STUART RUTHERFORD @ Murrayfield
THERE may have been a more high profile derby live on TV this afternoon as Manchester United faced off against arch-rivals Liverpool in the English Premier League, however, if you’re a fan of high stakes rugby and adrenaline fuelled drama, then you should have looked no further than the back pitches of Murrayfield.
It was East versus West as second placed Murrayfield Wanderers hosted first placed Hillhead Jordanhill in the final fixture of this season’s BT Woman’s Premier League, and with only a point separating the two sides prior to kick-off, it was truly a ‘winner-takes-all’ showdown.
With each side winning 10 out of 11 fixtures in the run up to today’s clash and only a 22 point differential, it was always going to be a tight fixture, however, on the day the home side snuck it thanks to two tries from influential captain Sarah Quick and a fantastic showing from their front five. Hillhead had deservedly lead at that break by 12-10, but the home side raised their tempo and put in a monstrous, and at times heroic, defensive second half showing which ultimately kept the visitors scoreless and won them the match.
The result means that Murrayfield Wanderers have won their third successive league title: a staggering achievement that left head coach Rhona Shepherd clearly delighted.
“I’m over the moon with the intensity and effort in both halves,” she said. “I think we probably got a bit more control after the break and really upped our work rate, which obviously paid off.”
Shepherd – the sister of ex-Scotland international Rowan Shepherd – was also quick to pay tribute to her powerful pack, who for the large part dominated at not only the set-piece, but at the breakdown, too.
“Our front five won us the game, which is what we said would happen, and I think their discipline and shape in defence, which is something that we have worked really hard on, was there for all to see,” she said.
“The first twenty minutes we didn’t go so well at the scrums, but we made a tactical change which fixed it, and then for us to be so dominant at both the lineout and scrum made a massive impact on the result.”
The two sides have met twice already this season – splitting the season series one a piece – with the last match in December ending in a lopsided 27 – 3 victory in favour of the West Glasgow club. Therefore, for the Wandies’ to show such resilience with not only the game, but the league title, on the line was particularly impressive.
“When we travelled through to Glasgow to face Hillhead in December we had a very makeshift back line and we struggled with our defensive shape, so I think today we were really able to show our defensive toughness. We just really showed another level of intensity and our front five really allowed us to play the game we know we’re capable of,” she added.
For Hillhead, it was a heartbreaking loss and one that did not look likely at half-time. The Glasgow outfit, although not entirely bossing proceedings, showed the greater intent to attack in the initial periods and scored two well crafted tries to take a merited lead at the break. However, in a second half shut-out, Hillhead were unable to leave their offensive mark on the game, which left their head coach, Dean Kelbrick, feeling understandably dejected.
“I think we just let our foot off the gas and really dropped our intensity,” he said. “We kind of just let them run at us, and instead of controlling the game like we had done initially, we started to play catch-up.”
“I’ve got to be careful with what I’m saying, but we were massively on the wrong side of the penalty count, so that’s obviously going to hurt you. Any sort of momentum we got was quickly ended by the referee’s whistle, or to be fair, a mistake of our own. That was probably it. I don’t think we deserved to lose so it’s a really tough one to take, but at the same time, that’s the way it is and we can’t change things now.”
Despite the loss, it has been an incredible season for Hillhead. The West Glasgow club scored an astonishing 651 points over the course of the year, by far the most in the league, and are sure to challenge for glory once again next season.
“I’ve just said to the girls there, we could not have asked for anymore from them over the entirety of the season and they are understandably gutted with how the match turned out,” said Kelbrick. “We have been really consistent over the course of the season – we had one blip against the Wandies in the early part of the year – but other than that we have been a pleasure to watch and you can’t ask for anymore than that.”
It was the home side who started the strongest after winning the ball straight from the kick-off. After working their way into the Hillhead twenty-two, the hosts were eventually awarded a penalty after illegal handling at the breakdown. Lisa Martin stepped up to take the resulting kick, but the stand-off pulled her attempt wide, letting the visitors off the hook.
After Hillhead finally settled into the high-tempo contest, they soon worked the ball deep into the hosts twenty-two. Following several line-outs on the Wandies’ five-metre line the ball was eventually fed to Hannah Telling, who displayed fantastic leg drive when she powered over to break the deadlock. With Ally Cook converting, the hosts took a deserved seven point lead.
It wasn’t long before the home side found themselves on the scoresheet and it came courtesy of a controlled line-out drive. Following a penalty kicked to the corner, the ball was eventually brought down at the tail and after several pick-and-goes, it was the Wandies’ captain Sarah Quick who was the woman to touch down for her side’s first points of the afternoon. With Lisa Martin missing the conversion, Hillhead held onto their slender lead.
With both sides showing fantastic commitment to defence, it was going to take something special to break the gain line at any given point. Fortunately for Hillhead, they happened to have their own battering ram in Jade Konkel. The number eight, who is Scotland’s sole woman professional, looked to take the ball into contact at any opportunity and at times she was able to make up yards with pure brute force alone. Konkel had her hand in the visitors’ second try of the afternoon after a powerful run from the base of a scrum set her side up in Wandies’ territory. Following several phases of neat handling the ball was eventually fed to the supporting Abi Evans, who raced over the whitewash to extend her side’s lead.
Despite a points advantage, one area where Hillhead had struggled all afternoon was at restarts and once again they gifted the hosts possession of the ball deep in their half after a sloppy attempt to gather the kick-off. With Wandies keen to make the visitors pay for their careless error, they eventually powered forward to the five-metre line. With a handful of pick-and-goes, the Edinburgh outfit worked the ball within inches of the whitewash, but the visitors did well to commit enough bodies to the breakdown. Following a quick tap penalty, the ball was then recycled wide, where Eva Bonet was on hand to touch down for the simple score. With Martin once again missing the conversion, the score was left at 10-12, which is how it stayed until the break.
The line-out had been a focal point of Wandies’ attack all afternoon and they were able to capitalise on their set-piece advantage only five minutes into the second half. Following a penalty kick expertly placed to the visitors five-metre line, the ball was eventually gathered at the front and following several swift attempts to breach the Glasgow outfit’s defensive line, the ball was recycled to the dominating Quick, who once again showed her ability in short yardage situations, when she muscled over from a metre out.
Hillhead did not let the score affect the and they were quick to get back on the offensive, deep inside the hosts’ half. This was until backrow, and try scorer, Hannah Telling was sent to the bin for handling at the breakdown. The decision left the small band of travelling supporters clearly vexed and they let the referee know it.
With the match now into the last 15 minutes, it was impossible to wager which way it was going to end. With Telling returning to the action, the visitors were back to full strength and beginning to edge into the ascendancy. Following a darting blindside break from scrum-half Sarah Smith, the ball was worked back inside to the supporting Louise McMillan. With the try-line only metres away, McMillan attempted to offload to the oncoming Abi Evans, however, the pass fell slightly behind her and the home side were able to clear the danger.
There was a clear feeling feeling that perhaps that was going to be ‘the chance’ for the visitors to win it and with every dropped pass or poor decision, Wandies were slowly creeping to an astonishing victory. When Martin nailed a penalty in front of the posts, the match was effectively iced and with the full time whistle came celebrations from both the Edinburgh sides’ players and supporters.
Murrayfield Wanderers: C Rollie; C Newton, E Sinclair, H Nelson, E Rojas; L Martin, J Taylor; S Quick (c), L Park, B Dickens, E Wassell, S McCormick, C O’Driscoll, J Cram, R Cook. Subs: L Robertson, A Wilsom, L Minty, S Callender, K Auckland.
Hillhead Jordonhill: E Haldane; A Gaffney, A Evans, H Smith, C Haldane; A Cook, S Smith; H Lockhart, S Kyalikunda, L Smith, K Reid, K Openshaw, H Telling, L McMillan (c), J Konkel. Subs: F Reardon, F Dorman, S McMillan, K Daly, A