BORDER LEAGUE/RBS CUP
STUART CAMERON reports from The Greenyards
MORE THAN 2,300 packed into The Greenyards for what was described as the biggest club match in the country – and the game certainly lived up to the hype.
It was an exciting, tense encounter between Scotland’s top two clubs and with so much at stake it was always going to be close, but it was Gala who defended their unbeaten away record with a 15-14 victory.
They won the try count 2-1 with both the Maroons’ scores in the space of three minutes just before the break, despite playing into a fierce wind.
With the elements in their favour in the second period, the odds favoured Gala.
Melrose’s last home defeat against a Scottish team was 20 months ago when Selkirk triumphed in the Border League final.
A win would have kept them on course for a fifth consecutive appearance at Murrayfield in the Scottish Cup final and a place in the final of the Border League, as well as defending the Waverley Cup and the Bill McLaren Shield.
But all that disappeared at the final whistle.
Melrose scored first with an Andrew Skeen fourth-minute penalty and on 25 minutes, a break by Fraser Thomson set up Allan Dodds for the first try.
But Gala’s well-drilled defence was as strong as it has been all season and they kept their rivals out for the rest of the half.
With three minutes to the break, Craig Robertson nipped in for a try for Gala from a five-metre scrum – and changed the complexion of the game.
Lee Millar’s conversion narrowed the gap to a point and then, right on half-time, Shaun Law sprinted half the pitch and offloaded to scrum-half George Graham who raced in at the corner for a superb score. Gala were 12-8 up at the turn.
Despite the elements, Melrose put in a mighty effort to try and turn things round.
Two penalties by Skeen gave them a 14-12 advantage and with Millar missing a simple penalty just 25m out there were many in the crowd who thought this would come back to haunt Gala.
Things got worse for the Maroons when Law was yellow-carded for a professional foul, but with 10 minutes remaining Millar kicked a penalty from in front of the posts to return the lead to Gala by a point. Gary Holborn was sent to the bin and Melrose hearts sank.
Down to 14 men, the home side worked their way into the Gala 22 and a series of pick and drives got them into a position where Andrew Skeen could have popped over a drop goal to win the game, but on the final phase of play the ball was turned over and the last chance evaporated. Moments later the final whistle blew and Gala had done enough to qualify for a semi-final spot against a team from outwith the area.
The two titans will meet again at Netherdale in Premier A in the New Year and that could decide who goes on to win the Scottish League Championship.
Bitterly disappointed, Melrose captain Graeme Dodds said: “We’ve tasted what it must have felt like for Gala when we beat them at Netherdale and it’s not pleasant.
“We had chances to win it, but couldn’t get over the finishing line. But we will be concentrating on the Premiership now and trying to win the title.”
Delighted Gala coach George Graham told TheSouthern: “I’m elated – it was a tough and hard-fought game.
“On balance, we deserved to win that. It was a fantastic match and I’m pleased we came out of it at the right end.”
Melrose: F. Thomson; A. Dodds, J. Murray, B. Dick, J. Helps; A. Skeen, B. Colvine; N. Little, R. Ferguson, G. Holborn, P. Eccles, R. Miller, J. Dalziel, G. Runciman, G. Dodds. Subs: P. Tamba, C. Keen, S. Johnson, S. McCormick, N. McGrath
Gala: G. Young; S. Law, C. Auld, C. Borthwick, C. Robertson; L. Millar; George Graham, L. Pettie, R. Anderson, E. McQuillin, C. Weir, O. Palepoi, Gary Graham, S. Cairns, T. Weir. Subs: P. Stewart, C. Keddie, A. Emond, A. McLean, B. Turner.
z You can see Gala’s two tries and hear post-match reaction at www.BordersRugby.net