TWO teams at opposite ends of the table, both desperate for the points: Gala to help clinch the title, County to stave off the all-too-real threat of relegation.
Scorers: Stirling County: Try: Barsanti. Con: Archibald. Gala: Try: Dods. Pens: O’Hagan 2.
It was an awful game of rugby, punctuated by a series of fights, but weirdly fascinating in a gruesome sort of way if only because the outcome was uncertain right to the final whistle.
With Melrose earning a bonus point at Aberdeen, the championship is still alive, with Gala taking a two-point advantage into the final round of matches. Melrose must face a resurgent Currie at the Greenyards, but any win for Gala over Ayr at Netherdale will give them their first championship since 1983. Little wonder there were a few nerves on show yesterday.
The Borderers triumphed, but they took their own sweet time. Not until the 56th minute of this match did George Graham’s maroon machine edge their noses in front and even then they did not so much sprint as stagger across the finish line.
The set scrum is still one of the foundations of the game and it proved Gala’s get-out-of-jail card yesterday. They bossed the bump and grind department, relentlessly winning penalties almost at will. Since nothing much else was working for them you can hardly blame them for returning to the one aspect of their game that functioned as it should.
County defended heroically for much of this match, but only at the expense of wearing themselves out and wearing out the patience of the referee. Three times Graeme Wells reached in his pocket for a yellow card and three times it was a County player that was trudging to the sidelines. At one point in this match the home side were reduced to just 13 players, but Gala fluffed a lineout throw, not for the first time, and Stirling were back to 14 without any further damage.
The home side were under the cosh for the vast majority of this match but they took an unexpected lead 18 minutes into the game and held on for far longer than they should have.
The home side stole a Gala lineout on a rare sortie into Gala territory. Centre Fraser Lyle straightened and No.8 Benji Barsanti, a pillar of defiance all afternoon, emerged from the middle of the maul and charged over the line, brushing off a couple of tackles on his way.
Gala huffed and puffed but a combination of sloppy play, nerves and a determined defence meant that almost nothing went right for them. County proved adept at slowing the visitors’ ball, by fair means or foul, and Gala struggled to generate any momentum. Even in the second half, when blindside winger Graeme Speirs made a clean break through the No.10 channel, the flying winger didn’t back himself and go for the line when he looked certain to score.
Instead, Gala inevitably scored their solitary try straight from a five-metre set scrum which they marched over the County line for No.8 Ewan Dods to score. David O’Hagan hit the post with his conversion attempt but the stand-off made amends with two quick-fire penalties on 56 and 65 minutes to give Gala a modest lead and then extend it.
County were finally restored to 15 men with eight minutes left on the clock and they rolled up their sleeves and went to work. They earned themselves an attacking position on the Gala 22 but it was all to no avail. A squint lineout throw gave the visitors the feed at a set scrum and the referee could have saved the forwards the trouble of actually packing down, because the penalty was inevitable and, sure enough, Gala were again able to clear their lines.
The league won’t be decided until the final round of matches which won’t take place until 22 March. The premier clubs need to knock some heads together and give some structure to the domestic season.
Stirling County: Archibald, Addison, Gilmour, Lyle, Lamb; Edwards, McFarlane, Bhatti, Moffat, Mountford, Larsen, Deacons, Robertson, Bordill, Barsanti. Subs: Dineen, McDonald, Graham, Lindsay, Dewer.
Gala: McLean, Somerville, Auld, Edmond, Sibanda; O’Hagan, George Graham; Sutherland, McIntosh, McQuillan, Borthwick, Weir, Gary Graham, Cairns, Dods. Subs: Bertram, Marshall, Chapman, Speirs, Mein.
Referee: Graeme Wells.