UNDER a benign blue sky, on a pitch with the consistency of cold porridge, Ayr made heavy weather of turning over Accies, but ultimately, as they have done all season, they came through and took the points.
The bonus-point win was enough to keep them at the top of the league, three points ahead of their only title rivals Gala, who scraped past Dundee. There are now only two games left for the leaders and Ayr can win the title at Millbrae on Saturday against Currie if Gala lose at Stirling County. If the race does go to the last game of the season in March, Ayr will be up in Aberdeen and Gala will host near-neighbours Melrose.
As for Accies, who had high hopes of an upset at Ayr after beating Melrose at the Greenyards the previous week, they have four games left and are one of a clutch of clubs clustered around the 30-point mark. In effect, it means they could end up in the top four with a coveted British and Irish Cup place, or they could be relegated. It is as tight as that.
On Saturday, Ayr seemed to have overpowered Accies in the first half-hour with three well-constructed tries. First lock Nick Campbell had the presence of mind to reach over a ruck of bodies and touch down while the Accies defence waited for the charge. Then prop Nick Cox crashed over for a second try. Then Scotland Under-20 back Robbie Fergusson, a player for whom the late Bill McLaren might have used the phrase “trout up a burn”, strayed from his wing to be on the end of a rapid-fire passing sequence and score on the right.
The tries, however, dried up, as they have done in seven other games this season when Ayr have scored three and failed to kick on for the fourth that yields the bonus point, allowing teams to run them close. Ruaridh Bonner’s two penalties, added to Ayr scrum half Peter Jerecevich’s failure to land any of the three conversions, kept Accies in the hunt.
When Accies winger Sam Pecqueur squeezed in for a try two minutes after the break to reduce the deficit to only four points, a little frisson of panic ran through the pink and black jerseys. The game just wasn’t going Ayr’s way and Accies were bullying them in the scrum, where tighthead prop Alex Allan made a difference when he came on after 20 minutes, having flown back from Cardiff that morning after providing cover for the Glasgow Warriors squad that demolished the Dragons.
Bonner, however, missed the conversion that would have taken them two points closer and, although Accies were forcing their opponents into errors and poor decisions, Ayr gradually regained control with some big hits in the loose by prop Denford Mutamangira in a long period of attrition. Neither side was conceding much space or time on a pitch that was rapidly sapping the players’ strength.
Finally, Ayr wore down Accies resistance and found a hole in what had been a pretty resolute defence. Replacement hooker Hayden Wiznewski dived under the posts, ensuring Ross Curle couldn’t miss the conversion.
There were still ten high-octane minutes left for Accies to try and rescue a losing bonus point that might be so crucial in the final league equation, but Ayr had settled and closed out the game with no serious threat to their line.
Ayr coach Kenny Murray was taking nothing for granted. He said: “Our target today was to win with a bonus point and we have done that. We played some good stuff for parts of the game and scored four tries, so I think I can say we were the better team overall, but we were probably not clinical enough in the 22 because when we get into that kind of area, we need to come away with something. In the first half and second half we built up some good phases of play, but then were either not fast enough in supporting the ball carrier or there was a lack of accuracy. We spoke a lot this week about attitude and application and I was happy with our work rate and intensity when we had to defend for long periods, but I would have wanted us to be a bit more clinical in putting teams away.
“The results mean that Ayr and Gala now know what we need to do to win the league. We can potentially do it here next week or it could go to the last game of the season. Either way, it is up to us.”
Scorers: Ayr – Tries: Campbell, Cox, Fergusson, Wiznewski. Con: Curle. Edinburgh Accies – Tries: Pecqueur. Pens: R Bonner.
Ayr: G Anderson; R Fergusson, R Curle, D Kelbrick, C Gossman; Finn Russell, P Jericevich; D Mutamangira, S Fenwick, N Cox, N Campbell, S Sutherland, C White, A Dunlop, Calum Forrester. Replacements: H Wisnewski, D’arcy Rae, R Doneghan, G Fisken, R Dalgleish.
Edinburgh Accies: N Godsmark; M Coupar, I Berthinussen, R Bonner, S Pecqueur; E Bonner, A Black; D Morrison, M Liness, C Murray, G Campbell, A Findlater, D Teague, R Godsmark, C Reid. Replacements: F Rawlinson, A Allan, T Drennan, J Adams, R Watt.
Referee: I Herd.