BT Premiership Play-Off Final
by Elena Hogarth
CHAMPAGNE corks were popping at the Greenyards as Ayr were crowned BT Premiership champions on Saturday, a year after missing out on the title.
They held off a late rally from Melrose to win 12-8 in a tense match.
Melrose suffered the same fate as Ayr 12 months ago, going into the play-off final at home as table-toppers, only to lose out to the visitors.
The hosts were hot favourites after being in imperious form all season, but they seemed to suffer from stage fright for the first 65 minutes.
Both teams looked nervous, with try-scoring opportunities going begging throughout the match.
Ayr were led by outstanding captain Pete McCallum, who was man of the match after a commanding performance in attack and defence. That he didn’t reach the try-line was surprising as he made several galloping bursts through the Melrose defence.
Teenage centre Stafford McDowall was also superb in attack, mowing down the opposition at will. He started in place of the suspended Ross Curle and looked comfortable and in control.
With strong defence and a few nervous handling errors meaning no tries, it was down to penalties in the first half, and up stepped the irrepressible Frazier Climo. A live wire off the field, he was all focus and concentration on the pitch as he kicked three penalties in strong winds. His opposite number, Jason Baggott, kicked one.
Climo added another after half-time to stretch Ayr’s lead to 12-3. But of course Melrose were going to mount a comeback.
Full-back Fraser Thomson, one of Melrose’s outstanding players of the past 10 years and a star of the club game, single-handedly woke his team up with superb kicks for touch, chip-and-chases to the try-line and breaks up the wing.
Home captain Grant Runciman sprang into action too, charging down a Climo clearance, but the New Zealander got to the ball before the big Melrose skipper.
It was only a matter of time before Melrose broke through and it was second row Ruaridh Knott who threw himself over the line. Baggott missed the wide-angled conversion. Had he made it and not fluffed an earlier penalty, Melrose would have been in the lead.
The last 10 minutes were torture for Ayr fans as the men in pink and black gave away a string of penalties to let Melrose pressure their line with a series of sturdy set-pieces. Melrose got over twice only to be held up.
It looked like there could be a win for the home team at the death as McCallum was yellow-carded for collapsing the maul, but a magic moment at the resulting penalty line-out saved the day for Ayr.
Then 32-year-old Scott Sutherland, Ayr’s made-of-granite second row, showed just why he has been such a force for the past decade. Reading Melrose’s throw-in, his forwards hoisted him in the air, his own momentum thrusting him in front of the jumper, and he used his big right paw to swipe away the ball.
Prop George Hunter, who put on yet another energetic and skilled performance with front row colleagues Steven Longwell and Lewis Anderson, guarded the ball like a mother hen until it was safely fired into the hands of Climo and he kicked it off the pitch to bring the game to an end.
Ayr head coach Calum Forrester was happy yet stunned, as so many of the travelling fans were. This was not the match anyone had been expecting.
“I’m just delighted,” an exhausted-looking Forrester said. “I really just want to thank the players and the coaches for their efforts all season. It’s great to win down here but we now have to turn our attention to Murrayfield.”
Ayr meet Melrose once again on Saturday at the home of Scottish Rugby in the BT Cup final, kicking off at 3.30pm. Melrose will have revenge on their minds, whilst Ayr will be eyeing up a double.
Tickets for the match, as well breakfast at Millbrae and bus travel to and from Edinburgh, are now on sale at the clubhouse after 5pm, or WG McHarg, 5 Miller Road, Ayr, and Café Ginger, Fort Street, Ayr, during business hours.