Ayrshire Bulls 19
Stirling Wolves 29
DAVID BARNES @ The Hive Stadium
THEY finished the last Super Series Championship dead last and after an up and down 2023 campaign they sneaked into the final play-off place by the skin of their teeth, then hit peak form when it really mattered. Fair play to Stirling Wolves – they were the best team on the day – but this one is going to sting for a while at Millbrae … and at Goldenacre after table-toppers Heriot’s came a cropper in a similar style in last weekend’s semi-final.
Victorious head coach Eddie Pollock acknowledged that his team will be regarded elsewhere as surprise winners of this tournament, but stressed that he, his assistant coaches and his players always believed they had the personnel and the game-plan to go all the way.
“Throughout this year – in the Sprint and the Championship – we’ve been knocking on the door against the top sides,” he said. “We had a bit of a blip in the middle of the Championship when we had a few players out – we lost Connor Gordon to suspension, Gregor Hiddleston to Glasgow and had two or three injuries to key players – and, to me, we were playing with half a team at that point. That’s no disrespect to the guys who stepped up, but as you saw tonight from Connor, Gregor and these guys … the work-rate they give you is just unbelievable.
“What we lacked early on [in this campaign] was consistency and we’ve just found a way of playing that suits us against the bigger sides,” he added. “Duncan Hodge, Scott Lawson and Sean Kennedy [his assistant coaches] have been brilliant at looking at how we need to play. So, we always felt if we could get to the play-offs, we could beat anyone on our day.
“There was a couple of times like when we dropped that kick-off after we scored and let them back in the game to score a try in the right corner, when I think in the past we would have panicked a bit, but we didn’t – we kept plugging away and kept the pressure on them to get that last score, and from there I thought we defended superbly in that last 10-15 minutes.”
Meanwhile, Bulls head coach Pat MacArthur had no complaints about the outcome. “We just didn’t get going for the first 40 minutes,” he reasoned. “Our set-piece and our maul wasn’t quite firing and once those things started to get better we got on the front foot and caused them problems, but it just wasn’t enough.
“Fair play to Stirling, they have a simple game-plan and they implemented it well in this game. We just didn’t get into what we do, our scrum didn’t quite click into gear and it is different on a 4G pitch, scrum dominance is harder to get because when they step back they can regroup, and our line-out wasn’t firing either.
“When you look at it, they put a huge amount of effort into the breakdown and they had a smart game-plan which is why it took us a wee while to get going. It is just one of those days, we have all had them in our careers, so we will regroup and be back trying to win trophies next year.”
Wolves could hardly have got off to a better start, picking up a scrum on the Bulls’ 22 when Andy Stirrat fumbled the kick-off, and then racing into a 7-0 lead on two minutes when Ed Hasdell burst between Andrew Nimmo and Ryan Sweeney then strolled over the line, setting up a straight-forward conversion for Marcus Holden.
The men from the west suffered another set-back on five minutes when they lost winger Jamie Shedden to a leg injury, and Wolves came very close to moving further ahead when Ed Timpson made good ground up the right to spark a promising attack, but Holden’s final pass back to Timpson went slightly behind the flanker.
Bulls were badly out of sorts. Brad Roderick-Evans missed touch with a penalty to the corner, Bobby Beattie dollied a simple pass in midfield, and Sweeney gave away a penalty for taking out an opponent off the ball. It was after that infraction that Gregor Hiddleston swept round the back of a line-out and carried all the way to the try-line, before a quick recycle led to possession being transferred across the park for Glenn Bryce to squeeze over in the left corner.
Bulls tried to rally and Roderick-Evans took play into the strike zone by chipping the ball past his man and collecting on the hoof, only to lose control of possession when tackles 10 yards from the line, and then the pink and black stand-off gave away a cheap penalty by picking up the ball from an offside position.
Bulls reverted to their line-out maul, usually a rich seam of points, but again they lost control just feet from the try-line. We thought their big match experience would be an asset in this game, but it looked like the occasion had got to them. They were frantic and unfocused.
Wolves struck again when they stole a line-out just outside their own 22, initiating a thunderous burst to halfway by George Breese before Craig Jackson angled an excellent grubber towards the same left corner the second try had been scored in, and the ball sat up perfectly for Ross McKnight to take his try tally for the season to 14.
Bulls did finally bite back when they mauled a line-out to within range for Reiss Cullen to send Beattie crashing over on a short ball, and they looked lively during the final few minutes of the half but lacked the accuracy to make any more in-roads into the 10-point deficit.
After a scratchy start to the second half, the pre-match favourites managed to narrow the gap further when they ground through several close-range drives before Edward Bloodworth burrowed under the posts. Broderick Evans converted, and when Bulls counter-rucked possession back soon after the restart it felt like the axis for this game was tilting.
But McKnight had other ideas, intercepting Chris Elliot and motoring all the way home from his own 22 for try number 15 of the campaign, although hero turned to villain a few minutes later when the big Wolves winger made a dog’s dinner of tidying up Thomas Glendinning‘s kick ahead and Ollie Horne pounced to score.
Wolves kept their nerve, and as the game entered its final 10 minutes, they moved in for the kill, softening Bulls up with some powerful forward play then spreading the ball wide through a long pass from Craig Jackson to Bryce, who handed off the upright Luca Bardelli on his way to the line.
Bulls huffed and puffed during the final seven minutes and spent a fair bit of time bashing it up through their forwards inside their opponents’ 22, but Wolves replacement Euan Cunningham – on the park for just the last two minutes – made sure he had a tale to tell from this fairytale final for the Bridgehaugh men by ripping the ball away from Rhodri Tanner which killed of any lingering hopes of a dramatic comeback win.
Ayrshire Bulls: O Horne; J Shedden (T Glendinning 5), A Stirrat (C Elliot 52), R Beattie, L Bardelli; B Roderick-Evans, R Cullen ( F Johnston 70); A Nimmo (J Drummond 41), G Stewart (R Tanner 60), C Henderson (W Farquhar 41), E Bloodworth, R Jackson (O Baird 74), R Sweeney, L McNamara (T Brown 60), B Macpherson.
Stirling Wolves: G Bryce; R McKnight, R Southern, M Holden, M Heron (S Rockley 53); C Jackson (E Cunningham 78), B Afshar (K McGhie 74); G Breese (L Quarm 74), G Hiddleston (R Kennedy 74), M Tamosaitis (L Skinner 64), T Smith, J Pow (H Ferguson 53), E Timpson (R Knott 53), C Gordon, E Hasdell.
Referee: Ian Kenny
Ayrshire Bulls: Tries: Beattie, Bloodworth, Horne; Cons: Roderick-Evans 2.
Stirling Wolves: Tries: Hasdell, Bryce 2, McKnight 2; Con: Holden 2.
Scoring sequence (Ayrshire Bulls first): 0-5; 0-7; 0-12; 0-17; 5-17; 7-17 (h-t) 12-17; 14-17; 14-22; 14-24; 17-24; 19-24; 19-29.
Man-of-the-Match: There was Wolves candidates all over the park and particularly in the pack, who outgunned the Bulls eight, with hooker Gregor Hiddleston getting the nod after a barnstorming performance in both the tight and loose.
Talking point: There is another year of the original Super6/Series contracts still to play but the tournament is currently under review. The question isn’t really about whether it is a step up from the Premiership, it is about whether it is an effective stepping stone for players into the pro game. It is a subjective calculation which needs to be considered with the emotion removed. Physically, these two sides look the part, and it is good to hear that Glasgow Warriors recently live trained against the Wolves, because such experiences is surely going to make it easier to judge how big the gap really is, and also help the pro coaches make an informed decision about whether the league is something they can really benefit from.