Rugby: Melrose knock Gala off top spot

GEORGE Graham was livid. He argued with referee Peter Allan, blasted assistant Bob Nevins on numerous occasions and gave his side a right royal roasting at the final whistle for their failure to convert what would have been a match-winning try in a stunning denouement to this RBS Premiership encounter at the Greenyards.
Melrose lock Ross Miller celebrates after the thrilling conclusion to the game against Gala in which his side clung on to win. Picture: Ian GeorgesonMelrose lock Ross Miller celebrates after the thrilling conclusion to the game against Gala in which his side clung on to win. Picture: Ian Georgeson
Melrose lock Ross Miller celebrates after the thrilling conclusion to the game against Gala in which his side clung on to win. Picture: Ian Georgeson

Melrose 26-23 Gala

Scorers: Melrose: Tries: Pearce, Runciman. Pens: Helps 4. Cons: Helps 2. Gala: Tries: Speirs, Sutherland. Pens: Scott 3. Cons: Scott 2.

And then he was calm and composed as he spoke to the media, putting aside his disappointment at slipping off top spot to agree with the consolatory suggestion that the crowd of between 1,500 and 2,000 had been hugely entertained in a way that the supporters of the Edinburgh professional team would die for right now.

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“Overall, I am disappointed,” said Graham, acknowledging that his side missed a chance to stretch their lead over an opponent who will strengthen when injured men Fraser Thomson, Calum Anderson and Andrew Nagle return.

“But we don’t want kicking contests because that doesn’t benefit players or attract people. I understand people saying that it’s not great watching the pro game at times, and I agree. But, as coaches, we don’t have the same pressures they do. At this level our job is to encourage players to learn the game and develop, and, for me and Scott [Nichol, backs coach], that means attacking with the ball and running from your own half.

“We want to win just the same every week and I’m disappointed for the boys because we could have won this one. They have to learn that, when they are there in the right area of the field in the late stages, they don’t need to panic and throw themselves at the try line. That’s our frustration but there was a great crowd here, some good rugby and definitely lots of effort and ambition.”

Melrose are playing with the same intent, and critics will point to turnovers and penalties conceded in their own half as reasons for booting the ball clear more often. But the errors were not born of misadventure, rather poor concentration and execution at key times. Keep the ambition is the message but improve the skills and focus.

From the first minute, the players matched the enticing sunny day, running ball from deep and looking for space. It was not always found.

The Melrose front row of Nicky Little, Nick Beavon and new Australian hooker Todd Pearce, along with Pete Eccles and No 8 Graeme Dodds, in particular, provided early leads but they were met head-on in crunching tackles by defenders.

Skipper Dodds and rejuvenated 39-year-old Tom Weir enjoyed a titanic battle, as did scrum-halves Bruce Colvine and George Graham, and it made for a see-saw opening spell. Four penalties shared by quality goal-kickers Joe Helps and Ewan Scott had the scores poised at 6-6 after the first quarter, and then the game took off.

New Melrose hooker Pearce, who just two weeks ago was facing Waratahs signing Tolu Latu in Australian club rugby’s Grand Final, made his mark with the game’s opening try in the 26th minute. Typical of the first half, Gala attacked with real conviction, but lacked a finish, and ’Rose responded, stretching their rivals with good phases of play and striking at their heart. Grant Runciman sniped under Opeta Palepoi and Pearce used his substantial frame to drive through bodies to score at the posts. Brain and brawn.

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Two more Helps penalties, and a miss by Gala full-back Graeme Speirs while Scott was receiving treatment, had Melrose 16-6 ahead at the break but, from the restart, Scott carved open the ’Rose back line with a scintillating run and, with almost ambidextrous ability, off-loaded to Speirs, who scored in the right-hand corner.

Scott’s fine conversion cut the home lead to 16-13, and the legions of Gala supporters dancing in the sun on the far bank sensed a comeback. Runciman’s try and another Helps conversion cut short the celebrations, but Scott pinged over another penalty, Runciman was yellow-carded for playing the ball on the ground and, with the Gala forwards driving ’Rose off scrums, prop Rory Sutherland touched down after a fine maul off a charged-down kick.

Scott’s conversion sent the game into injury-time at 23-23. Melrose won the ball, and attacked, it fell loose and Gala’s Euan Dods pounced – turnover. Samoan powerhouse Palepoi took it into contact on halfway, but Melrose swarmed, wrestling for the ball, and Palepoi held it tight on the floor – penalty.

Up stepped Helps in the 82nd minute, and the former local footballer bulleted it towards the posts. The Greenyards fell silent as it came down, just over the crossbar; the flags rose and the ground erupted.

But the final whistle did not sound. The flame-haired Dods charged off again and the Maroons attacked left and then right. Wing Grant Sommerville birled his way through tackles to within a metre of the line. Melrose launched bodies at the ruck and a Gala player who attempted to leap over it, and the ball was lost by the Maroons.

Allan’s final whistle was met by jumping Melrose players and Gala men collapsing, exhausted, to the ground. If club rugby maintains this level of attraction, the trend towards increasing crowds can only continue.

Melrose: A Lockington; D Hoyland, B Hutchison, J Helps, A Dodds; R Mill, B Colvine; N Little, T Pearce, N Beavon, J Head, R Miller, P Eccles, G Runciman, G Dodds. Subs (all played): R Ferguson, A Walker, R Ovens, D Crawford, A Skeen.

Gala: G Speirs; G Sommerville, C Auld, E Scott, G Young; A McLean, G Graham; R Sutherland, R Anderson, E McQuillin, O Palepoi, C Borthwick, G Graham, S Cairns, T Weir. Subs (all used): C Mackintosh, O Atkins, E Dods, G Mein, C Russell.

Referee: P Allan.