The big win demanded to restore some pride in Scottish rugby was delivered at Hughenden yesterday.
The Reds fought against early nerves and a committed Cross Keys side to score seven well-taken tries in a performance which provided glimpses of their genuine threat in attack. The last of those scores, the third of a superb Roly Reid hat-trick, in injury time, ensured a 50-pointer which will boost the side’s confidence for the visit to high-flying Bridgend tomorrow.
Yet, coach Richie Dixon knows this was an expected win, against a team tipped for the drop, and one which featured enough slack play to offer hope to future opposition.
Dixon said afterwards: "It is very pleasing to get a win, but yes I am disappointed at how we played, and the mistakes made at the start of both halves.
"We have to develop the belief and control that keeps you going at a high level when you get there. Cross Keys were stuffy and made it difficult, but there are a few elements to our game that need to be sorted out."
Starting the game without scrum-half Graeme Beveridge, Chris Black made an extremely good debut considering he played 80 minutes for Watsonians against Gala on Saturday.
However, when Craig Chalmers was carried off in only the 18th minute, the fly-half having been knocked unconscious when he tried to tackle Keys full-back Chad Bushell, it took the Reds’ injury toll to 15, a worrying statistic for Dixon.
"We need to use a squad system with so many games," he said, "but we're rapidly going through them. I took players off to try and save them, but I realise that we probably would have gone on to score a lot more if I hadn’t done that. But I’m afraid it’s vital we keep players fit at the moment."
Chalmers was later diagnosed with concussion, which will keep him out for at least three weeks, but the display of his replacement, Tommy Hayes, suggests he would struggle to retain his place for the next match in any case. Hayes varied his game well and showed the urgency which was dearly lacking in the opening exchanges.
After an opening penalty from Chalmers in the sixth minute, the Welsh showed just how tough they could make it five minutes later. Jamie Webb, a small, but lively fly-half in the mould of Arwel Thomas, weaved into the home 22 and when caught and finally held, released his skipper, flanker Arthur Howarth, who burst over the Reds’ line for the game’s first try. Webb converted.
Penalties from Chalmers and Mark McKenzie put the Reds’ noses in front before a three-try burst in the last ten minutes of the half put the hosts firmly in the driving seat. Prop David Hilton sparked the rapid scoring, Gordon McIlwham driving towards the Keys line and Hilton taking the ball on to dive over. Lock Steve Griffiths scored the second, from a similar period of pressure close to the Welsh line, and McKenzie then took the scoring to 28-7 with a well-worked try, created by the strong running of the Reds’ key men, Alan Bulloch and Jon Stuart.
The second half could have started as the first ended, had a pass from Gordon Bulloch to Hayes not been fractionally forward. But instead the Reds lost their way with basic errors that disrupted the burgeoning confidence of the first period.
Only after the visitors had introduced four subs 15 minutes into the half did we see the Reds again sparkle. Alan Bulloch, making his return to action after injury, capped a fine display by outpacing the Keys back line on a sprint down the left touchline and Reid followed three minutes later, supporting Hayes on a break down the right before taking the pass and confidently shaking off the attentions of two defenders to sprint in. McKenzie converted for a 40-7, match-securing scoreline.
A minute after Dixon had introduced four Reds subs, Cross Keys grabbed their second score when prop Glen Stroud barged over after a good break up the middle from Howarth. But Reid responded for the Reds with his second try.
As Glasgow Caley took the foot off the pedal, Cross Keys earned reward for their gutsy, never-say-die approach with a penalty try and easy stroll-in through the midfield by lock Keith Stewart, both converted by Webb.
Reid added the required gloss, bringing up the half-century with his third try deep into injury-time. A good win the Reds can reflect on, but with the two supposedly weaker teams played, it is now time to lift the tempo.
Scorers: Glasgow Caledonians: Tries - D Hilton, S Griffiths, M McKenzie, A Bulloch, R Reid (3). Pens - C Chalmers (2), McKenzie. Cons - McKenzie (4).
Cross Keys: Tries - A Howarth, G Stroud, penalty try, K Stewart. Cons: J Webb (4).
Glasgow Caledonians: M McKenzie; J Steel, A Bulloch, J Stuart, J Craig; C Chalmers, C Black; D Hilton, G Bulloch (capt), G McIlwham, S Griffiths, J White, R Reid, G Simpson, J Petrie. Subs: T Hayes for Chalmers 18mins, R Shepherd for Hayes 71mins, G Young for Black 71mins, A Watt for Hilton, 66mins, G Scott for Bulloch 61mins, D Burns for White 61mins, G Flockhart for Simpson 61mins.
Cross Keys: C Bushell; S Craig, G Bowen, M McCarthy, S Reed; J Webb, C Ellis; G Stroud, L Gardner, M Jones, D Davis, N Kelly, R Williams, A Howarth (capt), P Watkins. Subs: A Price for McCarthy 66mins, T Walsh for Ellis 56mins, G Hicks for Gardner 53mins, I Evans for Jones 53mins, K Stewart for Kelly 53mins, A Gibbs for Williams 53mins, W Thomas for Watkins, 66mins.
Referee: A Ireland (Grangemouth).