AYR scored three tries, but it was their stubborn defence which won this game.
Scorers: Heriot’s: Tries: Bryce, Paterson. Wilson. Pens: Wilson 2. Ayr: Tries: Curle, Welsh 2. Cons: Russell 2. Pens: Russell.
Down to 14 men in the final ten minutes and pressed back against their own line, they put in tackle after tackle to stop Heriot’s nicking a win.
It was the kind of stuffy resolution that has put Ayr at the top of Premiership 1 for the whole season and now, with three games to go, two at home, they are closing out the title just as they closed out this game.
Gala, their only rivals, beat Currie on Saturday to doggedly remain six points behind with a game in hand, but Ayr, champions in 2009, are in control of their own destiny.
Millbrae coach Kenny Murray said: “In the first half we were poor and second best. It was Heriot’s who looked more like a championship-leading team, but in the second half we were able to keep our shape better and step up the intensity. Those last few minutes of defence won us through.
“I have to say, I am relieved we won in the end.”
It was the Heriot’s back row who stood out in open play. A blanket could have been thrown over Fraser Brown, Chris Mulligan and Jason Hill for most of the match as they hunted as a bruising pack. Hooker Kevin Bryce and young 6ft 5in prop Struan Cessford also had their best games for the club.
Somehow though, over the 80 minutes, in front of a healthy 1,200 crowd, it wasn’t enough against an Ayr team who survived two yellow cards and showed how they can soak it up as well as dish it out.
The Ayr front row had the considerable benefit of the presence of two Glasgow professionals returning from injury, Jon Welsh and Ed Kalman. Welsh, in particular, underlined that his recovery was complete with two close-range second half tries.
It was 8-8 at the break with a try and a penalty for each side. Kerr Gossman’s kick ahead was touched down by Ross Curle to put Ayr ahead, before Bryce put his head down and battered his way over the line to cancel it out.
Heriot’s might have been in the lead had they taken the near-certain points from other penalties when they chose to pick and go. Calmer heads might have slowed the game, but with centre Robbie Ferguson in the bin and Ayr on the back foot, Heriot’s thought it was worth chancing their luck. Unfortunately for them, the resolute Ayr defence ensured they came away with nothing. It didn’t look as if it would matter when Heriot’s scored soon after the restart as the ball passed through several hands from one side of the pitch to the other before winger Mike Paterson went over.
Then, however, came Welsh’s quick double, the first from an unstoppable maul, the second a follow-up as replacement scrum-half Murray McConnell launched himself off the back of a five-metre scrum. In between, Heriot’s captain Graham Wilson missed a long-range penalty attempt and, suddenly, Ayr were nine points clear.
With just over 10 minutes left, Ayr lock Nick Campbell was sent to the sin bin for preventing a penalty being taken quickly. This time Wilson made no mistake with the kick and Heriot’s were within a try and conversion of victory. That was the cue for long, drawn-out assault that ultimately failed.
Heriot’s coach Phil Smith said: “We are disappointed because we thought we played well, but there were a lot of small mistakes, knock-ons and passes that didn’t go to hand. We seemed to be nervous.
“We had enough pressure to win it, but we just couldn’t do it. We have proved we can live with every team in the league. Our target now is a place in the British and Irish Cup. Ten weeks ago it was to avoid relegation, now it is to be in the top four. That is real progress.”
So Heriot’s accepted the solitary bonus point that keeps them in the hunt for that coveted British and Irish Cup place, two points behind Melrose who have played the same number of games and four points behind Currie, who have played two games more. Heriot’s and Currie will meet on the last day of the season.
Heriot’s: M Penn, M Paterson, M Learmonth, C Ferguson, M Nimmo, R Carmichael, G Wilson, C Owenson, K Bryce, S Cessford, R Nimmo, CJ Osazuwa, F Brown, C Mulligan, J Hill. Replacements: G Cameron, B Morrisey, J Parker, J Syme, OJ Brown.
Ayr: G Anderson, K Gossman, R Curle, D Kelbrick, C Gossman, F Russell, P Jerecevic, N Cox, S Fenwick, J Welsh, S Sutherland, N Campbell, C White, A Dunlop, C Forrester. Replacements: D Young, E Kalman, G Fisken, R Fergusson, M McConnell.
Referee: P Davies.