MERCHISTON Castle deservedly won the 25th under-18 Scottish Schools Cup last night to join St Aloysius and Galashiels Academy in claiming five triumphs.
George Watson's College 3
Merchiston Castle School 15
Merchiston started the more positively with the pack playing with great dynamism, controlling the set-piece and allowing Alastair Abram, the stand-off, to pull the tactical strings with dummy runners and penetrating kicking deep into the Watson's half. Glenn Leslie, the Merchiston full-back, missed a long-range penalty effort in the fourth minute, but was successful eight minutes to secure a reward.
Watson's dug in, however, and turned the tide in the 14th minute with a great counter-attack from their own 22. Grant Somerville, the outside centre, passed out of the tackle superbly to release David McCall, the full-back, and the sweeping attack ended with a drive at the Merchiston line. The navy blue defence regrouped and cleared, but from the resultant lineout Watson's earned a penalty and Jamie Forbes, the skilful College stand-off, levelled the scores.
A great blindside run by Jonny Wilson, the Watson's left wing, almost broke Merchy's defence, but his chip ahead hit the corner flag and a Forbes' drop-goal minutes later fell short, though the fly-half appeared to think, incorrectly, that a penalty was coming.
With Abram forcing pressure on the Watson's 22 with more Dan Parks-esque kicking, Merchiston returned to the front foot as the first half neared its end but they could not find a way through the firm Watson's defence and the sides switched ends with the scoreline neatly poised.
Stronger rain added to the gusty wind to affect the flow of the game in the second half, but it failed to hinder the endeavour of both sides. The respective forward packs worked dynamically to build platforms for their backs with solid set-piece work and driving, the Merchiston forwards being denied from a great lineout drive only by stirring Watson's defence.
Poor kicking from both sides blunted attacks as the half wore on and perhaps nerves, in the knowledge that one mistake in a game so tight could prove disastrous, combined with fine tackling to limit opportunities. Merchiston have a reputation for good passing and that was in evidence last night, but they needed to find more punch.
The excitement rose a notch, however, when Sam Hughes, the big Merchiston centre tipped for honours, charged down an attempted clearance kick by Wilson. Hughes, a former North Berwick High School pupil on a scholarship, created an opening for Andrew Macpherson and though he was stopped short, Tomas Palacios, the No 8, re-gathered from the ruck and powered over the line with 12 minutes remaining.
Hughes sealed victory himself when he intercepted a pass in the final minute as Watson's struggled to run the ball out of defence, and Leslie converted to put a very unfair gloss on the final result, and leave Watson's skipper Stuart McInally struggling even to savour the man-of-the-match award.
There had been the usual calls in the lead-up to the final to scrap the schools cup, that it should be merged with the club's youth cup, which has its final at the national stadium tonight, but the crowd of 5,562, and the many thousands who have watched and played in this event over the past 24 years, would beg to differ.
One aspect of rugby which applies as clearly now as it did when the game was first invented is its growth through popularity and demand. Professional rugby in Scotland may have struggled to cultivate that, but there is a clear demand for schools rugby and while it could undoubtedly be improved with more regular competition through a league structure, last night's Bell Lawrie finals merely enhanced the reputation of a great Scottish event.
Scorers: George Watson's College: Pen - Leslie. Merchiston Castle School: Tries - Paliacos, Hughes; Pen -Forbes; Con - Leslie.
George Watson's College: D McCall; M Taylor, G Somerville, J Ferguson, J Wilson; J Forbes, C Blyth; C Scott, M Green, E Begg, A Glauch, C Evans, M Peacock, S McInally (capt), D Finnie. Subs used: E Mitchison, T Boorman, M Irvine, A McCulloch, G Marr, E Millar, S Mullins.
Merchiston Castle School: G Leslie; J Harris, S Hughes, H Oliver, S Miller; A Abram, R Weir (capt); S Richardson, D Cherry, N Watt, A Renton, L Morrow, B Mustard, T Palacios, K Abram. Subs: S Dennis, A Macpherson, J Harvey, G Morris, S Walker, L Johnston, A Kennedy.
Ref: G Knox (Greenock W). Att: 5,562.