Ayrshire Bulls 20
Southern Knights 29
DAVID BARNES @ Millbrae
IF chess was a contact sport, this is what it would look like. A strategic battle, a test of concentration and a challenge of nerve, where any mistake could have catastrophic consequences. It was compelling in its own way, even if there was little in the way of free-flowing rugby on display. In fairness, the boggy pitch made it very hard for the players to generate the momentum they needed to play fast rugby.
The lead changed hands five times before Southern Knights finally manoeuvred themselves into their winning position with ten minutes to go when they scored two tries in fairly quick succession, which also secured the bonus and deprived their opponents of a consolation point.
That’s three wins on the bounce now for the Borderers and the contrast in mood to just before Christmas when they had lost four and managed only one draw from their opening five games is striking. From down and out they are now firmly established in the fourth play-off slot, seven points ahead of Stirling County with two games to play. They are eight points adrift of a home play-off, but in this sort of form they will fancy their chances at Goldenacre, Myreside or, indeed, Millbrae again.
“Energy and enthusiasm can take you a long way, especially in conditions like that,” reflected victorious head coach Rob Chrystie afterwards. “I think you can see within the group they are beginning to come together and get stronger through knowing each other a bit better.
“I believe we can be better than that performance, so that’s the focus,” he added. “There was definitely opportunities out there that we didn’t take, they were able to put us under pressure at times so we’ve got to look at that, and I think they scored their first try a bit easily so we just need to be a little bit more resilient in that instance.”
“Having said that, there was a period just after half-time when they threw pretty much everybody at a maul on our line and we held them out. They got a penalty but they weren’t going to score, so there’s moments like that which we need to build on. There was some really good stuff in there, too.”
Southern Knights took the lead on 14 minutes through a penalty try, with home No 8 Blair Macpherson also being sent to the sin-bin for collapsing the line-out drive as it motored with uncompromising purpose towards the Bulls’ line.
That jolted the hosts into a near immediate response, and there was a sense of déjà vu when they sent a penalty to the corner then muscled their way towards the scoring zone – with the difference this time being that it ended with hooker Sam Kitchen grounding the ball for his sixth try of the season, rather than a penalty try award.
Ross Thomson nailed the touchline conversion, then edged Bulls into the lead with a penalty from in front of the posts, which was awarded for an offside after Craig Gossman had weaved his way through three defenders to establish the field position. Ten unanswered points during their period with a man less must have been pretty satisfying for the home camp.
There was a flashpoint just before the half hour mark when Bulls scrum-half David Armstrong hurtled into a tackle on Patrick Anderson and appeared to catch the Knights winger around the neck/chin area, which had the away support and coaching team howling for a red card – but referee Sam Grove-White decided, after consultation with his touch-judge, that a yellow was sufficient sanction.
After an exchange of penalties between Struan Hutchison for the Knights and Thomson for the Bulls, the visitors snatched a half-time lead when Fraser Thomson’s clearance kick was allowed to bounce, Grant Shiells hacked ahead, and Neil Irvine-Hess won the race to the ball as it skidded over the try-line.
There was a lengthy hold-up at the start of the second half while Irvine-Hess was treated on the park and then stretchered off with shoulder injury. Chrystie indicated afterwards that the medical response was largely precautionary and he was hopeful that the player’s trip to hospital would confirm that the injury is not too serious.
When the action resumed, the Bulls laid siege to the opposition line, and after being held-up once they eventually got their reward when Kitchen muscled over yet again, for his try number seven of the campaign.
That was the cue for the pendulum to swing once again, and Southern Knights were soon back in front when Fraser Renwick rescued a scrappy line-out, Dylan Taylor – whose striking hairstyle makes him look like the horse in Shrek – pierced the defensive line, and Conor Young capitalised by picking up straight from the tackle and taking route one over the whitewash.
Then came the decisive score. Replacement scrum-half Bruce Colvine sensed open ground behind a ruck on the right of the park and sent a well weighted dink over the top, Thomson hacked ahead and Ciaran Whyte added the finishing touch.
“The pitch was extremely heavy so it made putting tempo into you attack very difficult, so it was going to be very difficult to chase a lead,” lamented beaten head coach Peter Murchie. “We got ourselves into a winning position at 20-17 and let is slip from there.
“We made way too many mistakes today. There was a lot of kicking and we made two bad errors in the backfield which led to tries for them, so we gave them too many points.”
The Bulls are still in line for a home play-off if they win their last two games of the regular season against Boroughmuir Bears at Meggetland on 15th February and Heriot’s at Goldenacre on 1st March.
“We’ve lost our mojo a little bit and there is no magic wand that will get our form back for us, its about hard work and we just have to drive higher standards than we showed today,” concluded Murchie. “First things first, we have to win at Boroughmuir, and we’ll think about what comes next after that.”
Ayrshire Bulls: G Anderson; M Davidson T Beary (I McNulty 65), T Jordan, C Gossman (H Warr 70); R Thompson, D Armstrong; M Scott (R Sayce 74), S Kitchen (L Anderson 65), N Griffiths, M Sykes (G Geldenhuys 70), L Morrice, G Bordill (G Geldenhuys 70), P McCallum©, B Macpherson.
Southern Knights: F Thomson; C Whyte, J Jenkins, G Wood (B Colvine 49), P Anderson; T Galbraith, S Hutchison; G Shiells (C Young 55), F Renwick (F Scott 76), E Mcquillan (S Gunn 55), J Head, A Runciman, R Knott, D Taylor, N Irvine-Hess (I Moody 45).
Referee: Sam Grove-White
Ayrshire Bulls: Tries: Kitchen 2; Con: Thomson 2; Pen: Thomson 2.
Southern Knights: Tries: Penalty Try, Irvine-Hess, Young, Whyte; Con: Hutchison 2; Pen: Hutchison
Scoring sequence (Ayrshire Bulls): 0-7; 5-7; 7-7; 10-7; 10-10; 13-10; 13-15; 13-17 (h-t) 18-17; 20-17; 20-22; 20-27; 20-29.
Yellow cards –
Ayrshire Bulls: Macpherson, Armstrong
Man-of-the-Match: The line-out was a bit of a lottery at times but Southern Knights hooker Fraser Renwick got the nod after an industrious performance at the pit-face.
Talking point: After five games without a win at the start of the season, the Southern Knights are now motoring – would you bet against them?