AYR made fewer mistakes and edged the result as two teams went to war and offered a tantalising glimpse of the kind of high-quality rugby the Premiership is capable of producing in the new season.
The last time they met, in the final game of last season, Ayr denied Gala the title when they defeated them at Netherdale by a single point and might have won it themselves but for events elsewhere conspiring to hand it to Melrose.
It was a cruel twist of the knife for both teams but that was then and this is now, and the game kicked off in bright sunshine on a crisp autumn day with kit freshly laundered, muscles not yet battle hardened, and an empty league table waiting for the points to be racked up.
In the end, Ayr lost the try count but came away with the win while Gala settled for two bonus points and both coaches could crack a smile and say they were reasonably satisfied.
Ayr coach Callum Forrester, a former Glasgow Warrior, took charge of the team for the first time, getting acquainted with his role on the touchline rather than on the pitch. “The first half was as good a half of rugby as we have played in a long time,” he said, “and that is what we want to take forward.”
Gala coach George Graham said: “I’m very disappointed but I think it was a great game to start the season. The two teams tried to play some good, expansive rugby.
“We were poor in the first half and Ayr capitalised on that before we got better in the second. But the result is not the be all and end all. I am fairly upbeat for being beaten because there are a lot of positives there.”
Ayr didn’t start well. The players seemed to be waiting for an explanation of the rules as they let the kick-off bounce and then knocked it on. From the scrum Gala skipper George Graham, one of two sons of the club coach, scooped up the ball as it emerged and crossed the line to score with barely a minute on the clock. Full-back Craig Dods converted from close to the touchline.
Ayr reacted as if they had just undergone electric shock treatment. Within five minutes centre Ross Curle kicked his first penalty and within ten he was adding the extras after scrumhalf David Armstrong, playing his first game for the first XV having risen through the ranks, found himself in space outside the 22 and scampered in for the try.
Curle added a second penalty at the end of the first quarter while a long-range attempt by Dods dropped under the bar. Gala almost scored as Ewan Scott, just on as a replacement for the injured Chris Auld, fed the ball to Dods who passed it to Graham Speirs on the wing who got over the line but somehow lost the ball as the tackle brought him down.
There were some heavy hits going in at this stage and an innocuous ruck was suddenly transformed into a stairheid rammie as Gala lock Chris Weir threw a punch and all 30 players came together like a crowd of rioters suddenly kettled by an invisible police force.
It was as obvious a red card offence as you are likely to see but when it all quietened down the referee bottled it and produced only yellow. Weir was almost off the field before the card was waved, facing the wrath of his coach who didn’t hold back in telling him how irresponsible and stupid he had been.
Ayr immediately took advantage of their extra man. They won line-out ball and a formidable driving maul carried it 45 metres to the Gala 22 before sending it wide. A scrum was awarded on the right where, as it disintegrated, No 8 Blair McPherson was able to pick up the ball and give it to hooker Fergus Scott who forced his way over for a try that made it 18-7 at half time.
Ayr started the second half as they had started the first; badly. When Gala won a penalty just inside the home half, the players turned slowly to file back. Gala took a quick tap and flung it wide to Grant Somerville who ran in virtually unopposed on the right wing to make it 18-12.
The momentum was with Gala but Ayr threatened whenever they got their hands on the ball and when Kerr Gossman managed to break a few tackles, his pass put full-back Grant Anderson in the clear for Ayr’s third try which Curle converted to create a 13-point lead.
Ayr clung on as Gala came at them with all guns blazing. Dods sliced a penalty in front of the posts while Curle knocked over a penalty from longer range.
Gala still had two tries in them, the first a penalty try as Ayr brought the scrum down on their own line and the second an opportunist touchdown by replacement Josh Irvine from a lineout drive. Dods converted the first but not the second to make the difference between the teams four points with five minutes left to play.
Gala attacked repeatedly for those final minutes, keeping the ball alive well into injury time as they tried to find a way through a pretty resolute defence that finally managed to get a turn-over and boot the ball out.
Scorers: Ayr: Tries: Armstrong, Scott, Anderson. Cons: Curle 2. Pens: Curle 3. Gala: Tries: Graham, Somerville, penalty, Irvine. Cons: Dods 2.
Ayr: G Anderson; C Gossman, R Curle, D Kelbrick, K Gossman; D McCluskey, D Armstrong; N Cox, F Scott, F Watt, R McAlpine, S Sutherland, C Templeton, A Dunlop, B MacPherson. Replacements: S Fenwick, J Malcolm, C Brown, G Lowe, M McConnell.
Gala: C Dods; G Speirs, C Auld, A Eamon, G Somerville; R Howarth, G Graham; L Pettie, R Anderson, E Johnstone, C Weir. O Palepoi, G Graham, S Cairns, T Weir. Replacements: C Macintosh, J Irvine, E Dods, D O’Hagan, E Scott.
Referee: N Paterson.