An emotional Hawick coach Nikki Walker expressed relief on Saturday that his last act in the post was not to preside over Scotland’s most successful club being demoted to the second flight.
The Green Machine spluttered, as it has for most of the season, in this relegation/promotion play-off against Accies at neutral Lasswade, but clicked into gear when it mattered to engineer a famous fightback that did service to the proud traditions of the club.
At one point Hawick were 20-6 down to a confident-looking Edinburgh side but deserve credit for refusing to accept what looked to be the inevitable and thrilling their large band of supporters in what was a healthy crowd.
“To be honest, me and Scotty [assistant Scott MacLeod] thought the game was gone when we were 14 points down. But the boys showed real character to come back,” said the former Scotland wing, who now steps down from his hometown club and will be replaced by Darren Cunningham next season.
With the scores tied 20-20 a couple of minutes from time and extra-time looming, a penalty from Lee Armstrong completed the dramatic comeback and Walker was visibly moved after the game. “It would have been really disappointing to walk away and put the club down,” he said.
The stress of possible relegation has been hanging over Hawick since their last regular season game in mid-February and nerves were obvious as Accies steadily took a grip on proceedings with some tight and effective forward play.
“Accies had the upper hand up front, the scrum wasn’t going our way, they were probably beating us at the breakdown a little bit as well,” admitted Walker. “But we always knew we had the talent out wide, and if we provided some ball for them we’d get opportunities. I did say to Scotty, listen, we’ve got players that can score something out of nothing here, so there’s always that hope.
“We managed to get a couple of tries late on in the second half and got ourselves back into the game. There was great character shown by the boys – to go that long without a game, you could see they weren’t really match fit, they were a bit rusty.
“We had to really dig in to get that. I think they deserve it. They’ve had a tough season, a really tough season, tougher season than they’ve probably ever had. They’ve really fought to be in this position, and I think they deserve to get that narrow win in the end.”
Tries from scrum-half Alex Glashan and sub Lawrie Seydak had the Accies fans dreaming of Premiership rugby next season but they were left kicking themselves for chances spurned which could have speared Hawick. Ben Appleson missed a couple of early penalties but recovered to contribute two conversions and a couple of penalties.
John Coutts and Bruce McNeil both powered over the line late on to level the match and, when Robbie Chalmers rashly infringed at a ruck 25 yards out and central in front of the posts, an ice-cool Armstrong made no mistake.
So joy, and relief, for Hawick but heartbreak for Accies. Their coach Derek O’Riordan was philosophical, though, and challenged his players to follow the example of Marr, who lost the play-off a couple of years ago before going up automatically this term.
“This isn’t a loss really for us. It’s an opportunity to see where we’re at,” said the Irishman. “We had a crack, and if we went up we’d have earned the right to do so. For us, our aim now is coming back next year and going up as champions – and then staying up.”
The coach did accept that his side had put themselves in a position to win the match and added: “Was it in our control? In the first half, yeah it was.
“We had an opportunity I think towards the start of the second half to just knuckle down and gain some territory, get a foothold in their half and keep going. And we didn’t. Two penalties gave them two opportunities to score, and then the third penalty, defensively, got them the three points that got them the win.”