Melrose moved to the head of the Premiership title race after achieving a narrow win over neighbours and championship rivals, Gala, at Netherdale.
The much anticipated match however, failed to live up to its top-of-the-table billing.
Maybe it was the bitterly cold wind at Netherdale, maybe the soft underfoot conditions or perhaps more likely a fatigue factor affecting players, from both sides, who had been involved in the Scotland under-20 v Scotland Clubs XV on the same pitch three days earlier, but the skills which these two sides had shown in their Boxing Day meeting were manifestly missing.
Melrose, however, will not be worried about the spectator experience. They are now back in more familiar territory at the top of the Premiership table and with a slightly less difficult run-in are now in a strong position to finish as this season’s club champions. Gala, now two points behind Melrose, however, have a game in hand but with Ayr their opponents in the final round the Maroons know the task they face is formidable but still achievable.
As well as Ayr, Gala have to face a resurgent Stirling side at Bridgehaugh, Edinburgh Accies at home and there is, too, the matter of their postponed match against Hawick. Melrose by contrast have a more favourable finish with Currie and Stirling at home and Aberdeen away.
Either side could have claimed the honours on Saturday from a match that was tense throughout and which ultimately hinged on a first minute decision by referee Graeme Wells to penalise Gala at a scrum on the half way line after the home forwards had shunted Melrose off their own scrum ball.
It was a harsh call and one which led to an instant three points for Melrose from a monumental penalty goal by the visitors’ centre, Joe Helps, which, in retrospect, provided the winning margin. It also gave Melrose a confidence lift at the start of the game but in spite of dominating the first quarter the Greenyards men found themselves with only a slim half time advantage of 6-3.
“We were disappointed that we didn’t make more of our advantage in the first half but Gala deserve credit for the way they stuck in” said Melrose coach, John Dalziel. He added : “This is our third game against Gala this season and each time it’s been just a few points between us”.
For their part Gala failed to capitalise on their numerical advantage when Melrose had gained membership of the yellow card club just before the break, notably when they lost their own scrum put-in on the Melrose line. In fact referee Wells sent four players to the sin-bin in the first half, Melrose lock Perry Parker, Melrose prop Gary Holborn and Melrose hooker Todd Pearce and Gala hooker Callum Mackintosh all spending ten minute spells in the sin-bin.
In defeat Gala can take much from both their defence and their scrummaging where props Rory Sutherland and Euan McQuillin excelled but in the line-out battle it was Melrose who emerged the better. Behind the scrum Bruce Colvine for Melrose called the shots and at full back Austin Lockington, replacing the injured Fraser Thomson, threatened every time he ran the ball out of defence. In the Gala backline George Graham played a typically probing game but overall the Maroons’ backs were not at their fluent best.
It was Helps and Euan Scott who accounted for the 2-1 penalty goal score at half time. Scott then levelled the scores with his second success at goal before a surge by Gala from a line-out in the Melrose 22m area finished with centre Chris Auld scoring for the Maroons.
Scott missed the conve rsion and a subsequent penalty shot but when Melrose applied pressure the dividend was a try for the Edinburgh professional Perry Parker, replacement Andrew Skeen adding the winning conversion goal.