
Now on the front foot, Marr forced two penalties out of Burgh in quick succession but again could not take advantage when the opportunities presented themselves.
Not even a 13-man rolling maul from a penalty line-out could get the visitors over the line, as Burgh celebrated the penalty like they had won the match already.
Marr reduced the deficit to five with a Sturgeon penalty and looked to have levelled on the stroke of half-time as winger Andrew Ramage got over the line. But strong defensive work from Burgh bundled the winger into touch and the hosts led at the break.
“We were under a lot of pressure from the referee today, it felt like we were playing against 16 men,” O’Riordan reflected. “I think it was overall pretty even and I certainly didn’t think we were three times as penalised as we were, but in saying that, we defended superbly on our own line.”
The defensive effort was excellent from Burgh throughout the game, and it needed to be as Marr began the second half with intent.
Burgh lost a second player to the sin-bin in the shape of flanker Gary Neil and this time Marr took advantage with replacement Stephen Adair – celebrating his 150th appearance for the club – touching down after a powerful rolling maul from five yards out.
That brought the sides level, and it stayed that way with Sturgeon’s conversion hooked wide.
Burgh might have been expected to loosen their grip on the match, given the way their previous two matches panned out, but they were galvanised and pressurised Marr, pinning them back into their own half.
They got over the line for a second time, but Marr’s scrambling defence held the ball up. McMillan then punished increasing Marr indiscipline with his second penalty to restore the lead heading into the final 15 minutes.
From then on, it was an arduous match, with both sides tightening up and Burgh beginning to suffer on the penalty count. Try as they might, however, Marr couldn’t unlock their backs inside the Burgh 22, twice coughing up possession with the line in sight.
Marr no doubt were the better side in the closing minutes and had a chance to steal an unlikely win with a five-metre line-out in the final play. But a misfire in the set-piece gave the match a slightly anti-climactic ending as Burgh celebrated a breakthrough triumph.
“The overwhelming feeling is relief more than pure joy at the moment because that win has been coming for a while now,” O’Riordan said. “It’s about having the confidence to go for it and take our chances and we stood up to the challenge. [To score with a man down] shows what we have in the dressing room and that we are as good as any team in the league.”
His counterpart Craig Redpath had no complaints with the result and bemoaned his side’s lack of strike rate in the opposition 22m. “It’s extremely disappointing and we’re just struggling at the moment,” Redpath said. “We must have had four opportunities to score, and we didn’t take them, which is frustrating. Credit to Burgh though, they deserved the victory.”
Musselburgh: R Young; J Ferguson©, R Watt, F Thomson, S Watt; M McMillan, F Call; C Owenson, B Stott, N McNairn, J Haynes, W Fleming, G Neill, M Crawford, C Champion. Subs: C Arthur, P Brown, L Hutson, J Lister, T Foley.
Marr: C Inglis; A Ramage, S Bickerstaff, N Calder, G Montgomery; C Sturgeon©, G Baird; G Reid, C McMillan, C Miller, D Andrew, C Young, A Johnston, R Brown, B Johnston. Subs: S Adair, L Morrison, R Brocket, C Folan, J Scott.
Referee: G Stephen.
Musselburgh: Try: Stott. Pens: McMillan 2.
Marr: Try: Adair; Pen: Sturgeon.
Scoring sequence (Musselburgh first): 3-0; 8-0; 8-3 (h-t) 8-8; 11-8.
Man-of-the-Match: Stepping into the shoes of Danny Owenson is never an easy thing for any fly-half but Musselburgh’s Matthew McMillan was impressive with ball in hand today as well as keeping his cool off the tee. This wasn’t a day for fast-flowing rugby so McMillan’s accuracy was an important deciding factor in the end result.
Talking point: Conditions weren’t great, and indiscipline was an issue for both sides, so taking the chances when presented was always going to be key. Burgh took their chance with McMillan’s late penalty and just about deserved to come out on top.