“We HAD thought of this as our cup final,” an ebullient Heriot’s coach Phil Smith said afterwards. “If Melrose had won today, then we were gone.”
But after five tries and a performance that makes the previous week’s capitulation to Hawick all the harder to understand, Heriot’s are far from gone. They sit in second place in the Premiership, two points behind the leaders.
The victory also had the effect of keeping Gala and Ayr very much in the mix as they returned from British & Irish Cup business to post convincing league wins and position themselves in third and fourth places with two games in hand. The top four all front up against each other on Saturday with Heriot’s at Gala and Ayr at Melrose.
Smith said: “We had a specific game plan and I thought we played them off the park. When we committed a couple of errors and it looked as if Melrose might get back into it in the second half, we resumed what we were trying to achieve and we did achieve it. It was a courageous performance after last week’s loss to Hawick and the players really stepped up.
“And, I have to say, what an advert the game was for club rugby. Some of the handling was brilliant. There was some great rugby played out there and I would come and watch that every week.”
The pattern of the game was set in the first five minutes with Heriot’s switching from one side of the pitch to another in an all-out attack in which full-back Colin Gaudie drew the wide defence before popping the pass over their heads for left winger Max Learmonth to get the try.
Melrose were always chasing the game after that and sometimes it was a damage limitation exercise as Scotland 7s international Michael Maltman, who displaced the impressive Jason Hill to the bench, justified his inclusion by taking the game to Melrose repeatedly while locks Murray Douglas and Ian Nimmo plundered lineout after lineout.
Even so, despite all the promise Heriot’s showed and all the close calls near the line, they could only manage a single first-half penalty by Graham Wilson while Melrose held out doggedly and took their one and only chance when prop Nick Beavon dotted it down for a converted try after a rare spell of pressure to make the score at the break 8-7.
Edinburgh professional scrum-half Sean Kennedy came on for Heriot’s at half-time and five minutes later the home side stretched away as Melrose winger Damien Hoyland tried to take a high kick at speed and fumbled it. The loose ball was picked off his bootlaces by Learmonth who then fed 21-year-old hooker George Turner, an elite development player who is maturing nicely, as he showed by tucking it under his arm and galloping in from the 22. Graham Wilson converted.
Melrose centre Joe Helps kicked a penalty in front of the posts after a scrum collapse but Heriot’s replied with a trademark Maltman carry up the middle before the ball was recycled quickly to go left and give outside centre Keith Buchan sufficient space to wriggle through the defence and cross the line for the touchdown. Wilson converted.
Almost as a show of defiance, Melrose got hold of the ball and retained possession through several phases, patiently waiting for a chance to present itself. Austin Lockington almost made the break when he side-stepped in traffic and beat three players before being hauled down. The ball came back on the Melrose side, though, and finally the space opened up and Hoyland made amends for his earlier mistake by being in the right place to grab an opportunistic try. Helps’ conversion brought the Borderers within three points with just over ten minutes left.
Heriot’s nerves were jangling as they faced the possibility of having victory snatched away, but those nerves didn’t translate into panic. Instead, Heriot’s kept their composure and patiently set up Buchan for his second try and minutes later, with the game safe, the bonus point in the bag, and the visitors looking increasingly ragged, put a seal on the occasion when Learmonth pushed the try total to five.
Melrose coach John Dalziel said: “It is disappointing because we were really up for this game and we knew they had to win or there would be a lot of daylight between us and other teams. But a lot of things just didn’t seem to happen for us, things that have gone well in the past, too many sloppy passes.
“I don’t know if we were too anxious. We showed good character and pride to get it back to only a three-point margin near the end, but Heriot’s stayed in our faces and then finished the game really well.”
Scorers: Heriot’s – Tries: Learmonth (2), Turner, Buchan (2). Con: Wilson. Pen: Wilson. Melrose – Tries: Beavon, Hoyland. Cons: Helps (2). Pen: Helps.
Heriot’s: C Goudie; M Learmonth, K Buchan, C Ferguson, M Nimmo; R Carmichael, G Wilson; C Owenson, G Turner, N Borel, M Douglas, R Nimmo, J Turley, A Henderson, J Turley. Subs: K Bryce, S Mustard, J Hill, S Kennedy, H Boisseau..
Melrose: F Thomson; D Hoyland, A Skeen, J Helps, A Lockington; R Mill, B Colvine; N Little, T Pearce, N Beavon, G Dodds, S Johnson, P Eccles, G Runciman, A Nagle. Subs: R Ferguson, G Holburn, R Miller, T Wilson, M Robertson.
Referee: D Changleng.