Stirling Wolves 21
IAIN MORRISON @ Bridgehaugh
WHEN the undefeated league leaders take on the winless, bottom feeders of Super6 the danger is a hopelessly one-sided match in which one team racks up a cricket score. But this game was compellingly competitive once the Wolves re-discovered their mojo after a typically poor opening quarter.
Stirling conceded two tries before landing a punch themselves, but once they got off the mark they showed plenty of bite and bark to stay in this game right up until the final quarter. At one point in the second half the home team (and fans) were celebrating a turnover like they’d won the World Cup and this display was chalk and cheese in comparison with some recent performances. The Wolves were trailing by just five points inside the final quarter, only for Watsonians to score twice (to Stirling’s once) to nail down the win and officially guarantee themselves a play-off place.
“We did a lot of good stuff tonight for sure,” said Wolves’ departing coach Ben Cairns who allowed himself a smile after the final whistle, well almost. “From where we have been to that (display) is a big difference, isn’t it? In terms of performance that is night and day to where we have been.
“We struggled at the start of the game because we had three opportunities to execute a set-piece attack inside their half but we gave them the ball back within three phases. The first time we execute we got a penalty, kicked to touch, scored a try. That was the template for what we can do.”
The Wolves’ defence started poorly but grew in stature as the match progressed and the confidence returned. The opening quarter was spent largely on the back foot as the likes of Watsonians’ breakaways Connor Boyle and Ben Muncaster ran with real conviction, powering into the contact, almost as if the Edinburgh professional pair had a point to prove.
When the opening try arrived following 12 minutes of pressure, Muncaster was at the heart of it. First up the breakaway split the Wolves defence with a clever line off the back of a lineout and then his offload in traffic to hooker Cal Davies got the visitors onto the front foot and fly-half Lee Millar delayed his pass beautifully for flanker Ceb Cecil to open the scoring.
Like London buses the second score wasn’t long in coming, six minutes later to be exact, and the manner of it was worrying for the Wolves. Watsonians’ midfielder Lewis Berg is a decent prospect but even he must have been surprised to run through two or three Wolves ‘tackles’ quite so easily.
But just when you thought the Wolves had thrown in the towel they came up with a score. No 8 Benedict Grant worked tirelessly, both with and without the ball. His line-break won them high field position and some indiscipline from Watsonians gave the home side an attacking line-out first on the right and later on the left.
Neither maul went anywhere but Wolves’ scrummy Gregor Christie grabbed the ball and popped it inside for the giant 120 kgs Tongan international winger Walter Fiifita to barrel his way past Watsonians’ number nine Rory Brand, not a contest of equals.
With the scoreboard reading 7-12 in favour of the league leaders we suddenly had a contest on our hands, but Stirling’s less than impregnable defence was being tested again and the general feeling of vulnerability was not helped by Fifita, who somehow allowed Boyle to slip through his grasp and almost make the try line.
In truth there were chances at both ends as the game opened up in the final ten minutes of the opening half. Fifita looked like he might score in an action replay of his first try but Watsonians were alive to the danger having already been bitten, then Ryan Southern made a sublime midfield break and a little later Logan Jarvie had one defender to beat on his right wing but was unable to find the line.
The half ended with Stirling attacking the Watsonian line relentlessly and looking properly dangerous for the first time in however long, only to turn the ball over and have to sprint back towards their own try line to tidy up a long clearance kick from the visitors. Watsonians full-back Dom Coetzer won the Bridgehaugh 70-metres invitation sprint with something to spare. It remained 7-12 at the break.
Stirling picked up where they left off in the opening exchanges of the second half, aided by Watsonians kicking the ball straight into touch and then conceding not one but two penalties in quick succession. Eventually hooker-cum-flanker Gregor Hiddleston, another who performed heroics in a losing cause, burrowed over the line to bring the scores level and fly-half Marcus Holden kicked a second excellent conversion to give the Wolves an unexpected lead after 47 minutes of this match.
They didn’t have long to enjoy it. A high tackle on Coetzer resulted in an attacking line-out for Watsonians and Boyle was last man up with Millar making no mistake with the extras.
The match was finely poised at 14-19 as it entered the final quarter, and Watsonians made a big call when awarded a very kickable penalty on 64 minutes. The on-field captains turned a Nelsonian ear to coach Fergus Pringle who was screaming at them to take the points from the back of the stand. Instead they went for the line-out and the gamble paid off but only after at least 20 exhausting phases of pick-and-drive with some heroic defence from the Wolves, who were eventually undone by an inside pass from Joe Reynolds to send winger Angus Guthrie over.
Minutes later Kwagga van Nierkerk grabbed the visitors’ fifth touchdown after a long flowing assault left Watsonians with six men attacking two defenders on the blind side.
It speaks volumes about the character of this Stirling side that they somehow managed to enjoy the last laugh. Fifita got the ball deep in his own half before passing to Southern, who might have scored himself in the left-hand corner but instead sent teenager Finlay Burgess over and the replacement scrummy quickly drop-kicked the conversion. The match was restarted but the scoring was finished.
“To be honest, I knew it was going to be tough out there,” insisted Watsonians coach Fergus Pringle after the game. “They had a good team out there and it’s difficult to come up here and play on a Friday night.
“We weren’t clinical in the final third in the first half. So we got 12-0 up and maybe if we score again the game has a different complexion. We had a few opportunities in their 22 which we didn’t take. Then they got really up for it, it gave them a bit of hope, and they came at us hard and got a bit of momentum in the game.
“But I said to our guys, regardless of that, you have things go against you and you lose all momentum and you come back and turn it around and score a couple of tries at the end … that’s a good sign for us!”
Stirling Wolves: C Robertson; L Jarvie (E Cunningham 74), R Southern, A Thom (L Brims 41), W Fifita; M Holden ©, G Christie (F Burgess 58); A Wood (C Macmillan 63), A Fraser (R Tanner 76), G Breese, J Pow (H Ferguson 58), M Williamson, J Hill, G Hiddleston, B Grant (G Arnott 70).
Watsonians: D Coetzer; L MacPherson (R Daley 74), L Berg, C Eastgate (J Reynolds 41), A Guthrie; L Millar ©, R Brand (R Frostwick 48); C Lamberton (B Bratton 70), C Davies (C Wilson 75), A Williams (G Scougall 75), K van Niekerk, J Berrisford (K Watt 61), S Cecil, C Boyle, B Muncaster (K Main 72).
Referee: Ian Kenny.
Stirling Wolves: Tries: Fifita, Hiddleston, Burgess; Cons: Holden 2, Burgess.
Watsonians: Tries: Cecil, Berg, Boyle, Guthrie, Van Niekirk; Cons: Millar 4.
Scoring sequence (Stirling first): 0-5; 0-10; 0-12; 5-12; 7-12 (h-t) 12-12; 14-12; 14-17; 14-19; 14-24; 14-26; 14-31; 14-33; 19-33; 21-33.
Man-of-the-Match: There was no shortage of candidates from either side, with Connor Boyle and Ben Muncaster showing up well for the visitors along with centre and scorer Lewis Berg. But the eye-catching displays all came from the home side. Gregor Hiddleston performed heroics out of position on the flank and Ryan Southern looked electric with the ball in the Wolves’ midfield, but it was No 8 Benedict Grant who sweated buckets to halt the Watsonians onslaught and then get his own side onto the front foot.
Talking point: It is difficult to look beyond that decision by Watsonians on 64 minutes to go for the corner rather than settle for three. It eventually paid off with a try for Guthrie and an exhausted Wolves defence quickly conceded another, but what might have happened if the players had taken the advice coach Fergus Pringle was bellowing from the sidelines?