SO CLOSE, so the story goes, yet so far away. It has become a well-worn cliché in sporting parlance, but it was an apt way to describe how Gala’s championship campaign came to grief at Netherdale on Saturday.
Gala 33 - 34 Ayr
SCORERS: Gala – Tries: Sutherland, Weir, Palepoi. Pens: O’Hagen (4). Cons: O’Hagen (3). Ayr – Tries: C Gossman, Eddie, K Gossman (2), Curle. Pen: Russell. Cons: Russell (3).
The ground filled up with over 2,000 people willing Gala to conjure up the club game’s latest fairytale by claiming a first championship title in 31 years. Jim Aitken and Peter Dods were among the stalwarts of the 1980s title-winning teams present, while internationalists Peter Brown and John Frame joined countless Gala legends from further back.
But Ayr have not fashioned a proud club on the west coast, one that claimed an historic league and cup double last season, to roll over for rejuvenated Borderers and, in a fine game of two good sides, they deserved victory.
The Millbrae men soaked up the pressure from a dominant Maroons pack and, directed by promising Glasgow stand-off Finn Russell, pounced on opportunities with the precision of a cobra. Three tries to nil up at the interval, through scores by wing Craig Gossman, outstanding Glasgow forward James Eddie and the other Gossman flyer Kerr, Ayr then gripped a 27-12 lead seven minutes into the second half when Ross Curle finished another attack that parted the Gala defence with ease.
The decibels dropped as the clock ticked to the hour-mark, and with Gala’s attack lacking width and accuracy, supporters feared that the RBS Premiership trophy was drifting towards the Eildon Hills and a familiar Greenyards resting place. And then their team reared, the superb pack snorted, the tempo lifted and Ayr were rolled back on their heels by a mauled try by prop Rory Sutherland, converted by stand-off David O’Hagan, the impressive fly-half whose four penalties had kept Gala in touch in the first half.
After Kerr Gossman was denied another try by inches, O’Hagan intercepted in his 22 and ran 60 metres. Gossman got him, but Graham Fisken was yellow-carded for illegally stopping Gala’s next phase – Ayr flanker Andy Dunlop had suffered the same fate 15 minutes earlier – and from the scrum penalty veteran Tom Weir, who turns 40 this year, drove over for Gala. O’Hagan converted, it was 27-26 to Ayr and the Netherdale foundations were rocking once more.
The SRU custodian of the silverware was phoned and told to stay put in Tweedbank, the village equidistant from the two old towns, and with the crowd roaring them on Gala should have surfed the momentum to win it then. But the restart beat Weir and dribbled into touch, Ayr stole the lineout and fed it wide, and Kerr Gossman re-ignited his burners to expose a defensive gap, Russell’s conversion restoring Ayr’s eight-point lead.
Gala came back again, all hands to the pump, through phase after phase, until their 38-year-old Samoan talisman Opeta Palepoi defied a leg injury to force himself over the line. O’Hagan hurried to take the conversion, but referee Paterson leaned in to tell him it was game over, and the slump in the stand-off’s shoulders as he dismissively kicked it between the uprights signalled the end to Gala’s brave fight. The “mighty Maroons” still have the Scottish Cup to look forward to, with the semi-finals next weekend, but the wait for a league crown goes on.
Gala: McLean; G Somerville, C Auld, E Scott, G Sibanda; D O’Hagan, E Gunter; R Sutherland, C Mackintosh, E McQuillin, C Borthwick (capt), O Palepoi, G Graham, S Cairns, E Dods. Subs (all used): L Bertram, S Chapman, T Weir, G Mein, G Speirs.
Ayr: G Anderson; C Gossman, R Curle, D Kelbrick, K Gossman; F Russell, M McConnell; D Mutamangira, F Scott, D Rae, S Sutherland, C Templeton, J Eddie, A Dunlop, P McCallum. Subs (all used): Subs (all used): S Fenwick, G Sykes, G Fisken, P Jericevich, R Fergusson.
Referee: N Paterson (SRU). Att: 2,200.