STEPHEN BRUNSDON @ Stoneyhill
THE jeopardy of cup rugby often lends itself to knife-edge encounters, and for 50-odd minutes of Musselburgh’s first round victory over Highland, this match was well and truly in the balance.
It was open and entertaining at its best and decidedly unsavoury at its worst, with the home team emerging as clear winners thanks to a clinical second half performance.
For Burgh, this was another sign of things turning around this season. A third win in a row in all competitions and six tries in total meant Derek O’Riordan was a satisfied head coach post-match.
“There was a period of about 20 minutes where the match could have gone either way,” he said. “We’ve said over the past couple of weeks that momentum swings are what we needed to manage better and that’s what we did, especially when their tails were up at the end of the first half.”
This weekend’s other Scottish Cup results:
That the hosts trailed by two points at the break seemed scarcely believable after bolting out of the blocks from the kick-off.
Winger Tom Foley touched down in the corner with barely a minute on the clock after Highland co-captain Scott Fraser had his first clearance attempt charged down.
That gave Burgh early possession and, after making in-roads with the forwards, the ball was spread through the backs with full-back Paul Cunningham coming into the line to feed Foley, who fended off a last Highland defender to score.
“The main thing we wanted to focus on today was imposing our physicality and I think you saw signs of that in the first few minutes, it was really the perfect start,” said O’Riordan.
That perfect start got even better 18 minutes later when Burgh scored their second of the afternoon, using a somewhat tried-and-tested line-out driving maul which Highland simply couldn’t halt. Hooker Robert Stott dotted down and Cunningham added the extra two points.
Then Highland responded against the run of play via a brace of tries from winger Magnus Henry.
The visitors had been present physically in the opening quarter, but they had failed to make the most of what little ball Burgh allowed them.
Highland weren’t helped by a woefully misfiring line-out early doors either, with three overthrows and a steal. At the fifth attempt, the set-piece did work, and Highland got on the front foot through strong carries from Ratu Tagivetaua and Timoci Waqanibau. A lovely cut-pass from out-half Scott Fraser found fellow co-captain Callum Carson who in turn sent Henry racing in at the corner.
Two minutes later, Henry was in again with an almost carbon copy effort, while Fraser’s second conversion took Highland into an unexpected lead at the half-hour marker.
A change of approach had certainly paid off for the visitors. “Throughout the first quarter, we were kicking the ball away all the time because we had the wind behind us,” explained Highland coach Davie Carson. “And when we kicked it back to them, they scored two easy tries. But after 20 minutes, we said we needed to just keep the ball and stress them, and that’s what we did.”
Carson’s men ended the half as the better of the two teams, with Burgh boss O’Riordan admitting that “half-time couldn’t have come at a better time for us”.
The break allowed a ‘reset’ for the hosts and, with the game in the balance they knew they would need an equally fast start to the second period.
They managed just that, with another punishing line-out maul, this time prop Colin Arthur bundling over for the score. Cunningham’s conversion took Burgh five points clear, and that margin was extended five minutes later when Craig Owenson crossed for the first of his two tries.
Highland, having dominated the latter stages of the opening period, now suddenly found themselves 26-14 down. But worse was to follow as Burgh were awarded a penalty-try following a deliberate knock-on from Fraser, who was yellow-carded.
“That penalty try gave us a bit of breathing space and allowed us to make some changes to the team,” O’Riordan said. “We were able to build on that score and that was a big relief to us because coming in at half-time, we were a little bit spooked, and we sort of needed to reset a bit, so this allowed us to enjoy the game and play a bit more.”
His counterpart was diplomatic when quizzed whether the penalty try, which appeared to be given despite the presence of two Highland players remaining in the last line of defence, changed the course of the match.
“Maybe, you never know, but when we were down to 14-men both times, we never conceded anything so it’s difficult to say whether it had a massive impact,” said Carson.
Highland did fight back and got a third try following a sneaky burst up the blindside channel from scrum-half Hugo Crush. Full-back Ruaridh MacDonald and Rokoduguni combined well to get over the gainline and further quick hands meant Burgh backs were turned in defence.
Crush then used his pace from the base of the ruck 10 yards out to cross over. Rokoduguni converted to make it an 11-point game, but Burgh struck back with their sixth try – and Owenson’s second – with 10 minutes left. to finally bury the match.
The game ended with an unnecessarily bitter taste in the mouth as tempers flared on both sides. Highland second-row Grant Jamieson was yellow carded while several scuffles broke out as the encounter ultimately fizzled out in the closing minutes.
For Burgh, Premiership rivals Selkirk are the next opponents in the Cup, and O’Riordan’s side will be aiming to repeat their pre-Christmas victory at Philiphaugh in round two.
Meanwhile, Highland return to the ultra-competitive National League Division One scene in two weeks, as they take on Gala.
Musselburgh: P Cunningham; T Foley, F Thomson, R Smith, C Marshall; M McMillan, F Call; R Hanning, Robert Stott, C Arthur, J Haynes, M Badenhorst©, P Bogie, M Crawford, L Hutson. Subs: C Owenson, E Bonthron, L Milne, C Champion, Ronan Stott.
Highland: R MacDonald; M Henry, R Rokoduguni, T Junior, A Kellock; S Fraser©, H Crush; S Murray, K Brown, J Milton, O McDonald, G Jamieson, R Tagivetaua, A Macdonald, C Carson©. Subs: O Smith, P Ratumaisese, s Watson, K Bruce, M Gordon.
Referee: J Smith
Musselburgh: Tries: Foley, Stott, Arthur, Penalty Try, Owenson 2; Cons: Cunningham 4.
Highland: Tries: Kellock 2, Crush; Cons: Fraser 2, Rokoduguni.
Scoring Sequence (Musselburgh first): 5-0; 10-0; 12-0; 12-5; 12-7; 12-12; 12-14 (h-t) 17-14; 19-14; 24-14; 26-14; 33-14; 33-19; 33-21; 38-21; 40-21.
Yellow cards –
Highland: Fraser, Jamieson
Man-of-the-Match: There were a number of players on the winning side who stood out, but the most deserving recipient must surely be Craig Owenson, who not only scored two tries but helped Burgh get on top of Highland in the set-piece in an increasingly edgy second half. Special mention must also go to Highland’s scrum-half Hugo Crush, who provided much-needed go-forward in the second period when his side were up against it.
Talking point: As much as the respective coaches wanted to downplay the impact of the penalty try in the second half, this proved a real turning moment in the game and gave Musselburgh the breathing space they needed. Highland deserved credit, however, for not conceding further points when down to 14-men, but the automatic seven points made the uphill challenge a little too steep in the end.