THIS is the big one, and as declarations of intent go, Ayr’s 48-10 demolition of Melrose two weeks back in their play-off semi-final at Millbrae was pretty compelling. They felt they had let themselves down when they had lost to the same opponents at the same venue in the Cup semi-final the previous week, and the reaction Calum Forrester got from his players was everything he could have hoped for.
“Last week we were in our shells and we made a lot of errors which was uncharacteristic with how we have played all season, so this week the focus was on raising individual performances and we did that right across the park. The build-up was completely different. The players took a real lead on how we prepared for the match and took that right into kick-off. We executed really well what we are trying to do, building the pressure on the opposition and forcing them to make the errors so we could build our game around that,” the coach said after the match.
Forrester’s words could be taken as a blue print of the Ayr way of doing things. They are aggressive and uncompromising. They are masters at getting in their opponents’ faces, and when they sense weakness they bring a pack mentality to the task of really forcing home that advantage.
Melrose coach John Dalziel lamented afterwards that his players had made life difficult for themselves by making costly mistakes during the opening twenty minutes, but Ayr deserve credit for bullying their opponents into those errors.
However, Ayr have, on occasion, been caught out after slowing down later on in games. They had lost all three of their previous matches against Melrose in the league and Cup this season, and on two of those occasions they had squandered leads with ten minutes to go.
Well, there was no letting up this time. The really impressive thing about this victory was that they maintained their intensity for the full 80 minutes. Even when they were 38 points ahead during the final ten minutes, they did not take their foot off the gas.
And they will be acutely aware of the importance of doing the same against Heriot’s this week – who head to Millbrae in search of the league and Cup double after last Saturday’s success at Murrayfield. Ayr only need to look at the capital outfit’s play-off semi-final win over Currie to appreciate how dangerous they can be if given a glimmer of hope.
Heriot’s trailed 22-21 going into injury time when Currie scrum-half Richard Snedden kicked the ball out, assuming that would bring an end to the match. But Heriot’s were allowed to take one last line-out and from a clean catch and drive, they manipulated the ball in-field to set up a drop-goal opportunity which stand-off Gregor McNeish slotted with ice-cool precision.
Ayr will also be well aware of what happened in last year’s Grand Final at Goldenacre when Melrose led by three points and were camped on Heriot’s line for the final few minutes of the match. They would have gone even further ahead if winger Tito Mua had been able to hold onto Tom Galbraith’s pass as they surged towards the corner, but the ball was fumbled into touch and Heriot’s still had time for the line-out.
They threw over the tail and then launched one final quest for glory from their own line. Inch by inch they crawled forward and eleven phases later they were awarded a penalty on their ten yard line. Melrose niggled and were marched back to halfway as a result, and the temptation must have been to go for the draw – and extra-time – by kicking for goal. But they took the tap, and another nine phases later, Jason Hill burrowed over to secure the most dramatic of victories.
Heriot’s head coach, Phil Smith, likes to talk about how they are a team which wants to play attractive rugby – and there is no doubting the truth in this. But there is also a rod of iron running through the side, instilled by forwards coach and ex-Edinburgh pro Stevie Lawrie, and their contact guru Jamie Parker.
Ayr have home advantage by virtue of finishing the regular season nine points clear of the chasing pack and have already beaten today’s opponents both home and away this season, but Heriot’s are on a roll. They have not lost a game since Christmas.
Smith is being slightly mischievous when he points out that his team know what it is like to go into this end-of-season-winner-takes-all-showdown knowing that all your hard work during the previous eight months can come undone by one moment of madness or a solitary slice of bad luck because his boys were in that boat last year. He is doing his little bit to crank up the tension in the enemy camp.
That pressure will build and build for Ayr, unless they can repeat their Melrose trick by getting so far ahead after an hour of play that even the comeback kids from Goldenacre cannot claw it back.
THE LOWDOWN –
AYR v MELROSE
KICK-OFF TIME: 3pm on Saturday 23rd April
Ayr: G Anderson; J Bulumakau, R Curle, D McCluskey, C Gossman; F Climo, D Armstrong; G Hunter, J Malcolm, J Sebastian, R McApline, S Sutherland, B Macpherson, W Bordill, P McCallum. Subs: L Anderson, D Rae, C Stevenson, A Dunlop, A Russell, R Dalgliesh, H McPherson.
Heriots: J Semple; C Simpson, L Steele, C Ferguson, J Rae; G McNeish, T Wilson; M Bouab, M Liness, S Cessford, R Nimmo, J Turley, S Dewar, A Henderson, J Hill. Subs: N Cochrane, M McCallum, R van Heerden, J Syme, H Fraser, G Bryce, M Learmonth.
Ayr: One enforced change from the side which hammered Melrose in the semi-final with James Malcolm, who has played 13 games for Glasgow Warriors this year, taking over at hooker for the injured David Young. D’Arcy Rae and Lewis Anderson come onto the bench in place of club stalwarts Gordon Sykes and Stuart Fenwick, while Andy Dunlop will make his final appearance for the club off the bench after ten years of service.
Heriot’s: Edinburgh pro Neil Cochrane made his first appearance for the club this season in last week’s Final, and has been released again for this match. He will look to make as big an impact as he managed last week when he takes over at hooker from Scotland club internationalist Michael Liness. The only change to the squad from last week is on the bench, where another pro, Glenn Bryce, replaces the injured Iain Wilson.
KEY BATTLE: Ross Curle versus Liam Steele
WHAT THE COACHES SAY –
“We have enjoyed a couple of close, hard-fought encounters so far this season and we expect the same again this weekend. Our preparations have gone well for this match and the players can’t wait to get out and play in front of the home crowd. We expect a big crowd down aty Millbrae which will create a great atmosphere …” – Calum Forrester (Ayr)
“The highs of last week have carried through to training this week with three quality sessions making selection much harder than it looks. Winning the Cup was good but winning this one would be even better. I really feel this could be a ding-dong battle of free flowing rugby with both teams looking to keep the ball in play as much as possible. This should be a real advert for the club game …” – Phil Smith (Heriot’s)
VERDICT: Ayr by a nose after a tense finale.