Match report vs Preston Lodge, Saturday 18 November 2017 – BT National Cup
After a hard encounter with Selkirk, when the relative league positions belied the competitiveness and final outcome of the game, the lads deserved a weekend off to (presumably) enjoy watching Scotland overcome an under strength and underfunded – but spirited – Samoan team. From a Stew Mel point of view it was great to see George Turner gaining his first cap, with, I think, Doddie Weir being the last FP to earn that honour in 1990. What a difference a week makes in terms of the performance against the All Blacks, where a little bit of history was almost made.
We were back to National Cup business on Saturday, with an early kick off. Although a division apart, both teams are sitting second bottom in their respective leagues, having only won two games, with a points differential of 2 in Stew Mel’s favour. I am, however, sure that this was the last thing on the players’ minds as they took to the field on a beautiful autumnal, dry afternoon with a slight breeze, perfect for some running rugby and for utilising the width of Inverleith and our pacy back line.
Whilst league position and status is unquestionably paramount, a good Cup run will also reap benefits by boosting confidence and further allowing the team to gel as the season progresses.
With a reasonable sized crowd having assembled, PL kicked off playing towards the pavilion. The hosts had made several changes from the aforementioned game against Selkirk, with James and Jamie McGurk combining in midfield and a welcome return for Nathan Ross on the left wing. Cameron Taylor and Ruaridh Mitchell replaced Josh Scott and Shaun Burns in the forwards and there was another run out at 7 for school boy Conor Boyle, who impressed on his recent debut.
Stew Mel collected well after the PL start but were, however, immediately put under pressure, a penalty following a scrum leading to another PL attack that only petered out due to a knock on by second row Jonathan Sked (who otherwise had an impressive afternoon along with his second row partner Scott MacColl). Stew Mel won back possession and cleared their lines – only for PL to regain and move the ball out wide to score in the corner. The converted try put PL 7 in front with less than 10 minutes played. Their kicker certainly had his kicking boots on all afternoon.
After the restart PL were rampaging again but Stew Mel won back possession after some fine play by number 6 Tom Croy. The forwards then started an impressive drive, reminiscent of the Gala game, pushing well into PL’s 22 before quick ball from Gregor allowed Freddie to dummy and sidestep his way over the try line in a position where the conversion was a certainty. At 7 apiece within such a short period of time, you sensed it was going to be a long afternoon.
The PL 10, Robbie Griffin, was asking questions of the Stew Mel back line, although his kick into space was well fielded, and, with Stew Mel in possession again and a high tackle, the penalty went in our favour. The midfield partnership of James and Jamie was operating well, with James, in particular, using his strength and power throughout the game to make inroads and create good attacking positions. I believe he will develop well at 12.
Heading towards the 25 minute mark, PL were again in the ascendency, although a wayward kick did not find touch and the tables were turned once again. A break by Sean on the right wing earned us good field position up at the half way line, with James penetrating the midfield then offloading to Ruaridh Stewart; Ruaridh then kept the ball alive and headed back into the forwards to allow them to embark on another fine drive. There was a feeling that Stew Mel were beginning to show some dominance in the forwards which eventually lead to a try by Gus converted by Freddie.
PL were never out of the game at any time and they continued to attack, although good defence by Stew Mel over a sustained period allowed us to weather the storm as half time approached. The score at half time was Stew Mel 14 – PL 10.
With the second half underway, the Stew Mel forwards began to dominate the set piece, and this would eventually translate into points. Whilst the overall play mirrored the first half, in terms of shared possession, a penalty try was eventually awarded around the 60 minute mark. Stew Mel 21 – PL 10.
With scrum resets, collapsing and early engagements taking up significant periods of time, PL eventually won the battle with a quick ball to the right that put the number 9 (not the scrum half but the winger) Dale Gordon in for a try in the corner, again successfully converted. Stew Mel 21 – PL 17.
Stew Mel then made a change, with Gregor taking over at 10 from Freddie and Charlie Simmonds coming on off the bench at 9. After another period of pressure, good driving by the forwards and quick ball from Charlie resulted in a fine break from Gregor, who made the most of some welcome open space to sprint to the line and bring the score to 26-17. PL were far from finished, though, as they came back again, firstly with an eminently kickable penalty and thereafter a converted try after an impressive break through the midfield.
With the score at 27-26 in PL’s favour, you could sense that their tails were up as they could see victory in sight – although time was still on Stew Mel’s side. More pressure from PL eventually fizzled out and Stew Mel were able to breathe again and continue to counter attack. After sustained pressure, Adam Howie eventually crossed the line, with the try being converted by Gregor. At 33-27 there was still time left on the clock – but not enough for PL to prevent what could be described as an attritional victory.
There was a sigh of relief at the final whistle as Charlie gleefully booted the ball into touch. It was a game that either team could have won, and, from a Stew Mel point of view, there were positives which must be focussed on. PL are a good side whose league position is hard to fathom. If they continue to put out performances like they did on Saturday they will move up the table with relative ease and into mid table. This is also something we hope that Stew Mel will achieve as the league rumbles on.
The forwards to a man are now functioning as a unit, with inspirational leadership from Ruaridh Mitchell and Adam Howie, and, with strength and depth on the bench when replacements are made either due to injury or for tactical reasons, their momentum appears to be maintained. With this platform and quick ball, the backs should be able to create more chances and find space. Over the season thus far there have been regular changes in the back division, whether on the wing or in the midfield, and positional changes can take time to bed in. With Happy soon to return from injury (leg not head), clearly even more options are available.
As regards the next round of the Cup, I had a dream on Friday night that Stew Mel had got through to the quarter finals and had drawn Dumfries (one of my former teams) away. This, in itself, is not necessarily of concern – but what was of concern is that I was in the starting line up at 14 for the RBG. Thankfully I woke up!
With another break on Saturday, we look forward to resuming the league campaign on December 2nd in Kelso. There is no reason why we can’t once more return from the Borders with valuable points.
Credit 39 Design Photography