Stirling County 19
IAIN HAY @ Myreside
AFTER a sluggish start to proceedings, a late flurry of first-half tries sparked the Super 6 third-place play-off into life as another encounter went down to the wire with the home side just doing enough to finish off the season with a flourish.
“Happy with the win, we really wanted to go out on a high, finish the season well”, said the victorious Watsonians head coach Fergus Pringle. “It was a close, hard-fought game. It was pretty tight early doors, there was a few mistakes on both sides but I thought we had a good first half. We stuck to our plan of trying to play in the right areas of the field – most of the first half was played in Stirling’s half – and it was just about putting them under pressure and taking our chances when they come.”
Watsonians started the more brightly and one big break down the middle of the field by Ben Muncaster had the Myreside crowd on the edge of their seat but unfortunately for them, scrum-half Reiss Cullen slipped when arriving to support, and County’s Andrew Goudie arrived to get over the ball and win a crucial turnover penalty.
Electric full-back Damian Coetzer then went for the line when the ball out wide looked to be the better option and when the ball went forward off Sam Daly just a couple of metres short of the line they could have been forgiven for thinking it was going to be one of those nights.
However, Jordan Venter – that most eyebrow-raising of signings from Richard Cockerill’s tenure at Edinburgh – decided that he would change the course of proceedings, having been called in to the Watsonians squad at the last minute after Matt Currie had been ruled out. After a tricky kick by Marc Morrison – also a late call-up to the starting XV after Joe Reynolds was deemed unfit to play – was fumbled and then sliced into touch by a sliding Craig Robertson of County, Venter took Ru Smith’s pass to the line.
Another late replacement, but this time on the County side, Murphy Walker was at the back of the maul when County got themselves up to the Watsonians’ end of the pitch primarily due to a searing break by Archie Russell, and Robertson’s excellent kick from wide left just dropped over the bar to level the scores but both sides seemed to be struggling with their maul defence, as Venter soon crossed again after his pack had dealt out some damage.
For all of Stirling’s grit in defence they weren’t helping themselves with their discipline at line-out time.
A fantastic turnover by Connor Gordon allowed County to clear the danger from a loose ball which winger Smith had recovered and taken into their territory but when they infringed at the line-out Morrison thumped deep, the Watsonians maul kept on rolling on until Cullen had the easiest of finishes with the last action of the half.
The second half began in much a similar fashion and a splintered Watsonians maul looked like it was heading over the whitewash again, and although it was halted, there seemed to be men and space over on the opposite touchline.
The ball went through the hands until the final pass was picked off by Archie Russell and he accelerated away into the Watsonians half. This seemed to flick a switch in County and they hauled themselves right back into the game with two excellent tries.
A chip over the top by Tom Roche bounced kindly back into his hands and although lock Byron Bowes didn’t have the speed to take Roche’s pass all the way, he offloaded from the floor to the onrushing Gordon.
Bowes again showed his attacking thrust when he squeezed his giant frame through a gap on halfway, he fed it to Archie Russell and the outside-centre produced a wonderful step to get round the outside of Coetzer and slide over the try line, which gave Robertson the opportunity to equalise from the tee. Unfortunately for Stirling, he couldn’t quite manage it.
Watsonians continued to press but Stirling had shown they could nick it away in an instant, forcing the home side back or winning huge turnovers. Alas, the plucky visitors were denied when Venter won a turnover of his own on halfway, although County themselves then won a penalty on their own try line with 10 seconds remaining. They booted up towards halfway but their line-out, which had improved immeasurably in the second half, was deflected by the towering Michael Badenhorst and Watsonians were able toclear to touch to bring an end to the game.
Like an allegory of their season, Ben Cairns felt his side’s chances were scuppered after their poor end to the first half. “I can’t fault the boys’ effort,” the County coach said. “The resilience they’ve shown after half-time to go again, put Watsonians under real pressure and get back in the game – I’m proud of the effort.
“The season’s gone similar to the game. Gave ourselves too much to do in the first half of the season, didn’t pick up enough wins, then we’ve gone on a bit of a run and got back in the mix, but ultimately just left ourselves short.”
Watsonians: D Coetzer; H Elms, S King, J Venter R Smith; M Morrison, R Cullen; H Courtney, C Davies, A Williams, K Watt, M Badenhorst, B Muncaster, C Wilson, S Daly. Substitutes: R Graham, S Grahamslaw, N Borel, K van Niekerk, K Main, L Ball, R Frostwick, A Hoffie.
Stirling County: C Robertson; S Hamilton, A Russell, G Hughes, T Roche; A Goudie, C Korteweg; L Skinner, R Kennedy, M Walker, J Pow, B Bowes, G Arnott, C Gordon, D Taylor-Menzies. Substitutes: A Fraser, G Breese, JP Phelan, J King, C Cruickshank, M Holden, L Hayes, R McKnight.
Referee: Ian Kenny.
Watsonians: Tries: Venter 2, Cullen. Cons: Morrison 3.
Stirling County: Tries: Walker, Gordon, Russell. Cons: Robertson 2.
Scoring sequence (Watsonians first): 5-0; 7-0; 7-5; 7-7; 12-7; 14-7; 19-7; 21-7 (h-t) 21-12; 21-14; 21-19.
Man-of-the-Match: with two tries and what looked like a match-clinching turnover at the death before Watsonians gave the ball back, Jordan Venter got the job done for the home team.
Talking Point: we’ve already noted how close in quality the six sides are to one another and had it not been for Watsonians losing key players – such as captain Lee Millar getting injured in round two, or Stephen Longwell towards the end of the season – they may have been in Sunday’s big showpiece.