The Greenyards was bathed in spring sunshine for the BT Premiership final although it offered little warmth, a little like this match which promised much but struggled to generate much heat or light.
At least the final five minutes had every fan on the edge of their seat. Defending a four-point lead, Ayr were pegged back deep inside their own 22 after conceding a series of penalties which Melrose kicked into the corner. The home forwards drove towards the line and Ayr’s outstanding No.8 Pete McCallum was binned for dropping the maul illegally, just as he had been in last season’s final.
With a one-man advantage, Melrose went to the sidelines again and were favourites to make their third successive lineout drive count when Ayr’s veteran lock Scott Sutherland gambled, rose early and stole the Melrose throw; he won’t have had to put his hand in his pocket all evening.
“For Scotty Sutherland to get that lineout down there, just shows the experience that he brings to the squad,” said a relieved Ayr coach Callum Forrester, pictured, after the final whistle.
“We have spoken a lot about that [last season’s final] this week,” Forrester continued. “The next challenge for this group now is to back this up again next week when we go through to Murrayfield [for the BT Cup final] against a Melrose team that is going to be hurting and will want to come away with some goods.”
It was an engaging finish to a less than riveting match. Both sets of defences were on top, the first try didn’t appear until the fourth quarter and both teams competed ferociously at the breakdown, which made continuity tricky.
Ayr held a 9-3 lead at the break, thanks to three penalties from the boot of stand-off Frazier Climo, but that was with first use of a stiff breeze at their backs and the six-point lead didn’t look enough. But playing into the wind Ayr defended heroically, they nicked a penalty on a rare second-half sortie into Melrose territory and they kept their heads after the momentum shifted Melrose’s way in the final quarter.
Melrose will see this as one that got away. In the second half Jason Baggott kicked a free-kick 70 yards downfield and bounced it expertly into touch and Melrose looked set to capitalise, only to concede a soft penalty which allowed Ayr to relieve the pressure.
Just a few minutes later Melrose skipper, the excellent Bruce Runciman, blocked a Climo clearance kick and the flanker was odds on to win the race to the ball over the Ayr line, only for an ugly bounce to favour the defenders. The home side also missed two kicks – one penalty, one conversion – which together would have won them this match.
Climo kicked a 50th-minute penalty to extend Ayr’s lead to a handy nine points and when Baggott got the opportunity to get three back the Melrose man pushed it wide.
With the match moving into the final quarter this contest finally sparked into life with the first try of the game, which fell to Melrose’s Inverness-born lock Ruaridh Knott.
The home side stuck a couple of penalties into the corner and after umpteen phases of play full-back Fraser Thomson’s long pass found Knott on the left wing and the big man did well to brush off David Armstrong’s despairing tackle.
The wind, metaphorical and actual, was now at Melrose’s back. Craig Gossman had to look sharp to prevent Thomson’s kick ahead bringing a second try. Ayr’s habitual indiscipline then allowed Melrose three attacking lineouts. Ayr did well to turn over the first, lost McCallum to the second and then picked off the Melrose throw at the third. Climo hoofed the ball off the field to signal the start of Ayr’s celebrations.
The same two teams have it all to do again next Saturday at BT Murrayfield.