Ayrshire Bulls 19
DAVID BARNES @ Millbrae
THIS was a proper cup final. A ding-dong battle with no quarter asked or given. In the end, Bulls were worthy winners for keeping their composure at key moments, but it very easily could have gone the other way, and when Heriot’s led by 10 points at half-time the smart money was on the city slickers.
There was two lengthy breaks in play, early in each half, while Heriot’s second-row Charlie Jupp and then their No 8, Callum Anderson, were treated on the pitch before being rushed to hospital with nasty head injuries. There was no update on either player at time of publication.
Victorious head coach Pat MacArthur wished the stricken men well afterwards, but was understandably focused on congratulating his team for finding a way to win after being knocked back onto their heels by Heriot’s during that opening 40.
“It was a tale of two halves,” he said. “We prepared well but then got a little bit flustered in the first half. We weren’t firing in the set-piece which starts our game, and I felt the boys just took a wee step back. But we refocussed at half-time, got ourselves on the front foot, and took it on from there.
“It was a proper final,” he added. “That’s the first really close game we’ve had this season when it has been nip and tuck all the way through, so we had to get used to it – ‘we’re in a game, relax and enjoy the challenge’ – and once we got our heads around that, got our smiles back, we were a different team in the second half. Good on the boys.”
It was was a big night for Millbrae legend Frazier Climo, who announced earlier this week that this would be his swan-song as a player at the grand old age of 36. The veteran playmaker – who arrived in the west coast of Scotland from his native New Zealand 15 years ago and is now firmly established as one of Ayrshire’s own – marked the occasion by scoring the first of his team’s three tries before being replaced 10 minutes into the second half, with the PA system rather appropriately blaring out the Tina Turner classic ‘Simply The Best’ to mark the moment.
The first 12 minutes were a stalemate, with Bulls dominating possession and territory, but running into a brick wall Heriot’s defence. Then came the first 15-minute hold-up while Jupp – who had been his team’s best player during the opening exchanges with a couple of huge hits – was treated then stretchered off.
When the action resumed, Bulls were straight back onto the front foot, and this time they made the pressure count, with Climo firing out a long pass which released Luca Bardelli on the right, and when the whippet winger was stopped just short of the try-line, the veteran stand-off was first to the breakdown to pick-up and burrow over.
Heriot’s responded in quick-order, with Bruce Houston’s excellent restart putting Bulls under all sorts of pressure, leading to the visiting side’s powerful line-out maul trundling home from 15 yards, with another old-stager in Iain Wilson getting the downward pressure for his ninth try of the campaign.
With Climo having failed to convert his own try, Houston stepped up to fire home the extras for this score, which gave the city side a two-point lead with the game 20 minutes old.
Heriot’s were straight back on the offensive from the restart, and Houston’s long, searching clearance created the field position for Wilson to repeat his trick of just a few minutes earlier, although the conversion – much more straight forward than the previous one – was off target.
Ayr huffed and puffed but couldn’t make any meaningful headway, with Grant Hughes and Matt Davidson gobbling up everything in midfield for Heriot’s, and some great work by Davidson over a tackled Bulls player earned a long-range penalty which Houston stroked home to extend his team’s lead to 10 points with just under five minutes of the first half remaining.
Climo rather hopefully claimed a second try at the start of the second half, but it was correctly ruled that he had collected the ball from an offside position after it had squirted loose in contact and bounced forward off Archie Smeaton’s knee. More of a concern was that Anderson was knocked out cold by a team-mate’s elbow moving at high velocity in the lead-up to that non-score.
As happened after the first long stoppage, Bulls scored immediately after the resumption, when Blair Macpherson barged over after a terrific passage of power rugby, setting up an easy conversion for Elias Caven.
With Bulls turning the screw, Heriot’s had to dig deep to first repel a close-range line-out drive, and then managed to nudge Jamie Shedden into touch as he dived for the corner, before captain fantastic Macpherson struck again, muscling under the posts to set up another easy conversion for Caven, which gave the hosts a four point lead with 15 minutes left.
Heriot’s then shot themselves in the foot when Ross Jones dropped a high ball and Cam Jones picked it up from an offside position, turning a knock-on scrum into a penalty which Bulls were able to kick to the corner to set up another period of pressure – before Sam Wallace rescued the situation for the away side with a great jackal to win an invaluable penalty. The diminutive flanker had a number of big moments like that after coming off the bench in the 58th minute.
The visitors just couldn’t keep hold of the ball long enough to build any pressure, and their coaching team were becoming increasingly animated by a series of curious refereeing decisions (or in some cases non-decisions such as the patently squint line-out throw which wasn’t picked up).
They did, however, eventually get a high-tackle decision with two minutes to go, which they kicked to the corner, before twice conceding penalties on the deck which allowed Bulls to hold out for the win.
“It is really frustrating to be 15-5 up and not able to see it out when we backed our fitness in the second half against a big physical team,” said beaten head coach Ben Cairns. “Ultimately, they managed to get the squeeze on at scrum and maul, we started to get penalised in that area, and we just couldn’t get momentum after the break.
“I feel like he [referee Ruairidh Campbell] was pretty quick to give them scrum and maul penalties, but he missed a lot of stuff in open field, which is what we do well,” Cairns added. “There was probably bits on both sides, to be fair, and it is important that we recognise that it is a team of three officials, not just the ref.”
Ayrshire Bulls: E Caven; L Bardelli, R Beattie, K Yule (T Glendenning 64), J Shedden; F Climo (B Roderick-Evans 51), G Baird (B Afshar 48); W Farquhar (J Drummond 53), B Jardine (A McGuire 43), C Henderson (C Miller 53), E Bloodworth, A Smeaton (T Brown 57), R Sweeney, L McNamara, B Macpherson©.
Heriot’s: D King (R Jones 58); M Gray (A Boyle 29-36, 38), M Davidson, G Hughes, L Wells; B Houston, C Jones; J Scott (C Anderson 58), M Liness (S Wallace 58), E McLaren (C Ramsay 66), C Jupp (A McCallum 12), R Seydak, R Leishman, I Wilson©, C Anderson (C Fenton 45).
Referee: Ruairidh Campbell
Ayrshire Bulls: Tries: Climo, Macpherson 2; Con: Caven 2.
Heriot’s: Tries: Wilson 2; Con: Houston; Pen: Houston.
Scoring sequence (Ayrshire Bulls first): 5-0; 5-5; 5-7; 5-12; 5-15 (h-t) 10-15; 12-15; 17-15; 19-15.
Man-of-the-Match: Not for the first time, Bulls captain Blair Macpherson led from the front and stepped up with two second half tries which was key to his team’s victory.
Talking point: Heriot’s head coach Ben Cairns was at pains not to personalise his frustration at some of the officiating after the game, but it was clear that he, his assistants and his players were exasperated by some of the decisions. The Super Series exists to drive up playing standards in the tier just below full-time pro, and it is right that the referees and touch-judges are under the same pressure to perform at the appropriate level.