Melrose showcases its appeal

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MELROSE savoured one of its most exciting finals in some time at the Greenyards on Saturday, and it was made possible by the return of some Scottish sevens class.

Stellenbosch University from South Africa claimed a second successive title, the first team to do so since Melrose in 1997 and 1998, but only after overcoming a passionate Melrose display which had the hosts leading 24-0 at one stage in the final, and the Greenyards crowd in raptures.

It was this kind of atmosphere and high level of entertainment which has pushed the small Borders town into the thinking of the International Rugby Board, and Bill Nolan, the SRU’s member on the IRB, admitted that there was growing support for an IRB World Sevens Series tournament being hosted by Melrose in two or three years.

Nolan was at the Greenyards on behalf of the IRB, not the SRU, to liaise with Melrose officials and others involved in the feasibility study. He said: "When I mentioned it originally to the IRB they said ‘brilliant - take it back to where it started’.

"That’s the trump card, the fact it is Melrose, but this is something that would be great for the whole of the Borders and Scottish rugby. There is a feasibility study being carried out which is expected to report back in about six weeks but there have been informal talks with people in the IRB into staging an IRB sevens tournament on top of the Melrose Sevens.

"We’ve talked about a temporary stadium to hold up to 25,000 people, but that’s certainly not impossible here.

"Melrose have a head start on places like Dubai because they already have a stand, good facilities and the proven ability to host a big sevens event whereas Dubai is a desert most of the year and have a stadium built up for the duration of the sevens and then taken down again."

Nolan admitted much hinged on the feasibility study, news of which was first revealed in The Scotsman last month, as well as the International Olympic Committee’s decision in July on whether or not to allow rugby sevens to enter the Games. "We would need some flexibility over things like the timing - the Northern Hemisphere tournaments are in May and June - but I don’t think flexibility is a problem at Melrose."

While all the players involved on Saturday deserve plaudits - particularly Langholm, who ended a lengthy barren spell without a win by beating Biggar and Aberdeen GSFP before meeting Stellenbosch - the club had its own stars to thank for a pulsating finish.

Inspired by two forwards, Graeme Dodds and Jamie Murray, who seriously enhanced their hopes of securing professional contracts with the Borders thanks to excellent displays, the sight of Melrose players in tears at the end underlined their commitment.

"We all feel we may never get the chance again," said Scott Ruthven, the skipper, "and I can’t help feel that it wasn’t Stellenbosch winning it so much as us throwing it away." That was harsh, as having played one extra tie and beaten Newcastle and the impressive Scottish Thistles with last-gasp tries from David Whiteford, Melrose did more than was expected of them. They starved the South Africans of possession in the first half and rattled up a 24-0 lead in the final with tries from Mark Robertson (2), Jamie Murray, the centre, and his namesake.

A couple of mistakes at restart time, though, gave Stellenbosch the ball and their terrific pace did the rest as Ernie Kruger, Henoe Stoffberg, Dwain Brown (2), Thinus du Plessis and Rohan Steyl all touched down to complete a stunning comeback and claim a 38-24 win.

The tournament was memorable for another couple of reasons, Scottish rugby’s great entertainer Adam Roxburgh retiring after his valiant Kelso side succumbed to the Scottish Thistles in the quarter-finals, and Stuart Henderson, the Melrose secretary who died suddenly last year, being honoured by the Scottish Rugby Press in having the famous press box named in his honour.

Melrose: A Clark, J Murray, G Dodds, S Ruthven, K Kaufana, J Murray, M Robertson, S Shiel, D Whiteford.

Stellenbosch University: D Brown, G Pangeti, M Newman, T du Plessis, G Aplon, G Gant, E Kruger, H Stoffberg, Q Kruger, R Steyl.

Results: First round: Hawick 22 Kelso 28, Heriot’s 5 Melrose 21, Langholm 7 Biggar 5, Watsonians 33 Boroughmuir 0. Second round: Gala 10 Kelso 24, Selkirk 12 Scottish Thistles 26, Currie 14 Melrose 29, Jed-Forest 5 Newcastle 31, Aberdeen GSFP 14 Langholm 22, Ayr 5 Stellenbosch University 33, Peebles 0 Watsonians 33, Glasgow Hawks 7 Ponsonby 24. Quarter-finals: Kelso 10 Scottish Thistles 22, Melrose 19 Newcastle 17, Langholm 0 Stellenbosch University 36, Watsonians 14 Ponsonby 19. Semi-finals: Scottish Thistles 12 Melrose 17 (aet), Stellenbosch University 21 Ponsonby 12. Final: Melrose 24 Stellenbosch University 38.

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