DAVID BARNES @ Millbrae
A COMPELLING – and at times brutal – contest. Played at breakneck speed, with no quarter asked or given on either side. There was plenty of thrills and more than a few spills across the 80-minutes, reflecting the high stakes and the intensity of the action. In the end, it was Melrose who lost their 100 percent record in the Tennent’s Premiership this season, meaning Ayr are now in the driving seat in the race to finish top of the heap at the end of the regular season (thus securing home advantage in the play-offs), but there is still an awful long way left to go in this campaign.
“It was a good game, as we expected because Melrose are a quality team,” reflected Ayr head coach Peter Murchie. “I’m just really happy with the effort the guys put in – defensively it is the best we have been this season and attacking-wise we managed to break them down and take our chances.
“The quality of the game was there to see,” he added. ‘To be honest, I’ve been impressed with the standard of the Premiership. It was a quality game, for the tries, for the big hits, for the tension – it’s what people want from their Saturday afternoon.”
The match was much tighter than the final score-line suggests, although there were no complaints about the actual outcome from Melrose head coach Rob Chrystie.
“The scoreboard was quite big in the end, but we had three really good chances in the second half at 24-17 but didn’t quite get over the line, and they dug in well to get away and finish us off, so all credit to them,” he said.
Ayr were bolstered by the availability of four Glasgow Warriors pros, including two full internationals in Rory Hughes and Jamie Bhatti, but to focus on that would unfairly detract from the overall performance of both sides in this battle.
“If you want to raise standards then the more quality players you have out there helps everybody,” explained Chrystie, who is clearly already looking forward to the return fixture at the Greenyards on 15th December with some relish. “Some of our young boys will definitely be better from having played in that type of fixture. We’ve exposed them to a really good level of rugby there and that’s going to stand us in good stead moving forward.”
Ayr on top
Ayr had more of the play during the opening quarter without getting much change from Melrose’s watertight defence. Hughes and Kyle Rowe managed to sniff out a bit of space on opposite wings but were quickly swallowed up by the visiting team’s cover defence, and Frazier Climo pulled a fairly kickable penalty to the right of the posts after a high tackle – which proved to be is only blip from the tee all afternoon, despite most of his conversions being from out in the tramlines.
David Armstrong had to go off to get a head cut sorted out on 15 minutes and, without a scrum-half on the bench, Ayr’s full-back Grant Anderson filled in – and within a minute he had dived over the line from the base of a ruck for the opening score like a true number nine, after the hosts had snaffled possession from a Melrose mix up on their own try-line. By the time Climo had slotted the conversion, a bandaged Armstrong had returned to the fray and Anderson could return to his usual role satisfied with a job well done.
Hughes was yellow-carded for making contact with Fraser Thomson’s head in a tackle, and Melrose worked hard to press home their advantage, turning the screw with a couple of powerful line-out drives on the right, before working their way across the field to create space on the left for Jason Baggott to scoot home for an unconverted score.
Climo managed to open the gap back up to five points before Hughes’ return with a long-range offside penalty from field position created by a Marshall Sykes’ gallop up the middle of the park. And a sweeping attack launched when Tommy Spinks blasted past Iain Sim up the right touchline very nearly led to Ayr’s second try, but the final pass from Stafford McDowall toAnderson strayed forward.
Unperturbed, the hosts kept their foot on the gas, and when the try did come on the stroke of half-time it was an absolute beauty. Kyle Rowe worked a scissors with Anderson, who skipped past a couple of flatfooted defenders, before sending Climo on a 20-yard dart to the scoring zone.
In other news:
Melrose up for second 40
Melrose pulled themselves right back into it at the start of the second half with a long passage of play which climaxed with a Patrick Anderson try, and Craig Jackson’s touchline conversion reduced the gap to just five-points.
There was a lengthy delay while Rauiridh Knott was treated on the pitch with a knee injury. He was eventually taken to hospital but there was no update after the match. He was one of several players who had to to retire injured during the course of this ferocious contest.
When play resumed, Ayr really built up a head of steam until McDowall showed great composure to dupe Melrose’s last man with a great dummy and motor home.
As you would expect, Melrose roared back into it, with Baggott stripping Robbie Nairn in the tackle to set up another period of sustained pressure, and when they did eventually make the breakthrough it was off the back of that trusty weapon the driven line-out, which rumbled a good 20-yards with ever increasing pace, until home captain Blair Macpherson felt compelled to come in and disrupt from the side, picking up a yellow-card for his troubles. Bruce Colvine scuttled over a few minutes later.
It was now do-or-die time for both teams. In a lung-bursting passage of play, Ayr capitalised on turnover ball deep inside their own 22 to work their way all the way to within ten yards of the Melrose line, only for Melrose to somehow win possession back and take play right back down the other end through some excellent link play between Jackson, Iain Moody and Colvine.
But Jackson’s cross-field kick towards Gavin Wood fell short and was gobbled up by Danny McCluskey, allowing Ayr to have another go. McDowall broke clear and the supporting Climo was tackled early by Cameron Hutchison, resulting in a yellow card and a penalty which was kicked to the corner then driven over, with Macpherson getting the downward pressure for what proved to be the game’s decisive score.
For the first time this season, Kyle Rowe did not get on the scoresheet. If it was a quiet afternoon for the winger by his own high standards, then he at least made his mark in the lead up to the last try of the match, leaping heroically to collect Armstrong’s up-and-under, before feeding Gregor Henry, who still had plenty to do to get to the line but managed it in style.
Ayr: G Anderson; K Rowe, P Kelly, S McDowall, R Hughes; F Climo, D Armstrong; J Bhatti, R Smith, S Longwell, D Corbenici, M Sykes, T Spinks, G Henry, B Macpherson. Subs: P MacArthur, R Sayce, C Reece, D McCluskey, R Nairn.
Melrose: F Thomson; B Colvine, P Anderson, C Jackson, I Sim; J Baggott,M McAndrew; G Shiels, R Anderson, C Young, J Head, A Runciman, R Knott, G Runciman, I Moody. Subs: F Scott, R McLeod, C Wilde, C Hutchinson, G Wood.
Referee: Sam Grove-White
Ayr: Try: Anderson, Climo, MacDowall, Macpherson, Henry; Con: Climo 5; Pen: Climo
Melrose: Try: Baggott, Anderson, Colvine; Con: Jackson
Scoring sequence (Ayr first): 5-0; 7-0; 7-5; 10-5; 15-5; 17-5 (h-t) 17-10; 17-12; 22-12; 24-12; 24-17; 29-17; 31-17; 36-17; 38-17.
Yellow cards –
Ayr: Hughes, Macpherson.
Man-of-the-Match: Lots of candidates on both sides of the fence, and Tommy Spinks was a worthy winner of the official match accolade – but 19-year-old Marshall Sykes edges it here on the back of a fearless and relentless 80-minute shift in the home engine room.
Talking point: The standard has been set: can any other team in this league come close to matching this pair when they are firing on all cylinders?