Ayr overcame wind, rain, a lacklustre first half and RBS Premiership leaders Melrose to kill several birds with one stone at the Greenyards on Saturday afternoon.
It wasn't all about inflicting revenge after Melrose beat Ayr at Millbrae at the start of the season. The visitors needed a win to push themselves up the table and a bonus point would have been very welcome, which was exactly what they got as they ran in four good tries. There was also the added incentive of reclaiming the Bill McLaren Shield.
It didn't look like the day for running rugby as the rain poured endlessly before kick-off, but it eased off as the teams took to the pitch. Melrose set their stall out early, with a break from winger Austin Lockington. But it was Ayr who were first on the scoreboard, as the forwards and backs combined to move the ball side-to-side until it eventually found the hands of scrum-half Murray McConnell, who went over in the corner at five minutes. Stand-off Ross Curle couldn't manage the conversion from out wide. 0-5.
However, it was a false dawn. Although Ayr's line-out was working well with second rows Peter McCallum and Scott Sutherland both deftly taking the throw-ins from hooker Fergus Scott, the scrum was under constant pressure from Melrose and they really began to bully Ayr all over the field.
The home side was itching to even up the scores and showed great patience until seventeen minutes, when hooker Todd Pearce pushed over for a try. Inside centre Joe Helps converted. 7-5.
Both teams were pinged for off-side at various stages and Ayr were also penalised for holding on when they had worked hard to regain possession. However, Helps missed his two penalty kicks at goal, the second hitting the post and going straight into the arms of Ayr's inside centre Dean Kelbrick, only for him to knock-on.
The resulting scrum saw Melrose fire the ball out to Lockington, who took off and looked to be heading for a try when Ayr's winger Craig Gossman put in a heroic tackle to pull his bigger opposite number into touch.
Things took a turn for the worse Ayr at thirty-three minutes when Sutherland was sin-binned for a professional foul and a minute later, Melrose took a scrum on Ayr's five-metre line and number eight Andrew Nagle squirmed his way over for a try. Helps converted. 14-5.
Ayr lost Gossman to a neck injury, but his replacement Richard Dalgleish put in some big hits of his own alongside hooker Scott to snuff out Melrose's pacey backs. Number eight Callum Templeton made a good break and Ayr did well to pile on the pressure with just fourteen men, but it was all for nothing as the whistle came for half-time.
The opening exchanges of the second half were a bit shaky from both sides and it looked like Melrose were going to be the more composed and continue to dominate. But the men in black and yellow should have known from the RBS Cup final in April that the men in pink and black like to see out the game till the bitter end.
Ayr upped the tempo with some brilliant poaching from outside centre Robbie Fergusson and determined running from flankers Andrew Dunlop and James Eddie and winger Kerr Gossman.
They worked their way into Melrose's half and despite the ball bobbling about all over the place with the rain back on, Ayr controlled it for long enough to score at fifty-two minutes. Full back and captain Grant Anderson pounced as the ball went loose and dotted it down. Curle struck the wide conversion perfectly. 14-12.
Melrose tried to release their backs but got nowhere. Ayr were in the mood to show just why they are one of the most entertaining teams to watch. They held firm at a scrum in their own twenty-two with replacement flanker Graham Fisken quickly getting his hands on the ball and galloping off through Melrose's defenders before off-loading well to Eddie who sprinted in under the posts for an excellent try. Curle converted. 14-19.
Melrose narrowed the gap a few minutes later when Curle was adjudged to have deliberately knocked-on when going for an interception and Helps kicked a penalty. 17-19.
The visitors could have got a tad nervy but Anderson steadied the ship with a perfect kick for touch and props Nick Cox and Denford Mutamangira barrelled themselves about with gusto. Ayr camped out on Melrose's five-metre line with the ball making its way through the forwards, but Mutamangira dropped it before he could get over for a try.
Curle provided some daylight between the two sides with a nicely struck penalty at seventy minutes. 17-22.
Melrose were coming back, as expected, with terrific breaks from full back Fraser Thomson and stand-off Richard Mill, but Kelbrick and Eddie's combined defensive efforts meant they couldn't get out of their own half.
Curle had been in fine form in the second half and it was fitting that he should have flown over the line for Ayr's fourth try which secured the bonus point. It was another blink-and-you'll-miss-it effort from Curle, who manoeuvred his way there after smooth handling from Kelbrick. Unfortunately, the conversion was at too wide an angle for him. 17-27.
Time was running out for Melrose to comeback, but they were going to give it a go, getting within metres of Ayr's try-line only for the visitors to turn it over. They regained possession with a turn-over of their own, but a huge tackle from Dunlop drove them back and they soon found themselves back in their half with nowhere to go, replacement back Tom Wilson mistakenly booting the ball off the field to give Ayr a well-earned victory and the Bill McLaren Shield.
Final score: Melrose 17 Ayr 27.
- Elena Hogarth.