Melrose 16 - 13 Ayr: Borderers win ugly to clinch title

Melrose captain Grant Runciman kisses the BT Premiership trophy following his side's victory over Ayr. Picture: SNS/SRU
Melrose captain Grant Runciman kisses the BT Premiership trophy following his side's victory over Ayr. Picture: SNS/SRU
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Melrose were crowned BT Premiership champions after a hard-earned but well-crafted victory in the play-off final that keeps them on track for the league and cup double.

Ayr came close to doing what they did last year when they snatched the title at the same ground but Melrose, finishing top of the table for the second season running, had learned from that experience and had a game plan ready to prevent it happening again.

So the Borderers edged ahead in the second half and from that point on contained and frustrated the west coast team, with stand-off Jason Baggott and inside centre Craig Jackson pumping the ball into the corner at every opportunity.

It was ugly rugby most of the time, a brutal encounter on a heavy pitch with a greasy ball, but there was a logic to Melrose’s approach that meant, by the end, the narrow gap on the scoreboard was hardly a 
fair reflection of the final 
outcome.

Melrose coach Rob Chrystie, pictured, said: “We learned a lot from last year on how to manage a game against Ayr. We’ve been quietly going about our business behind closed doors in relation to our scrum because clearly that is where Ayr get a lot of purchase in terms of penalties and squeezing into the corner. So we knew that was going to be a crucial part of the game and we’ve got a pretty dominant front-row as well in Nick Beavon, Russell Anderson and Grant Shiells. We’re a team that wants to play, everybody knows that, and, at times in the first half, you saw that when we had two really good counter-attacks and probably should have scored, but once we got into the lead, we managed the game excellently.”

Ayr coach Calum Forrester, stepping down after four seasons in charge, was disappointed but magnanimous.

“Melrose played a pretty text-book second half,” he said.

“They perhaps tried to play a little bit too much in the first half but their half-backs pinned us back in that bottom right-hand corner for the entire second half and made it very difficult for us to get out. I hate to go back to it, but our old issues with discipline killed us again in stupid areas of the pitch. It makes life so difficult if you are giving away cheap penalties on halfway which lead to getting pinned back in your own 22.”

Ayr opened the scoring after a cagey few minutes of sizing each other up, stand-off Scott Lyle knocking over a simple penalty from inside the
22. Melrose replied with a 30-metre three-pointer by Jackson, who only missed one place kick all afternoon.

Then Melrose winger Ross McCann found some space on the left but his inside pass to Austin Lockington went to ground when he had the line at his mercy.

Ayr made no such mistake when scrum-half David Armstrong picked up at the rear of a scrum to give it to inside centre Stafford McDowall who made the break and the simple pass that allowed Glasgow pro winger Rory Hughes to run in unopposed.

Lyle converted and then added a 40-metre penalty to stretch it further. The visitors didn’t know it then but that would be the last point put on the board for the pink and black.

Melrose wasted another try chance after full-back Fraser Thomson broke up the left touchline before seeing his inside pass fumbled by flanker Grant Runciman.

On the stroke of half-time Ayr loosehead Robin Hislop was sin-binned when a fourth scrum went down. Jackson kicked the penalty to keep 
Melrose within striking 
distance.

Soon after the restart, Melrose got the try they needed to get back in front when flanker Grant Runciman crashed over and Jackson converted. Melrose began hitting the corners and were confident in their tactical control of play to keep virtually the same team on the park for the full 80 minutes, the only change they made being Scotland hooker Ross Ford for Russell Anderson.

Tempers flared with Ayr’s frustration as the tiring packs collided repeatedly in the loose but Melrose doggedly stuck to their plan and kept Ayr on a tight leash as they closed out the game.