REMAINING top of the BT Premiership was Ayr’s main concern going into this match. That they did was satisfaction enough; retaining the David Williams Quaich and recognition as “best in the west” were just additional bonuses from a thoroughly entertaining and close-fought encounter.
“The fact we hadn’t played for four weeks showed in our first-half performance, but, once we put a bit of pace on the ball in the second half, we improved and got the result,” said a delighted Ayr coach Callum Forrester afterwards.
The first half was that rugby rarity – a points-free period – but hardly pointless as these two old rivals got stuck into each other with a vengeance. There was one major outbreak of “handbags” midway through the half, after Hawks’ Tom Steven hit Ayr skipper Dean Kelbrick late.
Once the warring sides had been separated and Steven rightly yellow-carded, one Ayr old-timer opined: “Even for somebody from Kilmarnock – Steven’s home town – that was a cheap shot.
In truth, Ayr didn’t make much of their one-man advantage, although Robert McAlpine did get over at the posts, following a superb Craig Gossman/David Armstrong thrust into the visitors’ 22, but referee Lloyd Linton was right on the spot to rule “No try”. McAlpine had knocked on in the act of scoring.
Twice Craig Gossman, who pushed Ross Curle all the way for the man-of-the-match award, made scorching breaks, but twice he butchered three-on-two overlaps by deciding not to pass to big brother Kerr.
Hawks’ George Horne had earlier missed two penalties he would be expected to nail, firing the first, from head-on to the posts, past; hitting the upright with the second. So the half ended all-square, but with the visitors again a man short as Andy Kirkland was yellow-carded.
Ayr wasted little time in making their advantage count after the restart, Ross Curle skipping through the visiting defence for a superb solo try, from almost halfway, which he converted. That said, from the press box it did look as if his grounding wasn’t legal, but if the try was dubious, the execution from the moment he got the ball was top drawer.
Four minutes later, Curle extended the Ayr lead into double figures with a simple penalty and, for a spell, the league leaders were well in control.
But back came Hawks. Ayr’s Callum Templeton earned ten minutes on the naughty step and while he was off penalty goals by Horne, and a monster by Jack Steele put the Glasgow side right back in the game.
Ayr, however, regrouped. Templeton’s sin-binning passed without further damage and the final 15 minutes were played almost entirely in the Hawks’ 22. Ayr tried everything they knew to stretch their lead, but the Hawks defence was superb. However, the Ayr pressure had to tell and did, in the last minute of normal time when, from a penalty line-out, the home pack got a fair head of steam up at an advancing maul and McAlpine came off the side to go over for an unconverted try and atone for his first-half lapse.
That finally broke Hawks’ resistance and, in injury time, Curle banged home a second penalty goal to emphasise the Ayr victory. These two squads know each other so well, matches between them will always be tight, and this was no exception. But Ayr do not head the table for nothing and, hard though Hawks made it for them, their rush defence and counter-rucking were always of the highest quality: the home side always looked the likelier to score tries, which they duly did.
Scorers: Ayr: Tries: R Curle, R McAlpine. Con: Curle. Pens: Curle (2). Hawks: Pens: G Horne, J Steele
Ayr: C Gossman, R Dalgleish, R Curle, D Kelbrick, R Fergusson, D McCluskey, D Armstrong; G Hunter, F Scott, D Rae, R McAlpine, S Sutherland, C Templeton, A Dunlop, B MacPherson. Substitutes used: J Malcolm, S Fenwick, B Johnstone, G Fisken, K Gossman.
Hawks: A Fleming, T Steven, B McGroarty, D Milne, P Ramsay, G Horne, P Boyer, S Findlay, J McFarlane, G Strain, J Agnew, A Kirkland, S Leckie, F Gillies, T Spinks. Substitutes: B Cullinane, S Cummings, M Bartoszek, J Steele. Not used: G Stewart.
Referee: L Linton.