IAIN HAY @ Braidholm
A LATE rally from 7-31 down in the final quarter was not quite enough for the home side to plug all the gaps that their porous defence had opened, but the claiming of two bonus points will make Musselburgh’s great escape plan harder to accomplish heading into the final two rounds of this season’s Premiership.
“We’ve bought ourselves another week in the fight for survival, that’s all we wanted out of the game,” said Musselburgh chief Derek O’Riordan, having seen his team weather GHA’s storm in the first-half before bursting into a healthy lead in the second.
“Some could say we threw away a five-point win in relation to the league position and our fight for survival but three points edges us closer and puts pressure on GHA. We’ve two big games against Jed and Hawks to come up, while GHA have got Hawick and Currie, so good luck to them, but I fancy our chances for the last two games with it all to play for.”
“I can’t be annoyed [by the late concession of three tries] because we’ve not been in the situation before where we’ve been so far ahead and with an opportunity to turn the screw, but these guys are equally in a relegation fight, and in essence we’ve pulled them into it even deeper, so there was naturally going to be a rally.
“We didn’t absorb that pressure when it came, but it’s down to us to learn from that and take it into the game against Jed next week.”
An early break through the middle of the park by No 8 Luke Hutson set the platform for Musselburgh’s opening score – which a maul try for tight-head prop Neil McNairn after a penalty to the corner – and the visitors had a lot of success finding holes in the middle of the park despite conceding most of the possession.
“We saw from the 11 line-breaks they conceded against Jed last week that they were a little bit softer in and around the ruck, and on the edge if you played from centre field, so we tried to exploit that a little bit today,” explained O’Riordan.
Adam Barnett levelled things up for GHA shortly after McNairn’s try, but the hosts went on to squander good field position on a number of occasions. A missed pass here, a knock-on in the tackle there, and seemingly no cure for white-line fever available, with Charlie Lonergan showing severe symptoms when he was held up over the line when one more pass would have given Grant Mollinson an easy run-in.
Rather than on the scoresheet, Mollinson found himself on the naughty-step when he killed the ball following the second of Craig Owenson’s big breaks through the middle, which allowed his brother, Danny Owenson, to knock over the penalty and put Musselburgh back into the lead.
The visitors could have extended their lead going into half-time when centre Rory Watt took advantage of more slack defending in the middle of the park, but after his break, teammate Max Outram couldn’t quite outrun the cover defence and was hauled down by Gregor Drummond.
GHA passed up another scoring opportunity when Archie Falconer was held up over the line early in the second-half, and while the home side had failed with multiple entries into their opponents’ 22, Musselburgh took their chances when they came.
When they won a penalty they put it to the corner to test out GHA’s maul defence, and although they could not succeed through the catch-and-drive route, Musselburgh were patient and ran through their phases until the gap was big enough for Michael Badenhorst to power over.
The visitors quickly extended their lead when Rory Watt found space out left, and unlike the very similar situation GHA’s Lonergan had found himself in during the first half, the Musselburgh centre used his man out wide – who also happened to be his brother – meaning a simple run-in for Sandy Watt, although the pass did look a touch forward on first viewing.
A stunned crowd watching the action on the 4G pitch were still taking in the quick double-punch combo when Craig Owenson once again punched a hole up the middle. This time he fed Paul Cunningham on his inside shoulder, who chipped ahead, regathered and dotted down for the bonus point try.
GHA’s scrum-half George Baird had not played badly, but his replacement Fergus Johnston’s arrival to the field saw him add real impetus as the home side tried to salvage something from this game.
With Badenhorst taking 10-minute breather following a yellow-card, Johnston did well to wriggle out of a double-tackle to dot down, and captain Dario Ewing finished in similar fashion soon to make the improbable seem doable with around ten minutes to go.
The penalties started to rack up against Musselburgh, Danny Owenson sealing off in midfield allowing Drummond to go for touch, but the ball was pinched in the maul to curtail that assault.
Badenhorst was back on, but Craig Owenson was sin-binned for tackling livewire Johnston before he’d run 10 metres from a tap-and-go penalty, and from shorter range GHA sent the forwards in to build the pressure. Michael Fox was stopped inches short, but Luke McCutcheon was on hand to finish off. Chris Hyde converted again to make it 28-31 with around three minutes remaining, which became three minutes of absolute drama.
A chance to kick for goal from a slightly awkward angle to level the scores was rejected, but GHA couldn’t make the line-out work and eventually ran out of room.
Musselburgh cleared and captain Danny Owenson asked referee Michael Todd how long was left. 90 seconds he was informed.
But Musselburgh couldn’t get the ball out of the maul and GHA were awarded the scrum, from which they won a penalty, and another chance to kick for a draw, only to go for touch again. But Jack Haynes rose highest to claw the ball back to Danny Owenson, who just had to kick it dead, which he would have done had Mike Ryan not come from nowhere to snaffle him, leading to Musselburgh conceding another penalty.
Again, GHA went for the line-out, but, again, it didn’t work. The maul couldn’t get going, and when they went wide, Musselburgh got across to hold them up over the line for the third and final time.
“It’s hugely disappointing, we should never have been in the position where we should be rallying,” said GHA’s Calum Forrester afterwards. “We were guilty of a lot of things we have done this season, we played a lot of rugby in their 22 and didn’t get any joy out of it, and ultimately gave away a few soft scores and ended up chasing our tail.
“Fair play to the boys for digging deep and giving us the opportunity to win the game at the end and those two points could be crucial.”
Regarding the three held-up calls, Forrester said: “I’d question the one in the first half, I thought the ball was clearly down in that situation, but it shouldn’t have come to relying on that. At half-time we said: ‘Let’s not have any what-ifs’ and unfortunately we gave ourself that situation at the end.”
To ensure survival they’ll likely have to take get from at least one of the top-two – Currie Chieftains or Hawick – in their final two matches, but Forrester said he welcomes the challenge.
“The great thing about this club – and it’s why I love working here – is this bunch of boys,” he said. “A lot of them were at school together, they’ve dragged their pals from uni, they’re a bunch of boys who work hard together, train hard together, and go out on Saturday nights together. It’s a real club mentality and when we do have to dig deep I know I can rely on these guys to put in all their efforts to beat relegation.”
GHA: C Hyde; L Bardelli, C Lonergan, K Dixon, G Mollison; C Drummond, G Baird; E Cavan, A Falconer, M Fox, A Kerr, A Barnett, M Ryan, D Ewing©, L McCutcheon. Subs: L Barron, J Low, S Callaghan, F Johnston, C Armstrong.
Musselburgh: P Cunningham; C Marshall, R Watt, R Smith, S Watt; M McMillan, D Owenson©; C Owenson, R Stott, N McNairn, M Badenhorst, W Fleming, P Bogie, M Outram, L Hutson. Subs: F Duraj, R Hanning, J Haynes, M Crawford, H Thomas.
Referee: Michael Todd
GHA: Tries: Barnett, Johnston, Ewing, McCutcheon; Cons: Hyde 4.
Musselburgh: Tries: McNairn, Badenhorst, S Watt, Cunningham; Cons: D Owenson 4; Pens: D Owenson
Scoring sequence (GHA first): 0-5; 0-7; 5-7; 7-7; 7-10 (h-t) 7-15; 7-17; 7-22; 7-24; 7-29; 7-31; 12-31; 14-31; 19-31; 21-31; 26-31; 28-31.
Yellow Cards –
Musselburgh: Badenhorst, C Owenson
Player-of-the-Match: Both get minor faults for their yellow cards, but Badenhorst and Craig Owenson were the front-runners, with Owenson winning by a nose.
Talking Point: The rejected kicks at the end by GHA. First one was understandable as it wasn’t the easiest, but the last kick, with the clock in the red, looked like it would just need a nudge from Chris Hyde’s boot. Even if it had missed, the score would have been the same, it goes over and GHA are safe.