STEPHEN BRUNSDON @ Fullarton Park
CRAIG REDPATH’S Marr charged into the final of the Tennent’s Premiership after a hard-fought play-off victory against Hawick. Tries for Scott Bickerstaff and Ben Johnston, plus a further seven points from the boot of Colin Sturgeon, was enough to secure the victory, which leaves the Troon men facing top-of-the-table Currie Chieftains in the showdown to become champion club of Scotland next weekend.
“We’re delighted to get the win, that’s all that matters at the end of the day,” said head coach Redpath afterwards. “It was a very good game in the first half and then in the second half we missed about four or five opportunities and fair play to Hawick who dug deep. They gave us a tough game.”
A combined four points was the difference between the two sides at the end of the regular season, with Marr taking a 21-10 victory at home last month and Hawick winning 26-19 at Mansfield Park back in October. Second and third respectively in the table coming into the play-offs, this was always going to be a close game, and so it proved.
With conditions ideal and Fullarton Park basking in perfect sunshine, it was the visitors who raced out of the gates. They dominated possession and kept Marr firmly in their own 22 for the opening five minutes. But, despite this flying start, Matty Douglas’s men struggled to turn pressure into points until the 12th minute when Kirk Ford kicked penalty from close to halfway.
Although their first few rolls of the dice in attack were met with stoic Hawick defence, Marr responded with a penalty of their own six minutes later as the hosts began to find their feet. Redpath’s side had gone close from a penalty line-out but could not make it over the line, so Sturgeon made do with an easy kick from the 22 to level the scores at 3-3.
Keen to maintain the urgency they showed from the kick-off, Hawick appeared confident in their attack, despite now being on the wrong side of the territory stats. Ford was in superlative kicking form and the visitors looked dangerous every time they had a set-piece in Marr territory. Barely six minutes after Sturgeon’s equalising kick, Hawick got their only try of the match from a penalty line-out.
Ford released Calum Renwick in midfield and the flanker burst through the defensive line to make good ground before offloading to prop Shawn Muir, who was dragged down just before the try-line. Quick ball was secured with scrum-half Gareth Welsh, full-back Bailey Donaldson, and winger Morgan Tait shipping possession to No 8 Stuart Graham, who crashed over. Ford slotted the extras from the touchline to make its 10-3.
Like a wounded animal, Marr’s reaction was immediate and frenzied. From a Hawick clearance kick, Bickerstaff replied with an up-and-under of his own which he re-gathered. From there, Marr put it through the forwards and forced Hawick to cough up a penalty.
Marr opted to use their bulk in the pack by taking a tap which took them even closer to the whitewash, before Bickerstaff finished off what he started from quick ball which had travelled through the hands of Calum Inglis and Sturgeon, with Sturgeon’s conversion levelling it once more.
This was the match the packed embankment of spectators had come to see. On a firm, fast pitch, the rugby was free flowing but one sensed that it couldn’t last all afternoon.
Marr seized the initiative when indiscipline began to creep into Hawick’s play approaching the half-hour marker. A penalty kicked into visiting territory gave Marr the platform they needed to score their second try – which ultimately proved to be the game’s decisive points – with the ball being spun out to Inglis then Sturgeon in midfield, before second-row David Andrew broke the line and fed Ben Johnston for the touch down.
Hawick had a chance to level the scores just before half-time but shot themselves in the foot. Having turned down a kick at goal, they blew a golden opportunity to score when scrum-half Welsh knocked on from five yards out, and o compound frustration, try-scorer Graham was the yellow-carded for repeated infringements at the breakdown.
“We dropped our concentration a bit towards the end of the first half, and the yellow card probably cost us a lot, too,” reflected beaten head coach Douglas afterwards. “We’re happy because we took our chances at the start of the game and it’s weird that we seem to start well but maybe get a bit too comfortable before half-time.”
Up against it with a man down at the start of the second period, Hawick could, and probably should have, easily conceded a third try as Marr came out of the dressing rooms with the sort of intensity they’d had to withstand at the start of the first half.
The hosts now had almost total dominance in the scrum and used this platform to send Sturgeon bursting down the touchline. Hawick seemed all at sea, and it was only a bad pass to winger Jack Scott that prevented the score.
Pinned back in their own half for much of the second period, Hawick struggled to fire any shots in the Marr half.
Ultimately, the second half was scoreless but both sides had their chances. Marr’s work-rate in the final quarter, with the introduction of Scotland international prop Gordon Reid to bolster their efforts, was superior to a tiring Hawick and they deservedly ground out the victory.
Redpath recognised that his team will have to not just match this intensity but raise it again next weekend against the Chieftains. “They’re a great side, and they’ve been the reference side all year,” he said. “We need to keep training and get our level. A tough session on Tuesday and a bit of a rest on Thursday before the final. We’ll give it our best shot on Saturday and hopefully we can be the side to beat them.”
For Douglas and Hawick, the disappointment of defeat was balanced by a feeling of satisfaction that his young side produced a superb defensive effort to keep Marr scoreless in the second period.
“My immediate feeling from the game is pure pride,” Douglas said. “We’re obviously gutted with the result, but that second half was a great advert for rugby in Scotland, both sides had a great defence, and I couldn’t be happier with the effort today.”
Marr: D Steele; S Bickerstaff, G Paxton, C Sturgeon, J Scott; C Inglis, G Baird; B Sweet, B Jardine, C Miller, D Andrew, F Grant, A Johnston, R Brown, B Johnston. Subs: C McMillan, W Farquhar, G Reid, M Pearce, S Broad, M O’Sullivan, N Calder.
Hawick: B Donaldson; M Tait, A Mitchell, Glen Welsh, R McKean; K Ford, Gareth Welsh; S Muir, R Graham, T Hope, R Smith, S Fairbairn, C Renwick, C Sutherland, S Graham. Subs: M Carryer©, R Macleod, C Tait, J Delaney, D Lightfoot, L Gordon-Woolley, M Renwick.
Referee: J Perriam
Marr: Tries: Bickerstaff, B Johnston; Cons: Sturgeon 2; Pens: Sturgeon.
Hawick: Tries: S Graham; Cons: Ford Pens: Ford.
Scoring Sequence (Marr first): 0-3; 3-3; 3-8;’ 3-10;’ 8-10; 10-10; 15-10; 17-0 (h-t)
Man-of-the-Match: It would be unfair not to give the Marr pack recognition for their efforts in the set-piece but the man who pulled the strings for the home side on a day where they could easily have slipped up was Colin Sturgeon. At 12, he was like a second out-half and his attacking running and intelligent kicking proved just as important as the points from the tee.
Talking point: Knock-out rugby is always something of a lottery, but this was a game where both sides gave it absolutely everything. Thankfully, Hawick’s yellow card didn’t have a decisive impact on the result, but Marr’s control of the game in the second half, above anything else, was the sign of a side with the potential to claim the Premiership title. Chieftains, of course, will see it differently.