BACK-to-back drop goals by rival stand-offs were the late twist in the tale that saw Melrose run out winners after Heriot’s thought they had snatched victory themselves.
In the grand scheme of Premiership things, it didn’t matter much as both teams are guaranteed to be in the play-offs. Melrose looked like they wanted it more and it was the never-say-die, heads-up attitude that carried them through.
The entertainment value wasn’t remotely close to what was served up by both sides at the Greenyards earlier in the season when Melrose again came out on top in a 44-43 romp that was as loose and free-flowing as Saturday’s encounter was tight and unforgiving.
And, of course, the game carried an intriguing sub-plot with the appearance of Hugh Blake, a 22-year-old New Zealander who has only been in the country a couple of months but has been brought into Vern Cotter’s Six Nations squad to the consternation of some critics and commentators who bemoan the exclusion of more well-known, experienced internationalists.
Blake is Scottish qualified via his grandparents and is on Edinburgh’s books but he is short of game time on his ancient native soil. He played briefly for Edinburgh A and was carried off after a head knock. He helped Melrose beat Hawick the previous week, and he pulled on the openside’s No 7 shirt to run out against Heriot’s.
He played well without setting the heather on fire. He tackled head on, carried soundly, foraged energetically. He got himself yellow carded in the second half for going off his feet at a ruck, but that was taking one for the team because the referee had warned the next offence would mean the bin. And the winning drop goal can be traced back from Richard Mill’s swinging boot to Blake’s deft pick and go from the back of a collapsing scrum that took the ball deep into the danger area.
Blake politely declined to be interviewed after the match but Melrose coach John Dalziel sang his praises. “He was outstanding,” Dalziel said. “All day he was kind of the glue in our team, keeping it together. He is a young lad and there has been a lot of media hype about him but I think he answered a lot of critics today by playing really well.
“The yellow card was unlucky but he has come to us and done a job and I think he has shown his class as well.”
Heriot’s coach Phil Smith was not quite so sure. “He played well but I think our guy was better, ” he said.
Beyond the Blake issue, Melrose had the edge in the first half, while Heriot’s took over in the second but that didn’t stop the dramatic turn of events that determined the final outcome.
Melrose No 8 Graeme Dodds got the only try of the match, finding himself at the centre of a rolling maul that trundled over the line after only five minutes.
Heriot’s scrum-half Graham Wilson, one of the most reliable place-kickers in the Premiership, replied with two 30-metre penalties, one after the other, to nudge the home side ahead by a single point.
Mill, who made a mess of the conversion attempt, then got his first penalty as Heriot’s lock Russell Nimmo went to the sin-bin for not retreating when Melrose tried to take a quick tap. That put Melrose two points ahead but Wilson wiped it out with a 42-metre attempt before Mill took back the lead with his second successful penalty.
At half-time there were two points between the teams. Heriot’s, restored to full strength, started the second half the livelier of the two but they couldn’t translate pressure into points, repeatedly coming up short against a resolute defence. And the penalty count rose as play got bogged down in midfield.
Heriot’s suddenly strung together a series of passes that took them back into the visitors’ 22. A yellow card was flashed in Blake’s face and Wilson stepped up for the penalty that should have been an easy one for him.
He missed and a few minutes later failed with another relatively simple kick that would have seen Heriot’s pull away.
Where Wilson failed, replacement stand-off Gregor McNeish succeeded, firing a drop goal over the Melrose defensive line and seeming to wrap up the game for Heriot’s as they went ahead by a single point for the third time. But Melrose remained resolute.
The team battled its way into the Heriot’s half. Blake picked a ball from a crumbling scrum and took it into the 22, the ball moved from one side of the pitch to the other and then came back to Mill, a former Heriot’s player, who had the composure to settle himself and kick the drop-goal to win the game.
Scorers: Heriot’s – Pens: Wilson (3). Drop goal: McNeish. Melrose – Try: Dodds. Pens: Mill (2). Drop goal: Mill.
Heriot’s: K Buchan; C Simpson, L Steele, R Carmichael, H Boisseau; S Edwards, G Wilson; N Borel, S Mustard, S Cessford, R Nimmo, J Turley, D Levison, J Mclean, J Hill. Replacements: D McGregor, JP Ward, K Mackenzie, R Weir, G McNeish.
Melrose: F Thomson; C Anderson, T Galbraith, A Nagle, T Mua; R Mill, B Colvine; N Beavon, R Fergusson, E McQuillin, J Head, L Carmichael, N Irvine-Hess, H Blake, G Dodds. Replacements: C Mackay, N Little, G Runciamn, M McAndrew, J Helps.
Referee: J Leahy.