Ayrshire Bulls 33
STUART BATHGATE @ Millbrae
IT WAS touch and go for a time, particularly early in the second half when they were a man down, but in the end Ayrshire Bulls got their defence of the Super6 Championship title off to a reassuringly solid start.
The game ebbed and flowed more than the final score might suggest, and Heriot’s, although pointless after the break, were on top for large stretches of both halves. But the Bulls took their chances, scoring five tries in all, in the process reminding all of their rivals that they are the team to beat in this tournament.
“There were a couple of crucial turning points,” Bulls head coach Pat MacArthur said. “At half-time we had an honest discussion on our discipline, and in the second half there was a real turning point of a good seven-minute defensive set on our try line, with no penalties, when we were down to 14 men. That’s a lot of character, and it’s what we’re trying to pride ourselves on, not just attack.
“I was slightly anxious during the game, to be perfectly honest, especially in the first half. But the boys stuck in there. We made a full change in the front row at half-time, those boys came on and really got stuck into it. Strength in depth is a big thing that we talk about, and it’s an area that really worked well.”
The Bulls drew first blood in the second minute. From an advancing scrum deep in Heriot’s territory, scrum-half Jordan Lenac nipped through on the blindside then popped up the scoring pass to winger Elias Caven. Debutant stand-off Will Hunt converted to make it 7-0 with barely two minutes on the clock.
That advantage did not last long, however. A penalty to touch gave Heriot’s good position, and after a commanding drive from the line-out, Sam Pecqueur crossed close to the posts, with Bruce Houston adding the two points.
A powerful defensive riposte by the home side ensured there was no repeat when Heriot’s next had a lineout in their opponents’ 22, but the Bulls were not so sure-footed at the back in open play, as visiting captain Ruairidh Leishman proved with some lung-bursting breaks. Nonetheless, when the next score came, after 25 minutes, it went Ayrshire’s way, with Caven initiating a break and Liam McNamara taking it on before providing the scoring pass for Bobby Beattie. Hunt converted.
Again, though, Heriot’s hit back swiftly, with Pecqueur touching down behind the posts after good work down the left initiated by a Rory Steele chip and chase. Houston tied the game at 14 apiece with his conversion, then in the few minutes left before half-time put Heriot’s ahead with a long-range penalty. The stand-off had a chance to stretch the lead in the last kick of the first 40, but this time the effort went wide.
The Bulls had enjoyed dominance in the set scrum more or less throughout the first half, but when they reemerged it was with that new front row mentioned by MacArthur, including another debutant in hooker James Malcolm. Before they could settle into their rhythm, however, they lost centre Thomas Glendinning to the sin bin for a dangerous tackle.
Heriot’s could not make use of the extra man, and they surrendered the lead just as Glendinning came back on to the field, with Malcolm scoring an unconverted try from a lineout.
Another missed penalty from 40 metres plus by Houston meant the home side still held that two-point lead going into the final quarter. Heriot’s were forced into a back-line rejig when Houston went off injured, and they were further handicapped when Leishman was sinbinned for a team offence.
The Bulls started to pile on the pressure from that point, and eventually got their reward when Malcolm crossed again. Hunt’s conversion gave his team a nine-point lead with ten minutes to play, and it stayed that way until the dying minutes, when Beattie ripped possession in a tackle to claim his team’s fifth try. Another two points from Hunt ended the contest.
Delight for the Bulls, then, and disappointment for Heriot’s, who contributed so much to a match from which they emerged with nothing. Even so, there were a lot of positives for the visitors to take from their own performance, as Leishman noted afterwards.
“It’s going to take a wee while to gel, but I thought it was a really good start,” he said. “We knew there were going to be mistakes – a third of the team were new caps. But we worked really hard, and the first half was really good.
“In the second half they got momentum back after the first ten minutes, which we didn’t make the most of. We just couldn’t quite claw it back, so we’ll have to look at that for the next few weeks.”
Ayrshire Bulls: Liam McNamara; J Shedden, T Glendinning, R Beattie, E Caven; W Hunt, J Lenac; W Farquhar (A Nimmo 41), A McGuire (J Malcolm 41), C Henderson (M Scott 41), E Bloodworth, R Jackson, A Smeaton, G Wilson (Lewis McNamara 52), B MacPherson (captain).
Heriot’s: D King (R Jones 54); F Jones (N Godsmark 47), R Steele, R Kay, S Pecqueur; B Houston (K Browne 63), J Gelderbloom; C Keen (J Scott 61), C Fenton (M Liness 54), E McLaren (D Gamble 47), R Seydak (S Johnstone 75), F Hastie (J Britton 57), R Leishman (captain), I Wilson, J Mann.
Referee: Ruairidh Campbell.
Ayrshire Blues: Tries: Caven, Beattie 2, Malcolm 2. Cons: Hunt 4.
Heriot’s: Tries: Pecqueur 2. Cons: Houston 2. Pen: Houston.
Scoring sequence (Bulls first): 5-0, 7-0, 7-5, 7-7, 12-7, 14-7, 14-12, 14-14, 14-17 (h-t)19-17, 24-17, 26-17, 31-17, 33-17.
Yellow cards –
Ayrshire Bulls: T Glendinning (43mins).
Heriot’s: R Leishman (65mins).
Man of the match: Bulls captain Blair MacPherson was the official pick, but in truth any one of five or six home players must have run him close.
Talking point: Has the short close season following the Sprint Series allowed enough time for teams to rectify the failings they displayed there? On this evidence, and despite their defeat, the answer from Heriot’s has to be a resounding yes. Playing under their new head coaching team for the first time, they displayed a hunger that appeared to have abandoned them earlier in the year.