DAVID BARNES @ Millbrae
A PENALTY TRY deep into the sixth minute of injury time snatched a dramatic victory for Ayr over Melrose at the end of a tense, scrappy and captivating encounter, to set up a re-run of the 2016 Premiership Grand Final against Heriot’s in two weeks’ time.
On that previous occasion, Heriot’s rocked up at Millbrae and caught the team which had dominated the league during the regular part of the season cold to snatch a narrow win which still rankles with the beaten side. Ayr head coach Pete Murchie will be hoping that the enduring pain of that experience, and the confidence gained through this gritty win, will combine to give his side a crucial edge on 6th April.
Before that, there is a rematch between these two teams in the Cup semi-final at The Greenyards next Saturday, and that is likely to be another epic battle, with Melrose feeding off a sense of injustice at the way this contest finished to raise their game to the next level.
Beaten head coach Rob Chrystie was clearly seething after watching his side’s hopes dashed at the death. “To a man, our Melrose boys laid it all on the line there and they deserve better,” he said. “We made a couple of key mistakes by not exiting properly after we got our noses in front by four points, and credit to Ayr for taking their chance, but it will be interesting looking back on a few of those passages of play.
“To go to a penalty try after one lineout five metres off the line – and which, to me, seemed messy at best,” he added, before checking himself. “It’s difficult because there is a lot of emotion involved, but if I was to contrast that across the board and put other lineouts next to it – it will be interesting to look at.
“A lot of those boys will be stronger for this moving forward. But, in the here and now, I’m bitterly disappointed for the players. The effort they put in and to finish the game in that manner is tough.”
Opposite number Murchie had plenty sympathy for Melrose but thought the referee had called it right in awarding the penalty try.
“Robbie [Smith] says he scored it, so he’s a bit gutted that he didn’t get the credit in the end,” he insisted. “If he [the referee] sees a clear offence, and we are going to score, then fair play to him. There was a few scrums when we were going forward at a rate of knots and we didn’t get anything.
“It’s a horrible, horrible way to lose, and it’s an amazing way to win,” Murchie added. “If the shoe was on the other foot we would be desolate right now.”
Ayr cruised into a second-minute lead through a Frazier Climo penalty after Melrose’s scrum splintered on their own 22 and just to the right of the posts, and it looked like the hosts had extended their lead with an excellently worked try on 12 minutes when Climo picked out the unmarked Kyle Rowe on the left touchline with an inch-perfect cross-field kick, but the winger’s pass back inside which gave Grant Anderson an unchallenged canter in was a fraction forward, so the score was chalked off.
Climo was off target with a second scrum penalty attempt, this time from wide on the left, as the home team continued to dominate, but a lack of accuracy at crunch moments meant they could not make the pressure tell on the scoreboard.
It was fast and furious stuff – and increasingly tetchy – as both teams became frustrated at their inability to build through phases, until Melrose finally managed to keep the game rolling for a sustained period and they very nearly snatched the lead when an overlap appeared on the right, but the killer pass went behind Grant Runciman and the opportunity was lost.
The Borderers did, however, win a penalty at the resulting scrum and Craig Jackson stepped forward to drive home the three points, which squared the contest with 34 minutes played.
Ayr started the second half in lively fashion, but it was Melrose who struck first when home scrum-half Harry Warr bounced straight back to his feet in a tackle and referee Ben Blain ruled that he had been held. Jackson sent home the points. The visitors extended their lead with a third successful penalty a few minutes later after Ayr were called for playing the ball on the deck.
That focussed Ayr minds. They kicked a deliberate knock-on penalty to the corner, drove the lineout and then worked the ball across the park with four sharp phases before an excellent offload out of contact from Climo sent Grant Anderson over in the corner.
With 13 minutes to go, there was a lengthy hold-up while Anderson received treatment for a neck injury. He was eventually stretchered from the field, but it was precautionary, and after getting the all-clear from the medics the veteran full-back was able return to the touchline to watch the final seven minutes.
By that time, Jackson had extended Melrose’s lead to four points with a long-range penalty awarded against Blair Macpherson for playing the ball on the deck at a ruck.
Then came that tense finale. Ayr laid siege to the Melrose line. Tight-head Steven Longwell got over but it was ruled that he didn’t get the ball down. Then replacement centre Ross Curle probed on the right, but when he was closed down his speculative offload was deemed to have floated forward. A few minutes later, Curle was bundled into touch on the left, and with the Millbrae clock indicating that the match was already into the third minute of injury time it was surprising when the referee instructed Melrose to take the lineout.
Tommy Spinks stole the ball and Melrose then conceded a penalty when Macpherson was up-ended in a tackle and Climo kicked for the corner.
The ball was gathered at the front and the maul rumbled across the line before collapsing in an ugly heap. Referee Blain had no hesitation in awarding the penalty try. The clock said 85mins and 53secs. Heartbreak and euphoria.
Ayr: G Anderson; R Tagive, J Pinkerton, D McCluskey, K Rowe; F Climo, H Warr; R Sayce, R Smith, S Longwell, D Corbenici, L Morrice, B Macpherson, T Spinks, P McCallum©. Subs: A North, R Curle, O Smith.
Melrose: C Jackson; G Wood, P Anderson, G Taylor, I Sim; J Baggott, M McAndrew; G Shiells, R Anderson, C Crookshanks, J Head, C Young, R Knott, G Runciman©, I Moody. Sub: R Ferguson.
Ayr: Try: Anderson, penalty try. Pen: Climo.
Melrose: Pens: Jackson 4.
Scoring sequence (Ayr first): 3-0, 3-3 half-time, 3-6, 3-9, 8-9, 8-12, 15-12.
Man of the Match: This one came down to hard work, grit and composure, and Ayr flanker Tommy Spinks was at the heart of the home team’s effort with a never-say-die performance.
Talking point: A penalty try so late in the game is a devastating way to lose such a big match, but the rules are the rules and if the referee is sure that illegal play prevented a score, then he has to make the call. The shoe could easily have been on the other foot, with Steven Longwell adamant that he had got the ball down a few moments earlier, and a few other close calls in try-scoring situations going against the home team during the course of the match. On such fine margins are seasons made and lost.