THE swirling autumnal winds were not the only things to buffet The Greenyards yesterday afternoon, as Melrose fought an unconvincing battle to dominate Stirling County.
There were boots, fists and head-butts, too. A dirty undercurrent polluted the afternoon’s play with sly blows being exchanged off the ball. And if it was a bad game for the players, it was an unmitigated nightmare for the referee, Martin Valentine, during his debut at the Melrose ground. By late in the second half, his complete lack of control guaranteed that the game degenerated into a disgraceful slug-fest, culminating in County’s Craig Deacons screaming obscenities at the referee’s decision to award a penalty to Melrose. Thankfully, Valentine had the good sense to blow his final whistle almost immediately, just shy of time, to avoid further embarrassment.
In 30 years’ involvement with the game, I have scarcely witnessed such a stramash, and the silence of the crowd at the end reflected this. One feared a bloodbath rather than a post-match shower, and it was a sensible decision by the County team to stay on the park after the whistle, and cool off.
But that is not to say that it was an altogether bad afternoon. Victory means that Melrose’s championship hopes are still alive after two successive defeats, and there were some fine moments of play. The first half - which lasted nearly 50 minutes - saw Stirling County play the best rugby, with flanker Andrew Hogg bursting over for a try in the first few minutes. The failure to convert by Craig Sangster was a taste of things to come. The centre missed everything except for two easy penalties.
The visitors soon put the score up to 10 - 0 after a brilliant handling movement starting just above their own 22, led to County scoring after and long, jinking run by scrum-half Ally Blues. Winger Geoff Caldwell opened the scoring for Melrose, after full-back Jamie Blackwood hoisted a high ball, which he picked up and touched down with ease.
The half-time score of 15-10 flattered Melrose, despite Weir’s impressive burst through the County backs to score on the 40th minute. Just before the whistle, County second-row Malcolm Norval was sent to the sin-bin. As this was happening, a prize-fight was being fought in the touchline mud between Caldwell and his opposite number, Rob Lewis. If Norval, who was the cause of much of the niggle between the two sides, had been sent off earlier in the game, perhaps a cleaner match would have been enjoyed by all. He was one of three County players to be sin-binned.
There was some fine play from the Melrose back row, with Tom Weir making some penetrating and assured incursions through the enemy line. John Dalziel was also a robust physical presence - something that has been lacking in the Melrose team this season, while the speed and (patchy) handling skills of Alex Clark added beef to the Melrose backs.
Clark’s lurking presence in the three-quarter line led to the best try of the afternoon, when he made all the running before switching the ball to Callum Macrae, who blistered over the line to make it 27 - 10 after 50 minutes.
One of the most assured afternoons was enjoyed by Stirling’s Murray Fraser, who was the replacement for David Frame at full-back. The porky little firecracker wrong-footed Melrose’s Caldwell on at least two occasions, burst through the opposition backs on several others, proving as illusive as he was strong.
It is sad that some fine rugby will be forgotten amid the flurries of stupidity, and Stirling’s doughty performance yesterday afternoon certainly belied their low status in the championship.
Melrose: Blackwood; Caldwell, Macrae, B Ruthven, Rutherford; S Ruthven, Sheil; Cornwall (capt), Mitchell, Fraser, Henderson, Aitken, Dalziel, Clark, Weir
Stirling County: Fraser; Harris, McAllister, Sangster, Lewis; Parlane, Blues; Reid, Moffat, Blackburn, Norval, Kellock, Deacons, Hogg, Wylie
Referee: Martin Valentine (Stewarty)