IT WAS a close run thing, but the performance of the day undoubtedly went to groundsman Gordon Barkham, who is surely due a substantial bonus for managing to get The Greenyards fit for a game of rugby when all around was a sea of white.
Melrose: Tries: Anderson, Murray. Con: Skeen. Pens: Skeen (2), Helms.
Doncaster: Tries: McGovern, Francis, Flockhart. Con: Lennard.
Not that the good folk of Melrose appeared to be suitably appreciative of his efforts, with a disappointingly sparse crowd for this British & Irish Cup clash.
But if some of the locals found it hard to drum up much enthusiasm for this dead rubber between two sides unable to qualify for the knockout stages, they missed a treat of a match, because Craig Chalmers’ side rose to the challenge to register their first win of this year’s tournament. It was a see-saw victory that was always in doubt, but was as well-deserved as it was welcome for a Melrose side enduring a less than vintage season.
Doncaster Knights may be the English Championship’s basement side, but the Yorkshiremen are an enormous if ponderous side of semi-professionals. Yet Melrose were comfortably the more inventive, dynamic and committed side, and were also clearly fitter than Doncaster’s square-shouldered gym bunnies.
This was a classic clash of opposites, with Melrose always keen to move the ball, while Doncaster favoured a more muscular, ten-man game based around size and brute strength. Both strategies brought some success, with Doncaster registering two of their three tries through kicks to the corner followed by driving mauls from the lineout – where they completely dominated Melrose – with their two props picking up a try apiece.
Melrose, by contrast, were up quickly in defence when they didn’t have the ball, dogged at the breakdown and expansive in attack, hitting the Englishmen on the counter-attack at every opportunity, of which there were many, thanks to some dire handling by the visitors. Full-back Fraser Thomson was particularly threatening with the ball in hand from deep, while centres Bruce Dick and Joe Helps both made ground in the middle of the park.
Melrose weathered the early storm well and took the lead through an Andrew Skeen penalty after wing Allan Dodds, who along with brother Graeme was playing his first game of the season, broke from deep and Doncaster played the ball on the ground at the ruck. Although Doncaster replied with a try, a long-range penalty from Helps saw the home side turn around 6-5 ahead.
The second half, however, turned into the Calum Anderson show. Within minutes of the restart, the wing, who recently returned from Aberdeen to take up a teaching post in Earlston, changed the whole balance of the game when he received the ball in his own half, chipped over his opposite number, hacked on and then won the foot race to the touchdown to take an 11-5 lead.
Doncaster, however, refused to bend the knee. After quickly registering their second try from a driven lineout, followed by another Skeen penalty, the Knights moved the ball wide for once and were rewarded when former Scotland A wing Dougie Flockhart slipped Thomson’s tackle to go over in the corner. Yet the pièce de résistance was still to come from Anderson, who, with ten minutes remaining, got the ball in his own half, beat his opposite number for pace, stepped inside the cover tackler and then, just as the remaining cover was coming across, slipped a pass inside for replacement Jamie Murray to score what was to be the winning try.
“I thought we showed great attitude, especially in the first half when we got up early in defence and played with a really high tempo against a professional side which came here expecting to win,” said Chalmers. “Although our lineout struggled, our scrum was excellent and I thought we thoroughly deserved the win.”
Melrose: Thomson; Anderson, Dick, Helps, A Dodds; Skeen, McCormick; Lowe, Walker, Holborn, G Dodds, Eccles, Nagle, Runciman, Miller.
Doncaster: Keating; Flockhart, Tincknell, Luke, Lewis; Lennard, Bedford; McGovern, Bergmanas, Francis, Parsons, Cadman, Boyde, Kettle, Pailor.
Referee: Steve Leeds (RFU).