From its dramatic start to the last desperate moments in which two teams flung themselves at each other, this match will be remembered as one of the classic cup ties.
Scorers: Gala: Tries: Keddie, Graham. Cons: Miller 2. Pens: Miller 5. Melrose: Tries: Helps, Colvine, Dick, Ferguson. Cons: Helps 2. Pens: Helps 4
Full-blooded and passionate, this was a wonderful advert for club rugby. It was won by the better side too, with Melrose’s gutsy second-half display seeing them squeak home. But it was helluva close from start to finish.
Melrose came out firing from the first whistle, looking like an altogether different side from the outfit who were comprehensively outmuscled at Netherdale in the league last week. They meekly surrendered their league crown and clearly saw this cup semi-final as a last shot at redemption.
Within seconds of the start they had grabbed a dramatic lead. The catalyst was a poor clearance kick from Gala stand-off Lee Millar which flew straight into the hands of Callum Anderson on halfway. He headed right and fed Grant Runciman, who broke two tackles and tiptoed down the wing before flinging the ball over his head just as he was about to be bundled into touch. The pass was blind but went straight to Joe Helps, the centre cantering over untouched from the edge of the 22.
It was the spark that ignited this pulsating Borders derby as Melrose belied their lowly league position, rarely looking like a side which had been beaten five times in a row by the Maroons. It was a fascinating contest, with Melrose’s greater try-scoring firepower countered by the goalkicking prowess of Millar, the Elgin emigre playing his 99th match for Gala yesterday and who will leave for London Scottish this summer.
His ability to keep the scoreboard ticking over was crucial, with two penalties bringing Gala back to within a point while Melrose’s kicker Helps missed a brace in the same period. Gala then nosed ahead from a beautifully worked try, wing Grant Somerville making the break and Craig Borthwick and George Graham taking it on before blindside flanker Craig Keddie went over to give the Cup holders a 13-7 lead.
Melrose didn’t take a backward step though, a Helps penalty cutting the lead by three points before a driving maul took Melrose deep into Gala territory and wing Allan Dodds steamrollered through before scrum-half Bruce Colvine burrowed over from close range to make it 17-13 to the Greenyards men.
If Melrose were showing extraordinary resilience, Gala were no slouches in that department either, and roared back with a Millar penalty straight from the kick-off, followed by another as Melrose No.8 Andrew Nagle was sinbinned seconds before the interval, leaving the match poised at 19-17 at the break.
The match was so finely balanced that Nagle’s sinbinning could have been crucial, but within seconds of the restart Helps smacked a penalty back off the post and then, a minute later, Gala took control again when a break from Anderson, back from service in Hong Kong with Scotland Sevens, was finished off by centre Bruce Dick.
Given the nature of this topsy-turvy encounter, it was no surprise that the next word went to Gala, with scrum-half George Graham taking a ball at the lineout in the Melrose 22 in what was clearly a set move, and then jinked around and under three would-be tacklers for the try that brought Gala level. The roof on the main stand almost lifted off when Millar’s superb touchline conversion perfectly bisected the posts to give Gala a two-point lead as the game entered its final quarter.
Melrose took the lead again with a Helps penalty with seven minutes remaining, only for Millar to reply immediately with a howitzer from just inside the Melrose half. And then came the final dramatic denouement. Melrose launched phase after phase, searching for an opening. When one eventually came, it was for the unlikeliest of scorers, replacement hooker Richard Ferguson crashing over for a score on 79 minutes which, even with almost five minutes of frantic injury time to play, sealed a remarkable win.
Gala: A McLean; G Somerville, C Auld, C Borthwick, C Robertson; L Millar, G Graham; L Pettie, C Mackintosh, C Hogg, G Graham, O Palepoi, C Keddie, B Murray, E Dods.
Melrose: F Thomson; C Anderson, B Dick, J Helps, A Dodds; R Mill, B Colvine; N Little, W Mitchell, G Holborn, G Dodds, R Miller, J Dalziel, G Runciman, A Nagle.
Referee: P Allan.