Thistles ensure a Scots sting in tail at Melrose

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IF INSPIRATION is what Scottish rugby has been looking for in recent months the Mathon Melrose Sevens unearthed it on Saturday with a thrilling 125th celebration of the tournament's birth.

In recognition of the landmark, the 2008 event was stretched over three days by the club and brought youths, ladies, veterans and senior sides – more than 500 players – from all across the globe to the small Borders town. After an enthralling main tournament, it was Scottish rugby's own talent that reigned supreme.

Names only avid rugby watchers instantly recognise, but who represent Scotland for half the season against the best sevens exponents on the planet, as far afield as Hong Kong, Dubai, Adelaide and San Diego, came home at the weekend and gave the Scottish game new heroes.

Mike Adamson lifted the man of the tournament trophy, just pipping Greig Laidlaw; Scott Forrest, Richie Vernon and Chris Fusaro showed why many believe them destined for full caps and Stephen Gemmell, the Scottish Thistles coach, savoured an invigorating upturn in fortunes after a miserable fortnight on the other side of the world.

The new Melrose winners, the Thistles, were the Scotland international sevens team, made up of bright young academy hopes; some with innate sevens skills and others using intense sevens exposure to develop into full Test contenders. Some will question why the team was at Melrose at all, a tournament known since 1883 as a 'club' event. But in striving to improve and develop sevens at a time when ever-more congested seasons are squeezing out such great social tournaments, Melrose have long had international stars in various guises at the Greenyards.

On Saturday, the Gold Coast Breakers featured Lloyd Johanssen, a recent Australian cap, and Leicester had Argentine trialist Ignacio Mieres, a 20-year-old stand-off who made his Pumas debut in December. Ulster included Ireland scrum-half Kieran Campbell and, for the first time, the China national side, who had embarrassed Scotland in Hong Kong, were there as the Chinese Agricultural University, before a gutsy Clark Laidlaw-inspired Jed-Forest knocked them out after just 14 minutes.

After the all-star French Barbarians lifted the new Ladies' Centenary Cup in 1983, Melrose wanted something special for their 125th anniversary and pitched terrific home-grown talent against an array of guest sides. There was more than a hint of relief from Gemmell that his players had defeated a young, but fully-professional, Leicester team.

"It's credit to Melrose that they are trying to make this tournament the best they can," said Gemmell. "This tournament deserved us putting out our best players and as it went on and the pressure kept mounting, and the opposition got harder, we got better and better.

"Losing to China in Hong Kong was a real, real low, but this is a young group of players and sometimes you have to suffer to become better."

Having only returned from Australia on Tuesday, and been given the rest of the week off after three weeks of training and playing, the Thistles were sluggish in early ties with Currie and Roma, but they sparked to life in overcoming an Irish team, under the guise of Ulster, starting preparations for involvement in the IRB series and next year's World Cup Sevens.

In what was only the fourth 'Scotland-England' final at Melrose in the past 35 years, they were unstoppable. With great restart work by Ally Warnock and Richie Vernon, in particular, and sublime finishing for tries from Warnock (2), Ben Addison, Greig Laidlaw and Adamson, the Thistles dominated possession and ran out 33-12 winners.

With clever angles, powerful defence and great pace, Leicester had overcome a gutsy Melrose in the semi-finals, the host club having seen off holders the Shimlas to brilliantly break the expected guest side hegemony. But they lost much support in the home crowd by allowing frustration to boil over into unsavoury incidents, skipper Tom Youngs and the sixth of seven Tuilagi brothers, Vavae, the worst culprits, and were duly left shell-shocked by the Thistles' final display.

The fact that we hardly saw Ben Youngs, a tournament star up to then and son of England scrum-half Nick, underlined how effectively the Scots had blunted the Tigers' bite. He did finish the scoring with the tournament's 123rd try but the rain had gone, the sun was finally shining and Scottish fans were celebrating a first success in six years.

With a Scottish season having given little cause for great celebration, Gemmell hopes that this win could boost interest in June's Emirates Edinburgh Sevens at Murrayfield. Longer-term, he would like to hear full internationalists talking of the day the Greenyards gave them the inspiration to improve.

"You come to Melrose and it's a full house," he said. "The kids come on at the end and are desperate to speak to these guys, and tap them on the back. Our guys deserve that and if they've given some youngsters here a new enthusiasm for the game and they want to look up and watch them at the Emirates Sevens that will be good.

"It was like for like with Leicester, similar number of young pros and academy players, and we've shown that we were 20 points better than them. But none of these guys want to be pigeon-holed as sevens experts because we don't have enough players in Scotland to have sevens experts.

"What we need to do is use sevens to develop and progress players – hopefully people saw that they can perform and the future is looking good for Scottish rugby."

The Melrose club turns its attentions now to a Scottish Hydro Electric Cup semi-final with Watsonians on Saturday, while the SRU bids to take this lead and ramp up preparations for the Emirates Sevens.

Final teams

Scottish Thistles: S Forrest (capt), R Vernon, C Shaw, G Laidlaw, A Warnock, M Adamson, B Addison, C Fusaro, C Forrester, J Thompson.

Leicester: T Youngs (capt), G Gillanders, B Youngs, I Mieres, J Cobden, M Smith, W Lawson, D Hemmingway, B Twelvetrees, V Tuilagi.

Referee: J Steele (Dumfries).


First round: Langholm 5, Currie 7; Dundee HSFP 24, Gala 5; Watsonians 28, West of Scotland 5; Peebles 21, Edinburgh Accies 7; Kelso 19, Heriot s 15; Jed-Forest 20, Hawick 17; Glasgow Hawks 7, Melrose 36; Ayr 0, Boroughmuir 33.

Second round: Currie 7, Scottish Thistles 22; Dundee HSFP 12, Roma 19; Watsonians 5, Ulster President's VII 28; Peebles 10, Gold Coast Breakers 36; Kelso 5, Leicester Tigers 40; Jed-Forest 24, Chinese Agricultural University 14; Melrose 24, Selkirk 0; Boroughmuir 12, Shimlas 17 (after extra-time).

Quarter-finals: Scottish Thistles 19 Roma 5, Ulster 26 Gold Coast Breakers 5, Leicester 38 Jed-Forest 12, Melrose 17 Shimlas 12

Semi-finals: Scottish Thistles 21, Ulster President s VII 5; Leicester Tigers 31, Melrose 7.

Final: Scottish Thistles 33, Leicester Tigers 12.