Match Report v Highland RFC | Saturday 27 October @ Canal Park
A ‘warm’ Highland reception awaited us, complemented by a pleasant (albeit cold) day with a slight drizzle. The impressive location and facilities were indicative of Highland’s meteoric rise through the leagues in recent times and a hard contest was certainly anticipated, with a point separating the teams in the league, a similar pattern of results on the road and Highland unbeaten at home (much like ourselves).
As said previously, I have only been to Highland RFC once, but do recall the halcyon days when a number of their players came through the ranks ultimately to play for Scotland, Nairn MacEwan and (more recently) Moray Low to name a couple. My maternal great grandmother hailed from these parts and my uncle played for Highland way back when. That is, however, as far as I am going with this one – in the meantime!
I am not a great fan of the plastic pitch. Am more of a grass man myself (this should not be read out of context) however we have to accept that we have a harsh climate, particularly up north, and this surface is sometimes the only way to ensure that games can be played. They do, however, make for what appears to be and feels like a very fast game.
A few notable changes for the journey up north, the most significant being the introduction to the starting line-up of Matthew Watson at full back and the welcome return of a fit Duncan Wood to what was, otherwise, a fairly settled and strong looking team.
The teams emerged from the tunnel, Highland first (welcomed by rapturous applause from the sizeable crowd and flag waving from the mini section) then Stew Mel, who kicked off towards the city of Inverness. Stew Mel immediately won possession and applied early pressure, only to be penalised. Highland, in an attempt to kick deep, didn’t find touch, giving Stew Mel another opportunity to gain territorial advantage via the first lineout on Highland’s 22. Highland won the ball cleanly, however, and made considerable inroads with a driving maul into Stew Mel’s half, a knock on ultimately preventing further progress.
The first scrum of the afternoon was solid and some good interplay between Jack and Matthew moved us further up field, winning another set piece. At this stage both teams were trying to find their rhythm and test each other, with no significant ground being gained by either. Although the scrum was looking as if Stew Mel had the edge, a subsequent lineout faltered, a penalty was conceded and Highland jumped at the opportunity to move the ball cleverly inside to their number 11 who crashed over for the first try of the afternoon, against the run of play. 10 mins played, Highland 5 Stew Mel 0.
Highland again applied more pressure at the restart but some good defending kept them at bay, epitomised by Adam Greig almost knocking his opposite number into the Ness. Despite all the efforts, a kickable penalty unfortunately came Highland’s way, taking the score to 8-0 in their favour after nearly 20 minutes. As play resumed a yellow card was produced for a relatively innocuous tackle whereby a Highland player was ‘taken out’ in the air. Momo was the first to admit his overzealousness, to which there was no ill intent.
To their credit, Stew Mel weathered the storm for the 10 minutes they were one man down and the ref had to be given a gentle reminder to allow things to resume with both sides back to full strength! Momo’s impact was immediate once he was back on the field of play and some good Stew Mel pressure saw us pushing into Highland’s half as the drizzle eased and glimpses of sunshine appeared. The metaphorical sunshine on the pitch didn’t last long, though, as Highland seized their opportunity once more while Duncan was grounded and got over, the conversion being successful. 30 minutes gone, Highland 15 Stew Mel 0.
As the first half came to an end, the play became a bit frantic, and, perhaps, Stew Mel began forcing it in desperation to get points on the board. As a result, an ambitious pass was intercepted to give a half time score of 22-0.
A lively start to the second half from Stew Mel saw the big ball carriers Thor and Momo in their element, ably assisted by Dave Allan who had replaced the injured Duncan. We were camped in Highland’s 22 for at least 10 minutes, and, thankfully, pressure eventually led to points as Jack Somerville scored in the corner – although the attempted conversion didn’t have the legs. Around 55 minutes gone, Highland 22 Stew Mel 5.
A further period of possession went in Stew Mel’s favour and there was hope that we would capitalise – but, regrettably, mistakes crept in and Highland were quick to pounce, turning their immediate advantage into points. At the 65 minute mark it was Highland 29 Stew Mel 5. With another score and the commensurate lift in confidence, it wasn’t long before Highland added to their tally following a period of sustained pressure, bringing the final score to Highland 36 Stew Mel 5.
On reflection, and at the risk of causing controversy, I think the score line flattered Highland. They did play their game on their turf extremely well and were masters at exploiting and taking immediate advantage of our mistakes. They also ran some good lines and their kicking game was, for the most part, better than ours. That said, we had a reasonable amount of possession but couldn’t get decent phases going consistently enough, and, at times, seemed to be forcing the game.
We have, without question, very good individual players and a mobile and strong pack. Ball carriers like Thor, Momo and (on Saturday) Dave, along with Connor and Doug, all did their bit, while Fraser worked away as best he could – but more vision is needed out wide. Matthew had a decent debut under pressure, but, overall there were too many missed tackles in the latter stages.
Given where we were on Saturday, there was always the inevitability of a Culloden analogy featuring in this report although I realise it is a little bit harsh. The Duke of Cumberland was clearly not a very nice chap so accepting the title of being the ‘butchered’ rather than ‘butcher’ is meant in the nicest possible way. Thankfully the battle that took place at Canal Park on Saturday was conducted in a clean, fair, competitive and sportsmanlike manner and there was definitely no question of a retreat! Perhaps, if the oval ball had been thrown onto the battlefield in 1746, similar etiquette – which, as we know and love, is part and parcel of rugby football – would have been observed!
Back home next week, for a change, after being on the road for two games on the trot. We host Howe of Fife at 2 pm – be there!
Kevin ‘Jacobite’ Murchie
Match photo c/o Libby Blakeman / OGBlakeman Photos