Stirling County 51
DAVID BARNES @ Bridgehaugh
IT has taken 23 years, but Stirling County have finally made it to Cup Finals Day after harassing Hawick out of this semi-final contest. It was a scrappy affair, especially during the first half hour when both teams made far too many errors, but the home side kept their cool and stuck to their game-plan, while the visitors seemed desperate to force the issue and paid a heavy price as a direct consequence.
“We’ve had a lot of prep time. Once league survival was secured we had six weeks to prepare for this game and it is pleasing that all the things we worked on over that period were delivered out there,” said player-coach Peter Jericevich, after pulling the strings from scrum-half as the home team racked up an eight try to three victory on a cold and blustery day in central Scotland. “We knew Hawick would pose a physical challenge but we fronted-up with lots of good defence, and I think we won the set-piece battle as well.”
“If we are not like that in defence then we just give them territory and field position, but we got it right today and were able to start our attack from there. Our line-speed gave us an interception try and we might have had a few more, and some of the double tackles and winning of the ball on the deck was good to see.”
Niko Matawalu, the Fijian international who was released by Glasgow Warriors for the match, was a star performer for the hosts, scoring two tries and popping up all over the park to make his presence felt. The live-wire winger brought an infectious enthusiasm which his team-mates for the day were only too happy to feed off.
“We’re quite happy with the guys we’ve had through the pro draft this year – some guys who have been at the club over a couple of seasons, and then a guy of the quality of Niko, who fortunately for us hasn’t been getting a look-in at Glasgow the last couple of weeks,” said Jericevich.
“He just loves his rugby – he brought a bit of energy to training on Thursday night and then his approach to the game today really gave the boys a lift. He and [Warriors flanker] Chris Fusaro showed their class.”
Getting to the final is the easy bit, now County must come up with a plan to beat Melrose – the dominant force in the Scottish club game this season – who won the other semi-final against Watsonians.
“There’s a lot of good stuff we can take from today, and we’ll obviously watch a video of the Melrose game and do our homework. They’ve been the in-form team all season so that’s going to be a big challenge, but we’re ready to step up and hopefully get a bit of silverware for the club,” concluded Jericevich.
Meanwhile, Hawick coach George Graham was fairly philosophical about the outcome afterwards, although he admitted to having not been quite so sanguine as he watched his team continually make life hard for themselves during the game.
“All credit to Peter and his coaching team, I think they did their homework well. They disrupted our line-out which is one of our main weapons, and they stopped us getting momentum,” he said. “Having said that, our error-count in the first half was shocking – we just couldn’t get a foothold in the game. I don’t know when we decided to start trying to play rugby in our own 22 – we never discussed that – you probably heard me screaming at the sidelines to exit and start playing rugby in their half.”
“We went in at half time and we were only two scores down, so not a million miles away, but then we made so many errors – the tackle-count was disastrous. So, we’re disappointed with that, but in terms of the season: we achieved our aim, we got survival.”
Graham revealed that his youngest son Guy – the Scotland Under-20 and Hawick flanker – will not be around next season, after signing a contract with Newcastle Falcons; but he is not letting veteran prop Matt Landels – who has announced his retirement – off the hook quite so easily.
“I’ll let him know when I think it is time for him to give up and I think he still has a bit to offer,” said the former Scotland prop with a chuckle. “In fairness, when you are 44 it is not your head that tells you to stop playing rugby – it is your body.”
“We’ll wait and see what happens, we’ve got a couple of exciting youngsters coming through who I am looking forward to working with. If I can bring my vision of how the game should be played to pre-season then we’ll hopefully make a better start next year and see where that takes us.”
It would be overly generous to call the first 30 minutes of this game scrappy. Sloppy would be more appropriate descriptor. Time and again, possession was shuffled unthinkingly towards players stuck behind the gain-line with nowhere to go. Time and again, the ball was dropped under no pressure at all. Time and again, carriers were left isolated on the deck. But, whereas Stirling were able to feel their way into the match, Hawick were never given enough time to settle and appeared increasingly fraught as a consequence.
Matawalu did not score Stirling’s first try, but his fingerprints were all over it. He made the initial break up the right touch-line, then sent Johnny Hope cutting back infield towards a yawning gap in Hawick’s cover defence, before Jericevich collected the scoring pass and bumped past Ali Weir on his way to the line.
This score temporarily roused lacklustre Hawick, and in their first foray into Stirling territory they pulled back a try when scrum-half Greig Cottrell scampered over, after a powerful line-out drive from a Craig Hamilton catch had done the damage.
But the hosts bounced back with a similar sort of try. Ruaridh Leishman’s line-out collection prompting a drive which was rolling with ever-increasing purpose towards the Hawick line before inexplicably hitting the deck just short – but, fortunately for Stirling, Matawalu was on hand to pick up and dive over from close range.
Matawalu doubled his account a few minutes later, when Stirling forward power sucked in Hawick’s defence, and a rare demonstration of slick hands created room on the right for the Warriors winger to scoot over, with Hope slotting the touch-line conversion for good measure.
The Fijian could actually have had a hat-trick wrapped up before the break. Earlier in the game he had selflessly stepped aside and left Ewan Macgarvie to gather a hacked forward ball after a Hawick mix-up in midfield, and with the line at his mercy the Stirling centre had fumbled.
Stirling were straight back on the front foot after the break, with hooker Reyner Kennedy getting the ball down at the conclusion of another powerful line-out drive, which went the whole distance this time.
Driven line-outs were clearly the order of the day, and it was this ploy, followed by a long, looping and excellently judged pass from Lee Armstrong, which sent Gary Munro scurrying over in the left corner, to give Hawick the thinnest of lifelines.
But then a rather less judiciously selected pass from Hawick full-back Weir a few minutes later severed that outside chance of the Borderers mounting a remarkable comeback. Fusaro had read it before the ball had left Weir’s hands, then romped home from the halfway line after making the interception.
Hawick imploded – and County took full advantage. Gossman feinted and danced past four or five demoralised tacklers for his team’s sixth try; and Matt Emmison launched a scything attack straight from the restart which went all the way to six inches shy of the try-line before the replacement hooker was felled. Teenager Andrew Mitchell was yellow-carded for killing the recycle, just a few minutes after coming off the bench to make his senior Hawick debut, and Gossman nipped over straight from the resulting scrum.
Fusaro went the whole distance from the next restart; and Matawalu really should have been in for his hat-trick – and his team’s ninth try – but he somehow failed to collect the easiest interception opportunity he is ever likely to encounter.
Replacement centre Callum McLelland scored for Hawick with six minutes to go. It wouldn’t have provided much consolation for the Borderers.
Stirling County: J Hope; N Matawalu,E Macgarvie, L Bonar, K Gossman; R Curle, P Jercivich; R Chies, R Kennedy, G Holborn, J Beech, S Yarrow, H Burr, S Macdonald, R Leishman. Subs: M Emmison, A Nicol, J Pow, C Fusaro, R Swan, C Robertson, A McLean.
Hawick: A Weir; G Munro, K Davies, D Buckley, R Combe; L Armstrong, G Cottrell; S Muir, M Carryer, N Little, D Redpath, C Hamilton, S Graham, G Graham, B McNeil. Subs: F Renwick, M Landels, R Gibson, S Fairairn, C McLelland, A Mitchell, K Ford.
Referee: F Brown
Stirling: Try: Jericevich, Matawalu 2, Kennedy, Fusaro 2, Gossman 2; Con: Hope 4; Pen: Hope.
Hawick: Try: Cottrell, Munro, McLelland; Con: Armstrong 2.
Scoring sequence (Stirling first): 3-0; 8-0; 10-0; 10-5; 10-7; 15-7; 20-7; 22-7 (h-t) 27-7; 27-12; 32-12; 34-12; 39-12; 41-12; 46-12; 51-12; 51-17; 51-19.
Yellow cards –
Man-of-the-Match: Stirling’s victory was built on the pressure they put on Hawick’s set-piece and the ferocity of their defence so the whole tam deserve big kudos, but Niko Matawalu lit up a bitterly cold afternoon at Bridgehaugh with his all-round enthusiasm.
Talking point: It has been another frustrating season for Stirling but a Cup Final win at the end of next month would eradicate all the frustration of a long, hard winter. They are one of the few teams to have given Melrose a run for their money in both league games played this season, but they really will have to up their intensity again to cause an upset at Murrayfield.