Ayrshire Bulls 3
IAIN HAY@ Millbrae
BILLED as the clash of the Super Series heavyweights, it was reigning Championship champs Watsonians who edged out 2021 and current Sprint champions Ayrshire Bulls in a bruising battle.
As the scoreline suggests, this was not one you’d keep a recording of. As the hardy band of ‘Dash of Pink’ers – a group who had rushed from Ayr Football Club’s Scottish League Cup tie with Alloa in aid of cancer support – arrived at Millbrae accompanied by the strains of the bagpipes, the clouds began to rain on their parade, and Watsonians made sure to add a bit more gloom to proceedings by bringing out a colossal defensive effort.
“We knew what was going to be coming from Ayr, they’re a massively physical team, direct and we know it’s always massively confrontational when we play against them, especially when we come up here, but I thought the boys fronted-up massively,” said Nikki Walker, stepping up from assistant coach to take charge of Watsonians for the first time on an interim basis after Stevie Scott‘s departure to Bath during the close season.
“We had seven guys making their debut today, six in on emergency loan, so that’s a credit not just to the boys coming in but, also to the core of our group, that they were able to pull these guys up to our standards pretty quickly, so I’m delighted for the boys. It was a massive step-up from where we were at the Sprint.
“In terms of mindset and attitude today, if we can get that every week we’re not going to be far away but there’s lots to improve on. It was a fairly messy game, determined a bit by the conditions but there was a little bit of inaccuracy, for example in our kicking game, so we’ll work on those things. But it’s a great line in the sand at the start of the season, and if we don’t drop below that standard [of mindset and attitude] we’ll prove a hard team to beat.”
That “line in the sand” was drawn pretty quickly when a thundering hit by Luis Ball on Bulls’ captain Blair Macpherson prevented the hosts from opening their account.
This pattern repeated itself for nigh on 20 minutes, and the visitors were aided by the lengthy boot of Jason Baggott which helped keep the Bulls at bay. However, the pressure was leading to penalties, and captain Neil Irvine-Hess was sent to the bin for successive maul penalties conceded near his own try.
Bulls still weren’t able to get on the score-sheet with the man advantage, though, and Freddie Owsley was almost away for Watsonians when capitalising on a misplaced Reiss Cullen pass, but after kicking ahead twice, there was still another 25 metres to go and debutant Chris Hyde was able to get back for the Bulls.
That was Watsonians’ first foray into Bulls territory, then they hashed a decent attacking line-out the second time, and it was off counter-attack that they managed to get themselves in front against the run of play.
A series of spills, miscues and slips, eventually saw the ball land in the hands of Danny Williamson inside his own half, he jinked, weaved, threw an outrageous dummy, and then had two men on his right shoulder but although his pass to Kody McGovern was fine, the on-loan Currie Chieftain lost his footing as he tried to cut inside. Beattie retrieved the ball for the Bulls but was then pinged for not releasing, and Baggott sent home the points.
The bar-of-soap-ball chaos continued as both sides struggled to string phases together. At one point Bulls’ lock Edward Bloodworth appeared on the left-wing, and although his kick ahead was reasonably accurate for a man not usually accustomed to such acts, he didn’t have the gas to chase it down.
Just before the end of the first half, with Bulls again in rolling-maul range, Watsonians picked ip their second yellow for collapsing it, this time Donald Voas, who usually turns out for Biggar RFC, took an unscheduled breather. Again, though, no joy Bulls.
The second half didn’t start well either for the Bulls, stalwart lock Bloodworth advised to take a seat for medical reasons when he charged down a drop-out with his face, but things started to look up for the home side when new stand-off Bradley Roderick-Evans slotted a penalty after Jamie Berrisford was penalised for not rolling away from the tackle.
Watsonians full-back Williamson, promoted up from their Club XV for this game, was looking the most dangerous back on the park, and more good play from him nearly led to a score for Lewis Berg but as had happened to the Bulls in the first half, the ball slithered out of his grasp with the try-line in sight.
Irvine-Hess was then held up over the line as Watsonians became more of an attacking threat but both sides struggled holding onto their own line-outs, and even if they did, defences usually won out, so victories in the tactical kicking game led to little.
The only try of the game eventually came with 10 minute to go, and it was worth the wait. Watsonians’ replacement George Pringle shrugged off a tired looking challenge from Ryan Sweeney on half-way, Kwagga van Niekirk made two hard carries, and once into the 22, Berg angled a grubber for McGovern to pick up off his toes at touchline, swivel, and dot down.
Another Baggott penalty completed the scoring, although Murray Scott could have made the margin of victory greater had he not caught a dose of white-line fever with two men outside.
It’s not often Pat McArthur has to talk about losing at home, but the Bulls head coach was still looking forward to the rest of the season.
“We didn’t take our opportunities in the 22, and credit to Watsonians defence, they were hitting hard but we’ve got to be clinical in these areas, we’ve got to look after our ball, and work as a XV,” he said.
“It’s the first game, we’re going to have highs and lows. A loss is hard to take, but there’s areas for improvement and there was areas of quality. We’ve been round long enough to understand that it’s disappointing and the boys will be hurting but we turn up on Monday, put our tin-hats on and go back it.”
Ayrshire Bulls: C Hyde; T Glendinning, R Beattie, A Stirrat, L Bardelli; B Roderick-Evans, R Cullen; A Nimmo, A McGuire, C Miller, E Bloodworth, R Jackson, R Sweeney, L McNamara, B Macpherson©. Substituties: R Tanner, J Drummond, W Farquhar, E Bulger-Hamilton, T Brown, F Johnston, C Elliot, A Bogidrau.
Watsonians: D Williamson; K McGovern, L Berg, S King, F Owsley; J Baggott, M Scott; D Voas, C Davies, M Wilson, A Scopes, J Berrisford, L Ball, S Cecil, N Irvine-Hess©. Substitutes: J Kerr, G Shiells, G Scougall, K Watt, K van Niekerk, G Welsh, G Pringle, C Welsh.
Referee: Sam Gove-White
Bulls: Pens: Roderick-Evans
Watsonians: Tries: McGovern; Pens: Baggott 2.
Scoring sequence (Ayrshire Bulls first): 0-3 (h-t) 3-3; 3-8; 3-11.
Yellow Cards –
Watsonians: Irvine-Hess, Voas
Player-of-the-Match: Commendations for backs Kody McGovern and Danny Williamson stepping up to Super Series and not looking out of place at all, but this was won at the coal-face so really has to go to a forward. Step up and claim your prize Luis Ball edged it over his captain who was the official POTM.
Talking Point: At the risk of turning into Jim Hamilton: physicality. These two have been the best of the Super Series bunch practically since its inception and it’s partly down to them consistently hitting hard.