League leaders Gala did just enough to come away with their first-ever away win against Stirling and set up a spectacular end-of-season finale when the premiership title is up for grabs between them and Border neighbours Melrose.
If Gala beat Ayr in the last game of the season on 22 March they will become champions of the top flight of Scottish rugby for the first time in 31 years. But any slip-up will allow Melrose to claim the title, provided they can beat Currie on the same day.
Nerves will be on edge, then, as they were on Saturday when Gala ground out an ugly win, while Melrose turned over relegation-haunted Aberdeen with five tries that earned a bonus point and whittled away Gala’s overall lead to only two points.
At Stirling, Gala had to come from behind as they squandered the lion’s share of possession. They couldn’t cash in on the dominance of their pack at the set piece, and they failed to take advantage as the referee flashed yellow at home players three times, with Stirling down to 13 men at one stage.
Gala stand off David O’Hagan had a nightmare game, missing an early penalty directly in front of the posts, taking a quick throw that turned into a hospital pass, and kicking the ball against his own players.
Ultimately, however, it was his two penalties that provided the daylight between the teams and kept Gala on track.
Gala coach George Graham, a former Stirling player, said: “We were nervous and it showed in a pretty ordinary performance. We were very, very jittery in the first half and lost the ball in contact too often, so the boys were expecting a bit of a bollocking at the half-time break and they were not disappointed.
“It was better in the second half and I thought the referee could have been a bit harsher on them at the scrum and breakdown. But it is always good to get a win and I need to savour this one.
“The job was to come here and get the four points and move on. We have done that and now we have to prepare for a huge game in three weeks against Ayr.
“I never thought we would win the league today. I always know it was going to come down to the last game. Aberdeen were close to creating an upset against Melrose but it didn’t happen. All along I have said it’s about what we can control, not about what other people do. We are still in control. We are not playing good rugby but we are still winning and that is a mark of a good team when you come to places like this, play like we did and still win.”
Stirling looked the more effective outfit from the start, controlling their aggression and frustrating a misfiring Gala who had all the territory and possession but couldn’t do anything with it.
It was Stirling No 8, Benji Barsanti, who put the first points on the board after 20 minutes, collecting the ball in the loose where there was no obvious threat. He went forward to find himself shaking off some half-hearted tackles like a drenched dog shaking itself dry to reach the line and crash over for a try. Brian Archibald converted and that was it for the first half, Gala’s handling errors bringing every move to a premature end, even with County loosehead prop Jamie Bhatti in the sin bin for ten minutes.
After the coach’s half-time words, Gala seemed to have a bit more purpose about them and the first scrum of the second half turned into a pushover try for No 8 Ewan Dods. O’Hagan hit the post with his conversion attempt to ensure no nerves were settled.
Next to go to the sin bin was Stirling blindside flanker Struan Robertson when he blatantly killed the ball at a ruck inside his own 22. Gala chose to take the scrum rather than kick the points, but made a hash of it. Another penalty was awarded right under the posts and, this time, O’Hagan didn’t miss to put Gala in the lead.
Scrum half AJ Macfarlane was next to see yellow for a ruck offence, leaving the pitch minutes before Robertson returned. Gala directed all their efforts through the scrum and Stirling couldn’t cope with its power. It set up a penalty and O’Hagan took his chance.
Stirling briefly threatened but always from a distance. A late opportunity offered itself to Gala replacement Graeme Speirs, who suddenly found himself in space running into the Stirling 22.
But he had no support and was cut down, leaving Stirling with the consolation of a losing bonus point that could prove invaluable among the ranks of those whose last games of their season will not be about winning trophies, but battles against relegation.
Scorers: Stirling – Tries: Barsanti. Con: Archibald. Gala: Try: Dods. Pens: O’Hagan (2).
Stirling County: B Archibald; B Addison, D Gilmour, F Lyle, M Lamb; S Edwards, AJ Macfarlane; J Bhatti, A Moffat, G Mountford, M Larson, C Deacons, S Robertson, W Bordill, B Barsanti. Subs: W Dineen, J Graham, E Dewar, S MacDonald, G Lindsay.
Gala: A McLean; G Sibanda, C Auld, A Emon, G Somerfield; D O’Hagan, G Graham; R Sutherland, C Macintosh, E McQuillan, C Borthwick, C Weir, G Graham, S Cairns, E Dods. Replacements: L Bertram, D Marshall, S Chapman, G Mein, G Speirs.
Referee: G Wells