Melrose dug themselves out of a deep rut by ending a miserable sequence of four consecutive defeats in the Premiership with a narrow victory against a Heriot’s side who can beat anybody when they really click into gear.
The two teams shared eight tries in a tremendously exciting encounter that was in the balance to the very last minute. When Melrose replacement stand-off Andrew Skeen crossed the line for the final try of the afternoon, he was doing to Heriot’s exactly what Heriot’s had done to them with a late winning try at the Greenyards earlier in the season.
The end of Melrose’s losing habit has come too late for the Borderers to be involved in the title race, where the pace is very much set by Ayr and Gala, but had they lost to Heriot’s then the Edinburgh club would have drawn level and taken fourth place in the league table. Instead Heriot’s remain in sixth.
It was a sore one for Heriot’s to take. Coach Phil Smith said: “We were 12 points up and then there was a yellow card and they scored 13 points, but we came back into it and once we got back in front I honestly thought we couldn’t lose. We have two points, but it could have been five points.”
It didn’t look promising for Melrose as early as the first minute when Heriot’s skipper and stand-off Graham Wilson ran through some ineffectual flapping arms for the first try which he converted himself.
Melrose couldn’t get hold of the ball and couldn’t get out of their own half, but they did produce some solid defending to keep Heriot’s at bay, eventually turning over the ball and carrying it to the halfway line where Sam Chalmers’ kick ahead rolled into the 22 only to be recovered by Heriot’s full back Sam Hidalgo-Clyne and run straight back, finding its way to winger Colin Goudie who evaded every tackler to touch down and score.
Melrose regrouped, keeping the ball close in the pack, and began to get some momentum. After 23 minutes, they set up a ruck on the Heriot’s line and young tighthead prop Struan Cessford couldn’t resist interfering with the ball and was dispatched to the sin bin. It was to prove a very costly yellow card.
Melrose chose the line-out option from the penalty. The catch and maul came straight out of the text book and No.8 Andrew Nagle got the try. Four minutes later, centre Joe Helps thumped over a 40-metre penalty and, from the restart, full-back Fraser Thomson caught the ball and roared virtually unchallenged up the left touchline, chipping over the defenders, and touching down for a try that put Melrose one point ahead.
After the break, with Heriot’s still down to 14 men, a series of determined assaults on the Heriot’s line sucked in more and more defenders until there was plenty of space on the left side of the pitch and Thomson went over for his second try with a spare man outside him.
It was Melrose who looked to be cruising at this stage, but once Heriot’s were restored to full strength the pendulum swung away from the visitors as home centre Max Learmonth was on the end of sweeping moves that allowed him to score two tries within minutes of each other. The first was far out in the left-hand corner after the ball shifted smoothly through several pairs of hands. The second was created by blindside flanker Joseva Nayacavou, who blasted a hole in the Melrose defence and off-loaded so that Learmonth could produce a carbon copy touchdown in the right-hand corner.
Both conversions were wide, but Heriot’s slim four-point lead seemed to be sufficient to see them hold out as the clock ran down the final five minutes, the temperature plummeted and the play became more and more frantic.
Melrose battled their way into the Heriot’s 22. Bruce Colvine came off his wing at pace and carved a path through a panicking defence in front of the posts before being forced to loop to his right where the inch-perfect pass to Skeen created the opening for the decisive try. Skeen’s conversion from the touchline was a wee bit of salt in a very raw Heriot’s wound.
Melrose assistant coach Cammy Murray said: “It is good to get back to winning ways. Heriot’s play a lot of good rugby but we knew if we stuck in there we would get the chances. It was hard work to come back from being 12 points down originally but at the end we were going through the phases well and deserved to get the winning try.”
Scorers: Heriot’s: Tries: Wilson, Goudie, Learmonth 2. Cons: Wilson. Melrose: Tries: Nagle, Thomson 2, Skeen. Pens: Helps.
Heriot’s: S Hidalgo-Clyne, C Goudie, M Learmonth, C Ferguson, M Penn, G Wilson, OJ Brown, C Owenson, K Bryce, S Cessford, R Nimmo, J Parker, K MacKenzie, J Nayacavou, J Hill. Replacements: S Mustard, G Cameron, B Morrisey, R Carmichael, H Boisseau.
Melrose: F Thomson, B Colvine, J Murray, J Helps, R Mill, S McCormack, N Little, R Ferguson, G Holborn, R Ovens, R Miller, J Dalzeil, G Runciman, A Nagle. Replacements: W Mitchell, C Keen, P Eccles, A Skeen, L Mallin.
Referee: D Changleng.