Whatever else might have been missing from Murrayfield, there was no shortage of drama at a nail-biting RBS Cup final.
Scorers: Melrose: Tries: Thomson. Con: Skeen. Pens: Helps (5), Mill. Ayr: Tries: Dalgleish, Cox (2), Taylor. Con: Curle. Pens: Jericevich (2).
With the scores tried at 18-18 Ross Curle had a tricky penalty kick on 79 minutes to steal the honours for Ayr. He pushed the kick just narrowly wide of the right post and ten minutes of extra time were prescribed for both sides.
Nick Cox is an ordained Baptist minister and when the replacement prop scored his second try of the afternoon two minutes into extra time it seemed to suggest divine intervention but Ayr’s supporters were still celebrating that score when Melrose’s Fraser Thomson fought back. The fullback scored his side’s first try of the afternoon after 84 minutes of rugby following a kick and chase, beating his opposite number to the ball in goal.
Andrew Skeen kicked the extras and at 25-23 Melrose had a narrow two-point lead that they held on to with dogged determination until fully three minutes beyond the end of the allotted 20 minutes of extra time, when winger Cameron Taylor dived over in the left corner after collecting a pass from Robbie Fergusson that looked like it had drifted forward. He had been on the field for a matter of minutes.
The referee conferred with his touch judge for a few agonising moments before raising his hand to signal the winning try to Ayr. Kenny Murray’s side have done the league and cup double, which hasn’t happened since Hawks managed the same feat in 2004.
The agony and the ecstasy of sport were writ large on the faces of the players on the field and if Melrose felt robbed of a famous win, the 4-1 try count argues otherwise.
“We deliberately didn’t even speak about the doing the double in the lead-up to this match,” said relieved Ayr coach Murray after the event. “It was just as I had expected, a really tight match. It was hard for us and it must have been very hard for them to lose it in the final few moments like that. We were not at our best today.”
If there was little to choose between the two sides on the score board, the same was true on the field. Ayr had the more muscular forward pack but Melrose won the battle of the breakdown and the penalty count which kept them in the match. It took a flawless kicking display from Andrew Skeen, Richard Mill and especially centre Joe Helps, who landed five penalties throughout the course of the afternoon, to keep ’Rose in the hunt.
Thomson looked the most threatening player on the field although his nearest rival, Ayr’s Ferguson, was not far behind him. Cox also deserves an honourable mention because the burly prop came off the bench to score two tries, turn Ayr’s fortunes around and earn the man of the match award. “I was just desperate to get on,” he confessed afterwards. “I can’t retire after a day like that. We’ve got the double to defend!”
The twin kickers Peter Jericevich and Helps shared five penalties in the opening half hour but it was Ayr who landed the first telling blow after Melrose suffered a self-inflicted injury.
The Melrose player/coach John Dalziel was maybe fortunate to see no worse than a yellow card after landing a very decent punch on the jaw of Ayr hooker Hayden Wisnewski.
While he was off the pitch Ayr’s Ferguson made a classy break in the midfield and a couple of plays later winger Richard Dalgleish enjoyed a free run to the right-hand corner.
Melrose brought plenty of energy to the early exchanges in the second half and they eventually got some reward for their efforts when, following a sublime break by stand-off Mill that Craig Chalmers himself would have been proud to own, Helps knocked over his fourth penalty in the 44th minute to give Melrose the lead for the first time.
Four minutes later that lead was extended further as Helps claimed another three after some indiscipline from Scott Sutherland at the breakdown for which the Ayr lock took an involuntary ten-minute rest on the sidelines.
Ayr’s driving maul was getting nowhere very fast so they changed tactic and played one-out rugby, relentlessly and with some success.
As they got closer to the line Murray’s men showed great patience with a long series of pick and drives that eventually saw Cox barrel over the Melrose line on 64 minutes – that must be what they mean by muscular Christianity?
That score, combined with the clock, which was now acting against them, brought a furious reaction from Melrose who threw the kitchen sink at Ayr in the final 15 minutes.
Thomson thought he was through, Andy Nagle lost his rag, Skeen was called off the bench and, with Helps off the field, Mill stepped up to kick a penalty to tie the scores at 18-18 with less than five minutes left on the clock, which is just when this final burst into life.
Melrose: Thompson; Anderson, Dick, Helps, Dodds; Mill, Colvine; Little, Mitchell, Holburn, Dodds, Eccles, Dalziel, Runciman, Nagle. Subs from: Ferguson, Lowe, Miller, Ovens, McCormick, Letham, Skeen.
Ayr: Anderson; Dalgleish, Fergusson, Kelbrick, Gossman; Curle, Jericevich; Mutamangira, Wisnewski, Hunter, White, Sutherland, Doneghan, Dunlop, Forrester. Subs from: Fenwick, Cox, Rae, McCallum, Fisken, Taylor, McConnell.
Referee: Lloyd Linton. Attendance: 7,367.