This old ground has hosted some decent encounters in its time but for sheer, jaw-dropping drama yesterday’s action could hardly have been bettered.
At the end of all the sound and fury Gala had let slip the opportunity to lift their first championship for 31 years and by the narrowest of margins. The fact that their nearest rivals Melrose were the main beneficiaries will have done little to ease the pain of yesterday’s defeat.
Even as they choked back their disappointment, the knowledgeable Netherdale crowd cheered the “Maroons” off the field after an astonishing second-half fightback had seen them come agonisingly close against an opposition that was reduced to 14 men for 20 minutes of the second half.
Last season’s champions Ayr were going to lose their crown but they were the better side in most aspects, except the set scrum which Gala milked ruthlessly. With so much at stake the home side simply didn’t turn up, at least not until it was too late. With the wind at their backs Gala managed no more than four penalties in the first 40 minutes against three tries for Ayr who finished with five all told.
“We spoke beforehand about how we have sometimes not started playing until the second half and then we have blown teams away,” said Gala coach George Graham. “We knew we couldn’t afford to do that against Ayr, they are just too good a side, their backs looked dangerous every time they got the ball. We left ourselves too much to do and then simply ran out of time.” The difference in ambition was there for all to see.
Gala ran at bodies all afternoon while Ayr targeted space on the flanks and, with a Gossman on each wing, the tactic paid dividends. Kerr scored a brace, one in each half, including the crucial try late in proceedings that doused Gala’s fire. Brother Craig scored the best of the match, a solo effort which saw him stand up and round his opposite number before flogging a dummy to the last defender and giving a little fist pump as he dived over the line.
Having allowed Ayr to race into a 27-12 lead early in the second half Gala finally leapt into action in a belated attempt to save this match. With Ayr flanker Andy Dunlop in the sin bin, Gregor Mein made a break. Craig Gossman intercepted what would have been his scoring pass but Gala’s big men drove over from the resulting lineout.
David O’Hagan kicked his conversion, Finn Russell missed a simple penalty for Ayr and the crowd started to stir. O’Hagan intercepted ten metres from his own try line and wasn’t tackled until ten metres from Ayr’s line. Another yellow card for the visitors, another five-metres scrum and another try, this one to Euan Dods, dragged Gala to within one point. It looked for a moment as though the Borderers were going to make a miraculous comeback.
Instead it stalled. The restart was allowed to roll into touch, Ayr had field position and a few plays later Kerr Gossman crossed for his second try. Russell kicked the conversion which proved vital on the day, giving the visitors a cushion of eight points and they needed every one.
It was somehow appropriate that Opeta Palepoi, the ageing Samoan warrior who has contributed so much to Gala’s recent revival, ploughed over for a try with the last move of the match after almost eight minutes of injury time but it was all to no avail.