In the first of two cup showdowns between the best two sides in the country, Ayr took the silverware with a narrow victory in the Tennent’s Grand Final played in their own Millbrae backyard.
They didn’t make life easy for themselves, bouncing back after going 10-0 behind in the opening exchanges when the visitors threatened to run away with the spoils. However, Ayr showed their customary grit, dominated the latter stages and probably deserved their win after outscoring their forthcoming Scottish Cup final opponents by four tries to three.
Lock David Corbenici scored Ayr’s first and hooker Robbie Smith grabbed their fourth and final try, but in between times flying winger Kyle Rowe claimed a vital brace. The first came courtesy of Glasgow centre Stafford McDowall, who, Heriot’s fans were quick to point out, had been playing Champions Cup rugby against Saracens one week earlier.
He sent Rowe over the Heriot’s’ line with a well-timed inside pass before the speedster cut a mazy line from his left wing to outpace everyone before dotting down between the posts and the right-hand corner flag. It was a stand-out solo try and earned Rowe, an age grade international just last season, the man of the match award and this glowing report from his club coach.
“He could go the whole way,” said former Glasgow full-back Peter Murchie. “I haven’t been shy about telling anyone in high position that he [Rowe] should be playing pro rugby. He is a serious talent. He was amazing for the 20s last year. He is a great guy, a great kid, works bloody hard off the ball, he’s got everything.”
Both teams dominated one half each, Heriot’s the first, Ayr the second, when given the advantage of the slight Millbrae slope – but the home side would not have won without that twin contribution from their speedy winger. Rowe is a little like Darcy Graham, small, compact and very quick, although he probably doesn’t quite match the Scotland star’s footwork just yet.
“I just try and get my hands on the ball and try and score,” Rowe reported in the breathless moments immediately after the final whistle. “I did that twice so it was good to help the team to a win.”
Heriot’s’ tries came from Ross Jones and Craig Robertson in the first half, while winger Jack Blain added their only second-half points. The match swung one way then the other with the lead changing hands with almost every one of the tries scored, until things came to a head in the final 15 minutes.
Trailing by one point, Ayr’s players opted to kick to the corner and trust their driving maul, which didn’t let them down. With the help of a few burly backs, Ayr marched the ball over the Heriot’s line with Smith, off to the English Championship next season, the last man up. Frasier Climo’s touchline conversion gave Ayr that 29-23 lead but the remaining minutes were nervous ones for fans and players alike.
“That last 10-15 minutes when we scored in that corner, was very tense,” said Rowe. “When we got the penalty I was saying ‘kick it’ but it kind of worked out alright.”
Ayr had finished top of the regular season table, hence the home advantage, but had that added to the pressure to win on Saturday?
“I don’t think so,” replied Rowe. “We just prepped as we’d done for every game. We trained hard, Tuesdays/Thursdays, we came into the game believing we could win the final on our own turf and it was all the sweeter when we did.”
The Ayr flyer was up against another promising talent in Blain who had a quiet time of it, at least relatively speaking. At 6ft 3ins the Heriot’s man is a different body shape to his Ayr rival but both players appear to have the world at their feet right now.
You hope the pair of them are good buddies because they have it all to do again as the same two teams meet at the end of the month in the cup final at BT Murrayfield.