Ayr saw a place in the BT Premiership play-off final slip from their fingers as Melrose took their revenge and claim the win by just two points.
It started well for the home team, with returning outside centre Ross Curle kicking an early penalty, roared on by the packed stand and touchlines. 3-0.
Ayr had the impetus in attack but they were pinged for holding on and Melrose took the line-out. Openside flanker Will Bordill, hooker Dougie Hall, second row Rob McAlpine and prop D'arcy Rae put in some thumping tackles but the visitors evened things up with a penalty by Joe Helps. 3-3.
Blindside flanker Andrew Dunlop soared in the line-out for Ayr and winger Robbie Fergusson was soon flying into Melrose's twenty-two. His neat little kick was pounced on by the opposition before he could get to it, but it was knocked on.
Number eight Blair Macpherson picked up from the back of the ensuing scrum and resisted Melrose's defenders to get the ball away. Scrum-half David Armstrong fired it on to Bordill, who spotted a gap but couldn't quite get through it. Prop George Hunter was stopped short of the line before quick hands got the ball to winger Cammy Taylor who dived over in the corner for the try. Curle missed the wide conversion. 8-3.
Bordill had a busy afternoon and he received the appreciation of the crowd for a strong tackle that drove Melrose's attacker back several metres. The visitors seemed a bit rattled, missing a kick for the corner moments later. They regained possession, however, and looked intent on working their way to Ayr's try-line. Like Bordill, captain Dean Kelbrick never let up in defence all day, and along with Dunlop, tackled superbly.
There was no keeping those Borderers down though and they were quickly trundling away from a line-out, with flanker Grant Runciman grounding the ball for the try. Helps struck the conversion perfectly. 8-10.
This put a spring in the visitors' step and they were showing off their fancy tricks with flicked passes between the legs. It all went a bit awry though and Macpherson scooped up a loose ball and charged off. Kelbrick burst through the defence and second row Scott Sutherland then took it on but Melrose managed to turn over and clear.
Despite an exciting break from Melrose captain Fraser Thomson, a bit of the fizz went out of the game as the sides cancelled each other out. A huge shove from Ayr at Melrose's scrum got them the advantage and Curle flew off, but by the time he got the ball to Taylor, the winger was bundled into touch.
It was the home team's turn to seem slightly unnerved and a couple of errors gave Melrose the upper hand. But an enormous tackle from Macpherson dislodged the ball and let Curle loose. He escaped the swarming yellow and black shirts and looked certain to get the pass to Fergusson mere metres from the try-line but just couldn't. Hunter, Sutherland and Taylor tried to find their way over but Ayr were penalised for holding on and some ill-advised chatter saw them ordered back ten metres.
Melrose had another penalty chance just before half-time but Helps' kick was wide.
The Greenyards side launched themselves into the second half with some finely angled running from centre Tom Galbraith but the ball again went loose and Ayr's replacement hooker Fergus Scott tidied up and tried to release Taylor. Melrose gave away a penalty and Ayr took the line-out, but the throw was deemed not straight.
Glasgow Warriors' James Eddie is always a favourite with the Ayr crowd, so there was disappointment when he had to leave the pitch injured after only a few minutes. He was replaced by Graham Fisken.
If proof were needed just how much Melrose wanted to turn the tables on Ayr after the one-point loss at the Greenyards last week, it was provided by the bizarre wails of desperation coming out of their scrum. But they gave away a penalty and from the line-out, Armstrong popped a perfect pass to Kelbrick who raced over for a try. Curle converted. 15-10.
There wasn't long to wait for another Ayr try, as Curle pressed on, full-back Grant Anderson juggled and Fergusson zoomed up the wing and over the line. The conversion angle was again too tight for Curle. 20-10.
Two line-out steals from Ayr gave the crowd even more to cheer about, as did a great take in the air from Armstrong, even more good hands from Anderson and some smooth running from Fisken.
A brief period of kicks and chases from both sides preceded Murray McConnell coming on for Danny McCluskey, meaning Armstrong moved to stand-off.
Melrose had a line-out but Ayr turned over and Fergusson somehow kicked and caught almost at the same time to quickly shift the action away to the left wing where replacement back row Pete McCallum was about to dive over for a try before he was judged to have been in touch.
Ayr were determined to keep Melrose pinned in that corner and did just that with a charge down from replacement prop Stuart Fenwick. But a later knock-on by a pink and black hand gave them the scrum and Melrose quickly moved play into Ayr's half, despite the defensive efforts of Fenwick and Armstrong.
Melrose again used the line-out to drive to the line but they didn't need to ground the ball as they were awarded the penalty try and Fisken was sent to the sin bin. 20-17.
Just minutes later, things got even worse as the ball bobbled about in Ayr's twenty-two and Melrose's Murdo McAndrew got his hands on it to cross the line unopposed for an unconverted try. 20-22.
Ayr still had time to claw back the advantage but one good piece of play was quickly followed by an error. They dashed right and left, only to throw a forward pass. They put Melrose under considerable pressure at the scrum and claimed the ball but knocked on before giving away a penalty at the next scrum. They were pinged again but then stole Melrose's line-out.
The clock ticked into over-time and eventually out of time for the Millbrae men as their last ditch attempt to get to the try-line petered out. It was an exhausting end to yet another intense encounter with a dogged Melrose side.
With the Bill McLaren Shield handed back over, all there was left to do was wish Melrose well in the final against Heriot's on Saturday 25th April, reflect on an up-and-down season that saw Ayr finish second in the table and look forward to a well-earned rest.
Final score: Ayr 20 Melrose 22.
All photos courtesy of Rob Hardie of Touchline Images.
- Eléna Hogarth.