Melrose found a way to win in a game played in atrocious conditions where stamina was the necessary quality demanded of players, not skill.
Defending champions Heriot’s did not deserve to lose yet had to be content with wresting a losing bonus point to keep alive their hopes of that fourth and final play-off place, if rivals Currie can’t accumulate enough points to overtake them.
Heriot’s are now three points ahead in the race for the place with one game left. Currie, whose match was postponed at the weekend, have two games left.
Meanwhile, the Premiership record shows Heriot’s and Melrose have one victory each in league match-ups this season, and the two teams will settle their personal battle when they face each other in the quarter-final of the BT Cup at the Greenyards.
A red card for Heriot’s flanker Michael Maltman seemed harsh for an instinctive punch when he was pulled back in loose play but it tilted the balance of power among the forwards and let Melrose grab the all-important try.
The Heriot’s pack were dominant for most of the match, but going down to 14 men – 13 at one stage with an additional yellow – was the straw that broke the resistance and Melrose took their chance when it came.
Heriot’s coach Phil Smith said: “I thought we were brilliant in the first half in playing the conditions and we planned to do similar in the second. It was all happening quite nicely. There wasn’t much going against us. Then suddenly it just seemed to click and every single decision was anti-us.”
The home pack had early success when hooker Michael Liness burst out of a ruck to charge 20 metres into the teeth of the wind and score. No-one thought then that a lone try was going to be as good as it got in scoring terms for Heriot’s.
Melrose channelled all their energy into obstinate defence. The strong wind and persistent rain were wild cards that benefited neither team.
Melrose stand-off Jason Baggott attempted a long-range penalty but, like all their attacking efforts, it fell woefully short but somehow triggered a rare assault on the Heriot’s line that ultimately resulted in a 25-metre penalty in front of the posts. Baggott could not miss. The score was 5-3 at halftime.
The second half was more of the same: Heriot’s with the possession and the territory, Melrose with the tackles and the turnovers. It was difficult to string passes together and build up any sense of momentum, with handling errors undermining every move before it got started. A lot of the play was confined to the area between the ten-metre lines.
As the game moved into the final quarter, Heriot’s winger Robert Kaye was sin-binned for a silly slap-down of a pass. It was only a few minutes later that, following the touch judge’s intervention, Maltman was red-carded for throwing a rogue punch.
Under-strength Heriot’s survived to be restored to 14 men but Melrose had been given a second wind by the numerical advantage and, attacking for almost the first time in the second 40, set up a lineout inside the Heriot’s 22. The throw was good, the maul rolled on for a few metres and openside flanker Grant Runciman, pictured, peeled off the back to dive over for a try to nudge his team ahead.
Baggott’s conversion attempt was blown wide.
Melrose had the experience to close out the game effectively. They corralled Heriot’s in their own 22, giving them no opportunity to come back.