THERE was something special happening at Mansfield Park late on Tuesday afternoon.
And, despite the slightly awkward 4pm kick-off time, more than 2,000 rugby supporters from all over the Borders and beyond flocked down to the Hawick venue to witness the first ever fixture between a South of Scotland side and the world-renowned Barbarians.
The official figure was 2,100, and the feeling after the match, helped by a 22-15 victory for the South, was one of optimism mixed with a strong sense of determination to bring back the red and white hoops on a regular basis.
Selkirk full back and South winger Fraser Harkness (vice-captain), who stamped his authority all over the game, endorsed the general opinion. He told TheSouthern: “Everybody wants to play for the South and we need to start growing the team. That is what the crowd want and we have had that support tonight.
“It would be very good to have the district championship back again, although we understand that it is difficult with the current fixtures. Everybody involved in this team believes in it, though, and getting regular dates must be a priority.”
The sense of occasion that this game brought back to the Borders was not lost on anyone. The crowd were entertained by the Hawick Scout Fellowship Pipe Band pre-match, while afterwards the players were mobbed by autograph-hunting fans (how often have we witnessed that in present-day rugby circles?).
Supporters may have been forgiven for a feeling of unease during the first 15 minutes of the game, most of which was spent in the South 22, where twice the Baa-Baas opted to kick for goal rather than run the ball.
That uncharacteristic caution was soon swept aside, however, as the invitational outfit were given a lesson in open play by their hosts and what followed was an exciting end-to-end game which hung in the balance right up to the final whistle.
South Coach Craig Chalmers commented: “We showed desire and we believed the win was possible. It was a brilliant effort.”
A penalty from Cerith Rees triggered the scoring in the second minute before the Baa-Baas increased their lead through a Michael McComish try, which was converted by Rees.
Gala’s Lee Millar struck a long-range penalty to get the ball rolling for the hosts, but the Baa-Baas struck back with a try from Leigh Hinton.
With a minute to go until half-time, the South got the break they were looking for when Harkness booted the ball upfield for Fraser Thomson to gather and score, making it South 8 Barbarians 15 at the break.
The Borderers continued to run at their guests and were soon on a level pegging when Thomson went over for a second, converted by Millar.
And 10 minutes later the home side took the lead when Gregor Young hacked on a long ball to pick up and score between the posts, with Andrew Skeen making the conversion.
South of Scotland: F. Thomson (Melrose); G. Young (Jed-Forest), J. Murray (Melrose), J. Helps (Melrose), F. Harkness (Selkirk); L. Millar (Gala), S. McCormick (Melrose); Robert Ferguson (Jed-Forest), Richard Ferguson (Melrose), B. McNeil (Hawick), G. Dodds (Melrose), J. Dalziel (Melrose), E. Dods (Gala), R. Miller (Melrose), D. Gillespie (Jed-Forest). Subs: S. Linton (Hawick), L. Gibson (Hawick), G. Graham (Gala), A. Skeen (Melrose), N. Warnock (Peebles).
Barbarians: J. Thompson (Edinburgh); L. Hinton (Rugby Lions), D. Kacharava (Nice & Georgia), J. Houston (Edinburgh), S. Visser (Edinburgh); C. Rees (Llandovery), T. Usasz (Nottingham & USA); J. O’Connell (Leinster), N. Annett (Ulster), G. Shvelidze (Montpellier & Georgia), E. Evans (Neath), C. Petre (St Etienne & Romania), C. Ruddock (Leinster), M. McComish (Ulster), C. Davies (Aberavon). Subs: F. Gillies (Heriots), B. Evans (Jersey & Wales), G. Rawlings (Fylde), R. Baldwin (Wharfedale), G. Wilson (Boroughmuir), J. Davies (Aberavon), R. James (Carmarthan Quins).