Stirling County 30
Ayrshire Bulls 28
DAVID BARNES @ Bridgehaugh
IF you are going to wait four games for your first win of a 10 game season, then you might as well make it one to remember.
Stirling County had the game sewn up when Reyner Kennedy dotted down the team’s fifth try and Andrew Goudie added the conversion to make 27-15 with 18 minutes to go, but two penalties from Matt Minogue got Bulls back into striking distance, and then a length of the field interception try from Matt Davidson, which was converted by Tom Jordan, put the visitors ahead with less than two minutes left to play.
It was the sort of setback which could easily have crushed a team low on confidence after one draw and two narrow defeats in their three previous games of this Super6 campaign, but the hosts showed impressive resilience to win back the restart, then worked their way through over a dozen phases before Bulls flanker Ryan Sweeney gave away a penalty for playing the ball on the deck, and replacement full-back Craig Robertson – who had thrown that interception a few minutes earlier – stepped forward to do what needed to be done.
“I thought we played some really good rugby and got ourselves going on the scoreboard this week as well, which was nice,” reflected victorious head coach Ben Cairns afterwards. “We were six points ahead, playing in the right area and just had to stay there, but I always want to back the boys if they have got a chance to score and that’s what they did. Unfortunately, Bulls got the intercept and I was standing there saying to myself: ‘Not again! Surely not again!’
“Fortunately, the boys didn’t think like that. They put the kick-off on the money, got the ball back and then the composure from Craig Robertson to step up and take the kick … that took balls!
“We needed that win tonight if we are going to do what we want to do this season, which is be in the finals. And also the manner of their score at the end to take the lead, if we had lost that game it would have been pretty difficult to build the boys back up again. You’d always try to come back from it, whatever happens, to dress it up, but it would have been really tough.”
Opposite number Pat MacArthur didn’t try to hide his frustration. “Credit Stirling for coming back and not giving up at the end there, but it was just complacency from our point of view,” he lamented. “We didn’t ever protect any lead that we managed to put ourselves in, and we kept putting ourselves under pressure.
“That’s three games I could have said the same thing afterwards, that we could-have/should-have won, but we’re in the place we are now, looking at ourselves in the changing room as a tight group and asking how to get better? How not to let that happen again?”
There wasn’t much doing in the opening quarter. Bulls demolished County with a ferocious scrum in the middle of the park, prompting a mild bout of fisticuffs. Visiting right wing Aaron Tait was perhaps lucky to escape with only a penalty conceded after a clumsy collision with an airborne Logan Trotter. And the hosts were held up over the line from a line-out drive.
Both teams had periods of pressure inside their opponents’ 22s but knock-ons from Connor Gordon and Blair MacPherson halted those attacks prematurely, then, with the clock having just crawled over the 20-minute mark, Bulls stand-off Matt Minogue passed up an opportunity to break the deadlock when he pulled a 45-yard offside penalty to the left of the posts.
Finally those elusive first points arrived in the 22nd minute, and it was well worth the wait, with slick hands from Trotter and Craig Jardine releasing Steven Hamilton on the right touchline, and the County winger finished superbly, spooking opposite number Robbie Nairn with a dummy then stepping inside Matt Davidson on his 25-yard dash to the line.
Andrew Goudie missed the tricky conversion and Bulls wasted no time in reducing the gap down to two points, with Minogue firing over a straight-forward penalty after the yellow-carding of home full-back Tom Roche for derailing a promising attack with a deliberate knock-on.
The game had burst into life. Stirling’s scrum-half for the day Grant Hughes had Bulls in trouble when he hacked forward a loose-ball, but Nairn managed to get to back first (only just). A few minutes later, it was Nairn on the attack, rampaging up his left wing and throwing a speculative pass back inside which went to hand and put his side back in the ascendancy.
After a spot of slapstick when referee Ian Kenny found himself sandwiched inside a tackle by County captain Dean Taylor-Menzies on Bulls captain Blair MacPherson, Stirling lost a second player to the sin-bin when loose-head George Breese saw yellow for repeated scrum infringements. That meant they were down to 13 men for a two minutes, and during that time the Bulls punched their way into the lead with Tom Jordan piling over off a short ball straight off a five-metre scrum.
However, Stirling bounced right back, and Taylor-Menzies went over in the corner in injury time of the first half, having already made a telling contribution earlier in the move. Goudie couldn’t make the conversion, leaving it 10-10 at the turnaround.
Bulls fired out the blocks straight from the restart and snatched the lead when Blair MacPherson provided the finishing touch after a quick tap-penalty snipe from Harry Warr, but they then lost a man to a sin-bin when Tait had another collision with a player in the air, and County scored next when Angus Fraser bustled down the short side and over the whitewash after a line-out maul had collapsed.
Stirling kept their foot on the gas and took the lead and claimed the bonus-point on 56 minutes when a long period of pressure culminated in Hamilton sending Roche over in the corner, and this time Goudie hit the post with his conversion, meaning it was four misses from four for the stand-off.
Stirling appeared to take themselves out of sight when some hot-potato passing under the shadow of the Bulls’ posts involving Ali Mackie, Breese, Gordon and Hughes finally sent Reyner Kennedy in, and Goudie even added the conversion.
But Bulls brought it back to a six-point game with two Minogue penalties, and when Nairn burst clear up the left touchline it looked like it would take on exocet missile to stop him. But County managed to snuff out that raid with some brave, last-gasp tackling, then went right up the other end with Archie Russell, Euan Cunningham and Trotter all carrying incisively.
All they had to do was stay down in that third of the park, but an overlap on the right lured them in, with disastrous consequences. Davidson managed to pick-off the interception and sprinted it home from 60-yards, setting up an easy conversion for Jordan to edge the visitors ahead with just two minutes left to play.
It was a sickening blow for County, but they responded superbly and will approach next Sunday’s match away to Boroughmuir Bears with some swagger.
The Bulls, meanwhile, have a bit of soul searching to do before they welcome Heriot’s to Millbrae on Saturday.
Stirling County: T Roche (C Robertson 58); S Hamilton (L Skinner 36), A Russell, C Jardine (L Hayes 65), L Trotter; A Goudie, G Hughes (E Cunningham 71); G Breese (B Dineen 72), A Fraser (R Kennedy 52), J Phelen (L Skinner 46), J Pow, B Bowes, D Taylor-Menzies (A Mackie 60), C Gordon, B Luney
Ayrshire Bulls: M Davidson; A Tait (E Caven 58), T Williams, T Jordan, R Nairn; M Minogue (T Lanni 71), H Warr; R Sayce, A McGuire (R Tanner 11), C Henderson (C Miller 65), E Bloodworth, T Everard, R Sweeney, R Jackson (J Drummond 62), B MacPherson.
Referee: Ian Kenny
Stirling County: Tries: Hamilton, Taylor-Menzies, Fraser, Roche, Kennedy; Con: Goudie; Pen: Robertson.
Ayrshire Bulls: Tries: Jordan, MacPherson, Davidson; Con: Minogue; Jordan; Pen: Minogue 3.
Scoring sequence (Stirling County first): 5-0: 5-3; 5-8; 5-10; 10-10 (h-t) 10-15; 15-15; 20-15; 25-15; 27-15; 27-18; 27-21; 27-26; 27-28; 30-28.
Yellow cards –
Stirling County: Roche (27mins), Breese (36mins)
Ayrshire Bulls: Tait (48mins)
Man-of-the-Match: Plenty of candidates in the home ranks and winger Logan Trotter got the official award, but at the moment that really mattered, ice cool Craig Robertson bounced back from giving away a damaging interception to kick the crucial points.
Talking Point: Stirling have been threatening to do this all season, and now that they have the monkey off their back the will be focussed on building momentum through the remaining six games of this regular campaign. Could they be the league’s dark horses?