Ayr 23 - 14 Heriot's: Ayr pressure deflates the cup holders

FOR anyone who doubts the relevance of club rugby, this game was a wonderful affirmation of the quality that still exists at the top end of the amateur game.

Above all, it was formidably and relentlessly competitive. Ayr will now face Melrose in their first cup final at Murrayfield in three weeks' time, but if they are still be in contention for a cup and league double, it was a hellishly close thing at Millbrae yesterday.

Indeed, a hugely entertaining contest memorable for its unremitting intensity was only settled 30 seconds into injury time when Ayr stand-off Frazier Climo sidestepped his way past three exhausted Heriot's defenders and flopped over for the try that finally put the result beyond doubt. Until that point there had never been more than one score between sides. Even at the bitter end, cup holders Heriot's were still banging away at the Ayr line with the scores at 16-14 and the clock almost out of time.

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Neither side ever managed to impose themselves, and for much of the match there was a pendulum effect as first Ayr and then Heriot's took turns to besiege the other's tryline, the middle of the park remaining a virtual no-man's land for long periods. Apart from a few Climo bombs, this was also a game notable for a lack of kicking as a tactical weapon; the ball was kept in hand and the point of attack moved frequently and slickly.

Heriot's proved to be obdurate opponents on their last visit to Millbrae, but for the first 20 minutes it looked as if Ayr might dominate this time. Despite Heriot's skipper Graham Wilson opening the scoring with a penalty against the run of play after 13 minutes, Climo was lording it for most of the first quarter, the big stand-off from Taranaki even surprising the crowd and Heriot's by ghosting through spaces on more than one occasion.

Ayr, though, had too little to show for their initial ascendancy. Two penalties from Climo weren't sufficient return for bossing the opening stages, and when Wilson brought the scores level with his second penalty after 20 minutes after otherwise impressive scrum-half Jamie Hunter and centre Mark Stewart had failed to finish off try-scoring opportunities, Ayr coach Kenny Murray must have rued his side's uncharacteristic inability to convert pressure into points.

It took the intervention of Heriot's second row Philip O'Connor to focus Ayr. A game that had never been less than fully committed took a turn for the worse on the half-hour when O'Connor and home prop Gordon Reid got involved in a wrestling match on halfway. What looked like an exchange of handbags turned nasty, however, when O'Connor launched a salvo of rabbit punches into the big loosehead's head, leaving him with a nasty cut just above his hairline. It was to both sets of players' credit that a major rammy didn't erupt, but when the Heriot's player escaped any sanction – a yellow-card would have been about right but he couldn't have argued if he'd seen red – the home side reacted with a cold anger that saw O'Connor spat out the side of the next ruck clutching his ribs.

If that incident temporarily ratcheted up the physicality, then it also saw Heriot's come back into the game with a series of tight driving mauls. Yet despite being camped in the Ayr end for ten minutes, the Goldenacre side failed to breach Ayr's defence and with half-time looming the home side broke out of their own half and launched another assault on their visitors' line. Heriot's had shown themselves doing whatever it took to disrupt Ayr, but when Grant Anderson's scything break from inside his own half was halted on the Heriot's 22, the man who found himself nearest to the breakdown was wing Marc Teague, whose ill-advised decision to kill the ball earned him a yellow card and allowed Climo to kick Ayr 9-6 ahead.

Yet instead of Ayr taking advantage, it was Heriot's who seized the initiative within seconds of the second-half kicking off when fullback Colin Goudie hacked ahead and showed a startling turn of pace to beat three Ayr defenders to the touchdown to make it 11-9. No sooner had Teague come back on the pitch than Ayr struck back, Cammy Taylor executing a nice scissors in midfield and slipping between two would-be Heriot's tacklers to make it 16-11.

That Ayr prevailed had much to do with skipper Damien Kelly. The Aussie second row has long been the driving force behind Ayr's forwards, and he was an omnipresent force in the loose, making hard yards in the face of an outstanding Heriot's back row in which Chris Fusaro and Jamie Syme were particularly impressive. His role in the last 15 minutes was to be crucial because, with Ayr No.8 Glenn Tippett yellow-carded for killing the ball, it was the home pack who were on the ropes. Yet Ayr held a scrum on their own line and, led by Kelly, defended in swarms during Tippett's absence, restricting Heriot's to a single penalty from Wilson.

With the match poised at 16-14, Ayr applied the coup de grace, shunting the Heriots' scrum backwards and going through the phases before Climo's injury-time try rounded things off. It wasn't pretty but it was fitting.

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Ayr: G Anderson; C Taylor, R Curle, M Stewart, J McClung; F Climo, J Hunter; G Reid, S Adair (G Sykes, 36), S Fenwick, S Sutherland, D Kelly, J Crossan, G Tippett.

Heriot's: C Goudie; M Teague, R Mill, P Saunders, M Nimmo; G Rutherford (R Hutton, 49), G Wilson (capt); A Dymock, K Bryce (N Meikle, 40), W Blacklock, C Osazuwa (M Reid, 52), P'O Connor, M Maltman, C Fusaro, J Syme.

Scorers: Ayr – Tries: Taylor, Climo. Cons: Climo (2). Pens: Climo (3). Heriot's – Try: Goudie. Pens: Wilson (3).

Referee: Neil Paterson