BOTH teams know from bitter experience just how painful it is to fall at the final hurdle in the battle to finish top of the BT Premiership pile.
Two years ago, in the first ever play-off Grand Final, Melrose led Heriot’s by three points as the league decider moved into injury time at Goldenacre. Then, from a line-out deep inside their own 22, the Edinburgh side battled through eleven phases to earn a kickable penalty near the halfway line, but rather than aim for the posts and extra time, the home team opted to go for broke instead, and ten phases later Jason Hill rumbled over to clinch a famous victory.
Last season, it was Ayr’s turn to find out what it was like to be poleaxed by Heriots’ never-say-die spirit, when they led 26-22 with five minutes to go at Millbrae only to concede a penalty try and have talismanic number eight Pete McCallum yellow-carded for trying to derail a blue and white line-out drive as it marched inexorably towards their own line. The sense of injustice at that controversial decision still lingers at Millbrae.
While Heriot’s are not around to play the bogeyman this year, the likelihood of this Grand Final being just as tense as those classics from 2015 and 2016 remains high. It is between the two sides which have dominated the BT Premiership this season – setting new standards in terms of having a professional approach at the top end of the club game.
Some of their rivals may resent their ruthlessness in putting together squads capable of performing at a consistently high level over the course of the whole season – but take partisanship out of the equation and it is hard not to be impressed by the ambition and work-ethic of both set-ups.
Melrose have home advantage by virtue of finishing the regular season four points clear at the top of the league log, with 16 wins from 18 matches. Their slip-ups were an 11-7 defeat to Ayr at Millbrae in mid-September, and a 17-21 loss to Heriot’s at Goldenacre three weeks later. Since mid-October they have remained unbeaten in all competitions.
They did have a spell when they struggled to produce the sort effortless attacking rugby which had characterised their early march to the top of the table, but showed during this period that they are not just flat-track bullies – they are also capable of slugging it out when the pitches are heavy, the weather is miserable and things are refusing to fall into place.
They have certainly not been overrun by injuries this year, but have had to contend with a few issues on that front, most notably the absence of utility-back Craig Jackson and back-rower Neil Irvine-Hess since mid-January, but both are now fit again.
Jackson’s return to the starting XV this week sees George Taylor, who has been one of the club’s outstanding performers this term, drop to the bench – and he will be hell-bent on making a big impact when he gets his chance. Ruaridh Knott, another unsung hero of the campaign (despite chipping in with nine tries), has reverted to the second-row in recent weeks to accommodate the return of Irvine-Hess.
Ayr will be frustrated that they relinquished home advantage for this game by slipping up away to Boroughmuir and Watsonians earlier in the campaign. Both those reversals came the week after potentially season-defining victories (over Melrose and Glasgow Hawks, respectively) and perhaps indicate that the men from the west are still prone to taking their foot off the accelerator at the wrong moments.
Ayr’s only other loss this season was when they went down 27-10 to Melrose at The Greenyards on 17th December. Even factoring in the absence of a number of key men – including stand-off Frazier Climo, winger Craig Gossman, prop Steven Longwell and second-row Scott Sutherland – they did not perform well that day, playing too much rugby inside their own half early on and then being hamstrung by ill-discipline as they tried to salvage something from the game.
They know they will have to be at their very best for the full eighty minutes this week, and not just for the first 70 as they were in their play-off semi-final success over Glasgow Hawks.
Calum Forrester’s side are without inside centre Ross Curle for this match after he got himself sent-off for a no-arms tackle during the final moments of that game. This is a real shame because the 28-year-old is not only a feisty character but also an accomplished all-round player, and his match-up against Craig Jackson would have been a compelling sub-plot to the overall drama.
Not that Stafford McDowall, who has replaced Curle in the number 12 jersey, is a shrinking violet. The Scotland Under-20 cap will be a stage three academy player next season after making an almost seamless transition into adult rugby during the last 12 months. With Curle finishing up at Ayr during the summer, this is a golden opportunity for 18-year-old McDowall to lay down a marker for next season.
THE LOWDOWN –
MELROSE v AYR
VENUE: The Greenyards @ 3pm
Melrose: F Thomson; A Lockington, N Godsmark, C Jackson, S Pecqueur; J Baggott, M McAndrew; J Bhatti, R Anderson, R McLeod, J Head, R Knott, N Irvine-Hess, G Runciman©, I Moody. Subs: C McKay, D Elkington, N Beavon, A Grieve, P Eccles, B Colvine, G Taylor.
Ayr: G Anderson; D McCluskey, A Russell, S McDowall, C Gossman; F Climo, D Armstrong; G Hunter, L Anderson, S Longwell, R McAlpine, S Sutherland, B MacPherson, W Bordill, P McCallum©. Subs: D Young, D Sears-Duru, A Prentice, G Henry, H Warr, J Bova, R Dalgliesh.
TEAM NEWS –
Melrose: Only one change from the team which started in the play-off semi-final against Currie a fortnight ago, with Craig Jackson fully recovered from injury and back at inside centre. Plenty of players ready to make an impact off the bench, including tighthead prop Nick Beavon (who has been released by Edinburgh), club captain Bruce Colvine, and midfield powerhouse George Taylor.
Ayr: Ross Curle misses out through suspension, which means Scotland Under-20 cap Stafford McDowall starts at inside centre. Winger Jamie Bova comes onto the bench, and will be looking to finish the league season in a similar vein to how he started it, when he scored a hat-trick in his competitive debut for the club on the opening weekend against Currie.
KEY BATTLE: Grant Runciman versus Will Bordill
WHAT THE COACHES SAY –
“Ayr, as always, will be well prepared by Calum and his team for this deciding game. They have shown over the course of the season they have the ability to score in a number of ways and their defence is always a challenge to break down. We have prepared well this week and understand what is required when playing in these type of games. With a huge crowd expected, everyone is excited to get started in what is sure to be another Melrose versus Ayr cracker.…” – Rob Chrystie (Melrose)
“Ayr and Melrose have enjoyed a number of great battles over recent years and it is fitting that it has come down to the wire again this season. Rob has done an outstanding job with his squad, shown by the run that they have been on having not lost since October. We have prepared well at training and over recent matches and the players are in a good place going into this weekend. We are fully aware of the challenge that lies ahead at the Greenyards and we will need to raise our game again for the climax of this BT Premiership campaign …” – Calum Forrester (Ayr)
VERDICT: Melrose maintain their tempo for full 80 to edge it