A LOCAL derby played at full pelt on a perfect pitch which was bathed by autumn sunshine in front of a healthy crowd of vocal supporters.
If every match in Scotland’s premier club league was played at this level of skill and intensity, the club game would be in rude good health.
This was a humdinger of a match, pitching first versus second in the league and it was always going to be a nip and tuck affair, but Melrose ended the day back on top of the league. In the end it came down to the final few seconds. With the game tied at 23 points apiece inside the final couple of minutes, Melrose centre Joe Helps stepped up to kick a 50-metre penalty which crept over the bar to raucous cheers from the home support.
Even then there was still time for one last gallop from Gala. The visitors won the restart and ran the ball at Melrose. They were held up inches short and even as they attempted to march the ball across the line, the referee saw an infringement and blew for the end of the match.
The match see-sawed one way and then the other with Gala’s pace and offloading up against the defensive excellence and muscle of Melrose. It could have gone either way and both sets of players were out on their feet by the end.
Both teams coughed up a plethora of penalties and the two kickers, Helps for the home side and Ewan Scott for the Maroons, swapped two early penalties. The first half hour was tryless, but the better chances were falling to Gala, who set up camp inside the home half and came close on a couple of occasions.
So it was against the run of play when the first touchdown of the afternoon appeared just before the half-hour mark. Melrose had a rare attacking opportunity, a break from the classy midfielder Blair Hutchison was followed up with a quick tap penalty by scrum-half Bruce Colvine. The big men ran through the phases with a series of pick-and-drives until the burly Aussie hooker Todd Pearce barged over the line right under the posts on his Melrose debut.
Scott missed the simplest of penalty attempts from the restart, but Melrose then lost Allan Dodds as the winger pulled his hamstring in the act of slicing apart the Gala defence. The tide had turned, Gala were hanging on by the skin of their teeth as half time loomed and Melrose extended their advantage by another three points before the break courtesy of Help’s boot.
The second half started with a bang and a try to each team with Gala the first to strike. Scott made a classic outside break helped by a big hand-off. He off-loaded to fullback Graeme Speirs via a neat back flip and the full-back held off the last man to dive over in the right-hand corner to score the try of the match.
Melrose responded straight from the restart when they kicked a penalty to touch and marched the maul over the Gala line with flanker Grant Runciman the last man up. Both touchline conversions were successful so the home side maintained their ten-point advantage.
Scott kicked his third penalty on 56 minutes to reduce the deficit to seven points and when Runciman was shown yellow with 15 minutes still to play, the visitors – urged on by coach George Graham from the sidelines – threw everything at the home team until the big men eventually drove prop forward Rory Sutherland over the line with the referee already checking his watch.
Scott made no mistake with the tricky touchline conversion, only to watch helplessly as Helps snatch the honours at the death.