Stirling County 12
DAVID BARNES @ Murrayfield
THEY have been the dominant force in Scottish club rugby throughout the season. There was a minor wobble in early January when they lost on consecutive weekends in the league to Ayr at home and Currie Chieftains away – but, that apart, no other side in the country has been able to hold a torch to Melrose.
So it was entirely fitting that with this emphatic victory they secured only their second league and cup double since the knock-out tournament was introduced in 1995-96, a full 21 years after their other two-pronged success, and head coach Rob Chrystie says it is the least his players deserve.
“This group is by far the best I have been involved with at Melrose, and that’s as a player as well. They are a pretty special group, they spend a lot of time together and actually really enjoy working hard for each other,” he explained. “So, they’ve got their just rewards. We were a bit gutted to lose the Melrose Sevens Final, but to get the double as well as the charity shield has taken a lot building.”
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The score-line may have been conclusive, but a few breakaway scores perhaps added a gloss which did not truly reflect Stirling County’s contribution.
‘A special group of players’
“We got there in the end, but it took a bit of work,” said Chrystie. “To be fair to Stirling, they chucked a lot at us and kept the ball for long periods of time. We struggled a little bit to get territory early on but once we started to play the way we know we can play, we are tough to defend against. Some of the accuracy there, once the game did open up, was pretty impressive.
“We work hard on our defence to hopefully create opportunities to attack. You could see they were beginning to tire in the last 20 minutes and our bench came on and made a really good impact – Gav Wood especially and hopefully he is going to come through in the next year or two.”
“We need to enjoy this because these sorts of opportunities don’t come around very often. It was 1997 the last time Melrose won the double, so the players just need to relax and enjoy the moment because they deserve it. My job as a coach is to make sure we are good to go next year.”
Ross McCann scored the opening two tries for the Borderers, the first an excellent finish in the corner after a subtle pass from Craig Jackson caught Stirling’s defence flat-footed, the second a rather easier finish, once again created by Jackson’s dexterity in midfield.
Glasgow Warriors winger Niko Matawalu, who was marking McCann with not much joy, was taken off with a finger injury after that second score and took no further part in the contest.
County got off the mark when prop Gary Holborn grounded the ball after a powerful maul, but Melrose bounced straight back, and McCann went from scorer to architect when his well-weighted diagonal was scooped up mid-stride by number eight Iain Moody on his way to the line.
Jonny Hope has an opportunity to narrow the gap with a scrum penalty ten minutes into the second half, but was off target, and County were soon even further behind when some great phase-play swept Melrose up the park before Ruairdh Knott showed pace, balance and no little power to motor past a couple of despairing tackles and over the chalk.
Stirling tried desperately to rally, and they banged away at the door with a lot of enthusiasm, if not much accuracy. Their hopes of mounting a heroic fightback were finally put to bed with a sweeping Melrose breakout from deep inside their own 22, which was instigated by George Taylor and finished off – almost inevitably – by McCann.
But fair play to County. They kept plugging away, and after a break up the left by Kerr Gossman, and some good offloading out of contact, Craig Robertson burst clear and sprinted home from 25 yards, with Peter Jericevich adding the conversion.
There was, however, almost quarter of an hour to go, and Melrose – as has been the case all season – had no intention of taking their foot off the accelerator. McCann bagged his fourth try after a long cut-out pass from Jason Baggott; and with two minutes left on the clock, some more slick hands from the Borderers released Taylor for touch down number seven.
“There were times in the game when we got in their 22 – and at one point we went through 30 phases – but when we made mistakes and Melrose really capitalised. They took their opportunities. Sometimes you’ve got to lose a final first to learn how to win one. I’m proud of the boys but I think at times our accuracy let us down,” said Stirling County player-coach Jericevich.
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Stirling County: J Hope; N Matawalu, E MacGarvie, L Bonar, K Gossman; R Curle, P Jericevich; R Chies, R Kennedy, G Holborn, J Beech, H Burr, L Wynne, S Macdonald, R Leishman. Subs: M Emmison, A Nicol, J Pow, S Yarrow,G Gilliland,C Robertson,A McLean.
Melrose: F Thomson; A Lockington, G Taylor, C Jackson, R McCann; J Baggott, M McAndrew; G Shiells, R Anderson, N Beavon, J Head, A Runciman, R Knott, G Runciman, I Moody. Subs: R Ferguson, D Elkington, R McLeod, A Grieve, B Colvine, G Wood, P Anderson.
Referee: D Sutherland
Stirling County: Tries: Holborn, Robertson: Con: Jericevich.
Melrose: Tries: McCann 4, Moody, Knott, Taylor; Con: Jackson 5.
Scoring sequence (Stirling County): 0-7; 0-10; 0-12; 5-12; 5-17; 5-19 (h-t) 5-19; 5-24; 5-29; 5-31; 10-31; 12-31; 12-38; 12-43; 12-45
Man-of-the-Match: With four tries and a couple of assists, it has to go to Ross McCann, although both Craig Jackson and George Taylor showed their class in the centre; while in the pack, James Head and Angus Runciman were excellent in the second-row, Iain Moody’s athleticism showed well in the back-row, and captain Grant Runciman was relentless at open-side flanker.
Talking point: There is a lot to like about the way Melrose have raised the bar this year. Their professionalism on and off the park is impressive. Can any of their rivals close the gap in what looks like being the last season of Scottish club rugby after the summer?