SCOTTISH Cup-winning coach Kenny Murray believes that Scottish rugby will rue letting Craig Chalmers leave after claiming an historic third final win over his Borders rival.
Melrose 25-28 Ayr
Scorers: Melrose – Try: Thomson. Pens: Helps (5), Mill. Con: Skeen. Ayr – Tries: Dalgleish, Cox (2), Taylor. Con: Curle. Pens: Jericevich (2).
Murray and Chalmers have been the most successful Scottish coaches over the past six years, sharing seven league and cup trophies between them in that period. Claiming a dramatic RBS Cup over Melrose in the final seconds of extra time on Saturday, Ayr secured their first league and cup double, and first in Scottish rugby since Glasgow Hawks’ triumph in 2004.
However, neither has been offered a role with Scotland’s two professional teams, the SRU citing their lack of professional experience as the main reason. Both have been given “CPD” time with pro sides and roles with age-grade teams, but Chalmers, who earned 60 caps for Scotland, one Lions cap and played professionally for the Borders, Glasgow and Harlequins at the end of his playing career, has had enough. After Wednesday night’s Border League Final against Gala at Gala he heads south for a new challenge in Oxfordshire with a new partner and new club, Chinnor.
Murray admitted that he was surprised that Chalmers had not been approached by Edinburgh, who have Duncan Hodge coaching the backs on a caretaker basis, despite the former stand-off’s limited experience of team coaching.
“I know what Chick is capable of doing,” said Murray. “He gets a lot of hard time for the off-the-pitch stuff, but in terms of rugby he’s a real role model for young players.
“In terms of a guy like that, and the experience he’s got, we’re a small country that can’t afford to lose that. So I wish him all the best and hope one day that he’s able to get back up and gets an opportunity up here and does well. I’m sure he will because he’s a very good coach – an excellent coach in fact.”
That “off-the-pitch” stuff, where alcohol-fuelled trangressions have caught the public eye, has put the SRU off the 44-year-old, but the Borderer’s more positive driving rugby passion has undoubtedly been at the heart of the revival of a club in a town of just 2,000 people.
A veteran of Grand Slam wins and club triumphs, and defeats, Chalmers warned his side that their right to be cup heroes would come down to decision-making under pressure. They passed numerous tests of that on Saturday, until handed the ball with a 25-23 lead and just 20 seconds of extra time left on the clock. But, and this is perhaps where Ayr’s performance is easily under-estimated, such was the concern in the fatigued Melrose ranks in the face of Murray’s talented and never-day side Ayrshiremen that they made a costly error.
Rather than risk giving Ayr ball by tapping the free-kick close to their own line and kicking to touch, or kicking long into Ayr’s half, or handing the ball to the forwards to truck it up Munster-style and count the clock down, fly-half Richard Mill moved the ball to the backs. It ended with possibly the lightest man on the field, Andrew Skeen, receiving ball by his posts with Ayr players steaming in.
He put boot to ball, aiming for the West Stand touchline, but that is a 40-metre angled kick on Murrayfield’s wide expanse, and it fell instead into the inviting arms of Grant Anderson. And Ayr scented a lifeline. The clock ticked past full-time, again, and Ayr charged at Melrose. The Borderers defended furiously, throwing bodies at bodies and charging legs, and thumping boys in pink and black to the ground, and the noise and tension suggested 70,000 people packed into Murrayfield, rather than 7,600.
Ayr hit roadblock after roadblock, passed 20 phases, still refusing to give up the ball and, finally, were rewarded when it was whisked wide left and replacement Cammy Taylor burst to the line under flying Melrose bodies. The final pass from Robbie Fergusson seemed a touch forward, and there was doubt over whether Taylor had grounded the ball while the officials conferred, but the raised arm of young Irish whistler Lloyd Linton confirmed the match-winner that Ayr fans had been screaming for.
It followed the under-16s cup win, and success in Ulster for the club’s P7s. Murray said: “This club is back!” before admitting: “I didn’t think we’d come back in the last few minutes because Melrose’s defence is tremendous. I was pretty nervous.
“In saying that, we were confident coming into the game and that’s exactly what I expected, a tight game. It must be really hard on those boys. To lose in the last seconds is not nice, but ultimately we scored four tries to their one, and we deserved it.”
There is no doubting that. Both sides contributed to a match that started slowly, with frustration evident in errors and John Dalziel’s sin-binning for punching, but it warmed up as Joe Helps’ fine goal-kicking pegged back Ayr’s early try by Richard Dalgleish, created by Fergusson, and put ’Rose 15-11 up after 50 minutes.
Ayr then lost Scott Sutherland to the sin-bin but, crucially, had introduced prop Nick Cox. Out for three months, the Baptist minister has been considering ending a career that began as an England age-grade internationalist highly valued at Gloucester, but he may think again after his decisive tries brought Ayr back into this final.
His first after 64 minutes put Ayr 18-15 up with Ross Curle’s conversion, and after Mill had levelled to take the game into extra time, Man of the Match Cox finished another storming Ayr attack two minutes after the restart for a 23-18 lead.
Melrose responded when lethal full-back Fraser Thomson finally broke free of the leash Ayr had held firmly on the ’Rose backs until then, and Skeen converted. But when it came to the final, pressure-laden seconds, Melrose faltered and Ayr seized their chance.
“It’s tough,” said Chalmers afterwards, the frustration of being denied again welling in his eyes. “These things happen. It’s sport. Emotions. Highs and lows. We’ve had a few more highs at Melrose over the last few years than lows, but … three times [cup final defeats] …
“But the players were outstanding. The effort both sides gave was phenomenal and is testament to the fitness and quality in club rugby. Well done to Kenny and his team. They are a good side. We had a full-strength team on the park and it wasn’t good enough to win, but I’m really proud of our players, backroom staff and supporters. This is a great club and it will continue to be when I’m gone.”
Melrose: F Thomson; C Anderson, B Dick, J Helps, A Dodds; R Mill, Colvine; N Little, W Mitchell, G Holborn, G Dodds (capt), P Eccles, J Dalziel, G Runciman, A Nagle. Subs: R Ferguson, S Lowe, R Miller, R Ovens, S McCormick, A Skeen, A Letham..
Ayr: G Anderson; R Dalgleish, R Fergusson, D Kelbrick, C Gossman; R Curle, P Jericevich; D Mutamangira, H Wisnewski, G Hunter, S Sutherland, C White, R Doneghan, A Dunlop, C Forrester (capt). Subs: S Fenwick, N Cox, D Rae, P McCallum, G Fisken, C Taylor, M McConnell.
Referee: L Linton. Attendance: 7,367