Melrose finished off a near-perfect Premiership season with a scrappy, hard-earned victory over defending champions Ayr in the play-off final.
The outcome was a reversal of last year’s final when Ayr snatched the honours despite Melrose earning top spot in the league.
This year Melrose were once more top of the table, 12 points ahead of third-placed Ayr, but made no mistake in the winner-takes-all match to ensure the title stayed in the Borders, with the prospect of adding the BT Cup to complete the double later this month.
Melrose coach Rob Chrystie said: “We learned a lot from last year on how to manage a game against Ayr. We are a team that wants to play, everybody knows that, but we can also do what it necessary and in the conditions we did just that.”
Ayr coach Calum Forrester said: “Melrose played a textbook second half by pinning us down in the far corner and making it too difficult for us to break out.”
Ayr kicked off without two of their most influential players, captain Pete McCallum and Kiwi stand-off Frazier Climo, while Melrose were at full strength and had Scotland centurion hooker Ross Ford among replacements on the bench.
But it was Ayr who 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 after Melrose were done for not releasing at a ruck.
The psychological battle was raging alongside the physical one. Melrose won a penalty from the first set-piece scrum and celebrated as if it was a try. Ayr countered with the same kind of reaction when openside flanker George Stokes took man and ball in a crunching tackle in the loose.
But then Stokes got caught on the wrong side of a ruck and Melrose centre Craig Jackson kicked the penalty from 30 metres out to equalise.
Melrose winger Ross McCann found some space on the left and burst through a couple of flailing tackles but his inside pass to Austin Lockington went to ground. Melrose won a penalty from the scrum and Jackson kicked the points to go ahead.
Ayr made better use of the next set-piece when scrum-half David Armstrong flicked it to inside centre Stafford McDowall who made the break and the simple pass that allowed Glasgow pro Rory Hughes to run in unopposed for the try that regained the lead. Lyle converted and then added a 40-metre penalty to stretch it further.
Ayr loosehead Robin Hislop, who had already been warned, was sin-binned when a fourth scrum went down and the referee lost patience. Jackson kicked the penalty to make the score 9-13 at halftime.
From the restart another scrum, despite Ayr’s reorganisation, yielded yet another penalty for Melrose but this time Jackson missed.
A kick for the corner created a five metre lineout but Melrose made a hash of it before recovering and sending the ball across the pitch, the final pass coming from stand-off Jason Baggott to Runciman who crashed over for the try. Jackson, later named man of the match, converted.
Tempers flared with contact at the restart but it was Ayr who were penalised and Melrose who seemed to be getting a grip on the game.
It wasn’t easy though, and Ayr were resolute in defence and determined to disrupt Melrose at every opportunity. The next that came along was a lineout and rolling maul inside the Melrose 22 that eventually petered out with little damage done except an untidy stramash among the players as the whistle went.
Melrose bided their time and intelligent kicking gained valuable territory until lock James Head nicked the ball at a lineout and set up a passing sequence that ended in a knock-on a few metres short of the line, allowing Ayr to clear.
Melrose came straight back, Head stealing another lineout ball and Baggott putting it deep into the Ayr 22. It still didn’t translate into points and Ayr looked far from a beaten side as they battled their way down the pitch only to be pushed back again.
As time ran out Melrose concentrated on keeping possession. A maul rolled inside the Ayr 22 and Melrose set up another lineout to soak up the last few minutes and a hard-fought win.