ALAN LORIMER @ The Greenyards
THERE has been an aura of invincibility surrounding Melrose this season but after a run of 12 bonus point victories in the BT Premiership the men from The Greenyards finally showed fallibility in losing to reigning champions Ayr.
Worse still for Melrose, after making the collection of bonus points a habit this season, they came away empty handed at the end of a match in which Ayr played to the strength of their forward pack. Both in the set-piece and in their one pass rugby, Ayr executed a tight game-plan to the letter, delivering exactly what their coach, Calum Forrester, had demanded.
“We were very disappointed with our defeat just before Christmas [against Currie Chieftains] and today we asked for a real work rate and effort across the park. I think every single player did that today. The pack was outstanding. They set a really dominant platform,” said Forrester.
“This group of players know they’ve got the ability to play. The important thing is for us to back it up against Stirling, in our derby match against Marr and also against Heriot’s before the break,” he added.
Ayr also excelled in their defensive duties, never allowing Melrose to play the free-flowing rugby that has eviscerated so many teams this season. But what made Ayr deserved winners was their ability to overcome what could have been a catastrophic series of set-backs in the first half.
First, their inspirational skipper, Pete McCallum, was forced to leave the field with an injured shoulder, and then in the space of five minutes Ayr were reduced to thirteen men after two sin-binnings.
Significantly, Melrose scored both of their tries when Ayr were short-handed, but in the second half the Greenyards men were unable to answer the strength of an Ayr side that looks to have rediscovered its mojo.
“Ayr came with a decent game-plan and it was effective. We weren’t as clinical as we have been in the last few months, so we have to look at that and be honest with ourselves. We had opportunities in the first half but we weren’t accurate enough. They dug in and put a lot of pressure on us and came hard at us in the defensive line,” suggested Rob Chrystie the Melrose coach.
Ayr struck within five minutes, a penalty created line-out providing the platform for a series of forward rumbles that ended with prop Steven Longwell crashing over for a try converted by stand-off Scott Lyle.
The Millbrae side looked to be in command as they extracted another scrum penalty but this time Ayr were unable to capitalise. If the tide looked to be turning against Ayr then confirmation came when their inspirational captain Pete McCallum shuffled off the field.
If that were bad enough Ayr then suffered a further set back when full back Grant Anderson was shown the yellow-card for kicking the ball out of an opponent’s hands close to the line.
Melrose, who had increased the tempo of their game after an uncharacteristically slow start, quickly took advantage of their numerical advantage with skilful movement of the ball first left and then back across the field for George Taylor to take a reverse pass from Iain Moody to score in the corner, Craig Jackson converting from the touchline to level the match.
Ayr, seemingly hell-bent on self-destruction at this stage, were further weakened when McCallum’s replacement, John Agnew, was binned for an off-the-ball tackle; and again Melrose struck, this time replacement hooker Richard Ferguson finished off a driven line-out.
Once back to 14 men, Ayr narrowed the Melrose lead with a Lyle penalty to go into the break 10-12 in arrears.
Ayr looked purposeful in the second half and their forward dominance threatened to engulf Melrose. A series of scrums which each resulted in a penalty for Ayr looked likely to provoke a penalty try but referee Keith Allen desisted from awarding what is usually a contentious score.
Then, in the last quarter, Ayr regained the lead after a strangely out-of-form Fraser Thomson made an ill-judged attempt to chip the Ayr defence from his own 22m line. The ball fell into the hands of Craig Gossman, who sent Rob McAlpine on course for the line.
Lyle converted the score and the stand-off kicked his second penalty goal of the match with three minutes to go, to deny Melrose a losing bonus point and provide an extremely happy New Year for the Millbrae men.
Melrose: F Thomson; R McCann, N Godsmark, C Jackson, G Taylor; J Baggot, B Colvine; D Elkington, R Anderson, N Beavon, A Runciman, I Moody, R Knott, G Runciman, A Miller. Subs used: R Ferguson, R McLeod, J Head, G Wood.
Ayr: G Anderson; P Dewhirst, M Davidson, S McDowall, C Gossman; S Lyle, D Armstrong; R Hislop, R Smith, S Longwell, B Macpherson, R McAlpine, T Spinks, G Stokes, P McCallum. Subs used: G Hunter, J Agnew
Referee: Keith Allen
Melrose: Tries Taylor, Ferguson; Con: Jackson.
Ayr: Tries: Longwell, McAlpine; Cons: Lyle 2; Pens: Lyle 2.
Scoring Sequence (Melrose first): 0-5; 0-7; 5-7; 7-7; 12-7; 12-10 (h-t) 12-17; 12-20
Yellow cards –
Ayr: Anderson, Agnew
Man-of-the-Match: In his first game back after a number of months out injured, David Armstrong pulled the strings in the Ayr side and against Melrose the scrum-half again showed why he is so highly rated by complementing an astute kicking game with clever passing and tight defence.
Talking point: Melrose at last showed they are human. Their 12-match winning sequence and the manner in which they achieved this run of victories was impressive and gave weight to the myth of invincibility. That has now been debunked. Ayr look the part and if they can carry this form on to stay in the top four then another Premiership title might be theirs.