CRAIG Chalmers sometimes doesn’t make life easy for himself, but you’d have needed a cold heart not to feel sympathy for the man yesterday as he sat, tears welling in his eyes, ruminating on the valedictory victory that had just evaporated before his eyes.
“It’s hard, so hard,” he said. “We’ve been here before with Heriot’s and with Ayr, and it never gets any easier. I’m disappointed and gutted, it’s like my heart’s been ripped out. It’s emotional, but then these things happen in sport, it’s why we’re involved, to experience the highs and the lows.
“It’s hard to lose a match that was there for the winning, which was so close and which we would have won had it not been for some key decisions in the last five minutes, but the players were outstanding, and I’m proud of them. That was a tough shift out there and both teams deserve full credit.”
It says much for Chalmers that he could be so magnanimous after his final game in Scottish club rugby, for the time being at least. But what a way to go out, with one of the great rearguard actions in cup final rugby. For, make no mistake, this was a remarkable finale to a remarkable coaching career at Melrose, with Chalmers’ side yet again punching above its weight to take this game right to the end.
But what a bitter end it was for Chalmers. With the men in black showing almost superhuman resolve to keep out Ayr, the dam finally broke and the Ayrshiremen spread it left to run in a try in the far corner as bodies littered the 22. It won’t have helped the Melrose coach’s mood that the final scoring pass looked a good yard forward, robbing him of a valedictory triumph at the venue of his greatest disappointments as a coach.
For all the focus that will rightly fall on Ayr for winning the double, the subtext of yesterday’s final was a nagging feeling that Scottish rugby will be the poorer for the departure of a man who, for all his manifest flaws, is a born winner. Chalmers himself was keen not to be drawn into the discussion on the lack of opportunities for coaches like himself. Yet he has rarely ever baulked a direct question, and yesterday was no exception. “I’m leaving mainly for personal reasons, it’s time for a change,” he said. “I’m still reasonably young and I’m still ambitious to be involved on a full-time basis. I think I’ve got the capability of coaching full-time – not necessarily as a head coach, but for a professional team – but the chance has never come.”
So, with just the small matter of this week’s Borders League final against sworn enemies Gala to go, after almost 40 years with Melrose man and boy, the most influential player and coach at the Greenyards since Jim Telfer is heading south.
And where to? For anyone who hasn’t been to Chinnor, in bucolic Oxfordshire, in rugby terms it’s a little bit like Inverurie or Lasswade, one of those heart-warmingly impressive family clubs out in the shires that has a huge minis section but which has never really pulled up sticks at senior level. A bit like Melrose, but without the history, the impressive stand, the legions of former internationals or the trophies. Chalmers may be leaving for personal reasons, but we’re talking about a man who has frighteningly high standards and an unquenchable will to win – only time will tell whether he can be satisfied by all that Chinnor has to offer.
Then again, the former Lions stand-off has never suffered from enough self-doubt to be worried about seemingly insurmountable odds, and if there’s one thing for sure, it’s that Chalmers’ new charges will soon be playing with the sort of ferociously competitive spirit that Melrose showed yesterday. This final was never going to be pretty, but the Borderers hung on to the champions’ coattails right into the dregs of extra time by displaying exactly the sort of intensity, nous and cussedness you would expect from a Chalmers side.
Ayr may have scored four tries to Melrose’s one, but Chalmers has never had a problem with his team winning ugly, and they competed well at the breakdown, frustrated Ayr at every turn and never allowed the game to breathe. Exactly the sort of performance you’d expect from a side coached by a man who has no time for that mantra about putting in the performance and hoping the result follows; Chalmers sides just focus relentlessly on the result.
Had Melrose managed to win this would have ranked as one of his greatest moments because his injured-disrupted side have performed fitfully all season and for large parts of the game they had to work with a manic energy to contain an Ayr side high on confidence and long on experience.
Ayr had chances to win the game, too, with Ross Curle missing a penalty ten seconds before the final hooter, and then the same player spurning a match-winning drop-goal opportunity with just over a minute of extra-time to play. It was just a pity for Chalmers that when yet another chance came Ayr’s way, it proved to be third time lucky.