It was a tense encounter at Millbrae on Saturday afternoon as Ayr took on RBS Premiership leaders Gala to see if they could get back to the top of the table. The Borderers made the Millbrae men sweat in the freezing conditions, but Ayr showed patience and maturity to secure a vital win and send their faithful fans home happy.
The first quarter was all Gala, as they showed the home side that they were there for a victory. Ayr's infringments didn't help matters, and the referee blew his whistle numerous times. Gala never took a shot at goal, preferring the set piece, but this just played into Ayr's hands. Every time a maroon shirt was within a sniff of the try line, a pink and black one would appear to snuff out the danger, with Ayr's Dean Kelbrick, Grant Anderson, captain Calum Forrester and Denford Mutamangira being the biggest party poopers from Gala's perspective. The Maroons' head coach George Graham met this frustration with his usual calm and measured response.
Gala pressed on, however, and Ayr were rattled at times, with kicks for touch and line-out throws going awry. At fifteen minutes, Gala got their first try, after scrum-half George Graham craftily picked up from the back of Ayr's scrum and fed Euan Dods who went over for the score. Fly-half Lee Millar converted. 0-7.
If Ayr were shell-shocked, they didn't show it. Four minutes later, they replied with winger Craig Gossman scoring a fine try after a patient, sustained attack. Fly-half Finn Russell settled his nerves - and everyone else's - with a solid conversion. 7-7.
Once in Gala's half, Ayr intended to stay there and fight. Terrier-like scrum-half Peter Jericevich is so often the set-up man for Ayr, but he took a try for himself at twenty-two minutes after spotting a gap and nipping over the line. Russell just nudged the conversion wide. 12-7.
It looked like Gossman would be in for another score, after speedy hooker Hayden Wisnewski released him on the wing, but he was adjudged to have knocked-on before the ball could be grounded.
Gala put Ayr under pressure at the scrum and managed to get out of their own half and back up to Ayr's line. The home side put in another impressive defensive effort to thwart the visitors' ambitions, with Russell more than making up for his fluffed conversion with two huge tackles that surely saved Ayr's bacon.
Ayr's defence continued to impress at the start of the second half when Jericevich pulled off a stunning try-saving tackle just centimetres from the line. Things got even more tense, though, at fifty minutes, when Ayr second row Scott Sutherland found himself in the sin-bin for a professional foul.
Gala took advantage of the extra man, with captain Opeta Palepoi using his great footwork to get his team up the park and replacement prop Craig Borthwick displaying excellent hands. They didn't reckon with Ayr fan favourite Mutamangira, who put in a powerhouse performance all afternoon both in defence and attack. He was a perpertual thorn in Gala's side and his every charge was met with roars of approval from the packed stand and touchlines.
The numbers were evened up at fifty-five minutes, when flanker Gary Graham joined Sutherland in the bin. It was Ayr's turn to make for the line and be frustrated by some good defence. Young prop George Hunter, replacement scrum-half Murray McConnell, Mutamangira and Wisnewski all nearly burrowed over, but it was a returning Sutherland who grabbed Ayr's third try at sixty-six minutes. Again, Ayr showed real composure, as did Russell with his successful conversion attempt. 19-7.
Gala's left winger Craig Robertson and inside centre Alan Emond were looking increasingly dangerous with ball in hand in the final quarter, and Ayr seemed to be letting the nerves get to them with some silly mistakes.
With four minutes to go, Gala made their move, forcing their way over Ayr's line only to be held up by yet another superb display of defence. But the visitors would not give up, trundling their scrum over the line a minute later. Dods was again the try scorer. Millar converted. 19-14.
All of Millbrae held their breath for the final three minutes, but their players would not let their fans down. A forward pass from Gala proved the last act, with the referee sounding full-time to the delight of the team and supporters. Ayr now find themselves restored to the top of the RBS Premiership table after a tremendous performance.
- Elena Hogarth