STEWART’S MELVILLE lost the battle but won the war to claim runners-up spot in the National League and a play-off spot against Edinburgh Accies for a place in the Premiership next season.
Watsonians 19 - 15 Stewart’s Melville
SCORERS: Watsonians – Tries: Aitken, Steele, Scott. Cons: Ledingham, Di Rollo. Stewart’s Melville – Tries: Whittingham (3)
It was a real thriller in the sun with Watsonians always in front and, at one stage, as time was fast running out, in pole position to snatch the play-off spot for themselves.
But while the home side were victors on the day, it was the visitors who, despite losing and seeing their 13-game unbeaten run come to an end, carried off the big prize.
When Stewart’s Melville winger Alan Whittingham completed his hat-trick of tries there was no time left for Watsonians to respond and the game’s winner-takes-all label was transformed into winner-takes nothing.
The end of season maths dictated that Watsonians not only had to win – job done – but they also had to deny Stewart’s Melville a bonus point. It was failure on the second part of the equation that cost them dear and consigned them to third place in the National League for the second season in a row.
Stewart’s Melville coach Bruce MacNaughtan said: “It came down to the last few minutes and we had always known it was going to be a close game. We said at half-time that we need to go out and play to win, but we were guilty of too much defending, probably thinking sub-consciously that it would be okay because we didn’t need to win, that we only needed to stay close.
“Then Watsonians got a try under the posts and suddenly we are nine points behind and we had to go for it. It just shows the spirit of the boys and the spirit of the team that we managed. We’re disappointed to lose the game but the job was to get in the play offs and we have achieved that. It definitely feels like a win.”
Watsonians were the livelier side in the opening exchanges, Rory Steele carving a path through several defenders to take his team into the opposition 22. When the referee awarded a penalty under the posts stand off Ross Aitken had the presence of mind to take a quick tap and dive over the line before Stewart’s Melville were aware.
But the visitor’s hit back, counter attacking from midfield after Samoan flanker John Leiataua spilled the ball in contact and the turnover led to several phases of possession which culminated in stand off Nick McCashin’s long pass to Whittingham to give him an easy run in for the try.
McCashin missed the conversion and, minutes later, a long-range penalty attempt. In all, during the match he missed five kicks at goal that should have harvested enough points to see Stewart’s Melville comfortably into the play offs on the back of a victory.
Watsonians, of course, had different ideas and thought they had scored for the second time when Tom Hart danced through defenders to cross the line, but his pop pass was judged forward.
The score did come after Leiataua made amends for his earlier error with a big hit on the halfway line that turned over the ball for it to be kicked into the corner where Rory Steele won the race and touched down to make it 12-5 at half-time.
Stew Mel clawed back the deficit within minutes of the restart when Whittingham ran unchallenged from his own half, right through a suddenly porous Watsonians defence.
It kept Stewart’s Melville well within bonus point territory until the 74th minute when, after long spells of unproductive play between the 22s enlivened by a few breakouts, replacement Chris Scott got hold of the ball and galloped down the right wing to score, scrambling round behind the posts to give Ben Di Rollo the easiest of conversions to create a nine-point gap that would have put Watsonians into the play offs.
But Watsonians somehow contrived to give away a penalty as the restart kick came down on the 22. New Zealander McCashin didn’t fancy a kick from the touchline so Stewart’s Melville went for the lineout instead, won it and turned it into a rolling maul that rumbled over the line so the ever-present Whittingham could get the try and bonus point.
Full back Mike Hanning attempted the conversion, but it drifted wide, not that anybody in the Stew Mel camp cared. They had lost the game, but they had won the bigger battle. The final maths didn’t lie.
Watsonians: A Ledingham; R Steele, B Di Rollo, T Hart, S McKean; R Aitken, M Ker; M Christie, M Brearley, D Moussa, M Rennie, C Smith, John Leiataua, E Miller, N Dennis. Subs: A Ross, C Scott, N Irvine-Hess, J Blackwood, K Abraham.
Stewart’s Melville: M Hanning; M Morrell, D Hampton, N Bowie, A Whittingham; N McCashin, F Strachan; W Aitken, N Hart, C McKay, S Brewster, F Morrison, B Wilson, S Wilson, A Howie. Subs: R Stewart, R Anderson, J Hamblin, C Beattie, S Trotter.