Selkirk 32, Watsonians 28

Watsonians unable to derail Selkirk's bandwagon as home players stay right on track

CLINCHING TRY. Gavin Craig cuts through the Watsonians defence to score the try which put Selkirk ahead for the first time in the match.

SELKIRK'S amazing ability to pull games out of the fire continued at Philiphaugh on Saturday, where a pacy, well drilled Watsonians side succumbed in the dying minutes to the home team's passion, self-belief and boundless spirit. This is Selkirk's third come-from-behind Premier One victory of the season, and few amongst the bumper Philiphaugh crowd would dispute it was their best.

No-one epitomised Selkirk's never-say-die attitude better than openside flanker Callum Johnston. Making his first senior appearance of the season after a series of impressive displays for Selkirk's 'A' XV, the 20-year-old student remained undaunted by the visitors' bigger and more powerful pack. Whether tackling like a man possessed or sprinting to link with his wingers out wide, Johnston's work rate never dropped below 100 per cent.

No less important was the contribution of skipper Neil Darling, who gave a typically gutsy lead up front, continually exhorting the home players to greater efforts and remaining positive during the darker episodes of the contest. In fairness, every single member of Selkirk's 20-man squad deserves praise for refusing to throw in the towel when all seemed lost, and their reward was another victory which will have again raised eyebrows around the country.

Already missing the services of full-back Fraser Harkness, Selkirk received a further blow when centre David Cassidy had to drop out of the side 20 minutes before kick-off, after failing a fitness test on an injury sustained at his workplace earlier in the morning. His place in the team was taken by Ross Nixon, who had played 80 minutes of rugby the previous evening in Selkirk A's game against Hawick 2nds.

Watsonians also didn't have their troubles to seek. Number eight Stuart McInally dropped out of the visitors' line-up just before kick-off with a medical problem, with flanker Jonny Pelter coming off the replacements bench to deputise. The Myreside team's last visit to Philiphaugh came exactly six years ago, when the city men thumped Selkirk by a score of 40-16. So when Watsonians cruised to a 14-0 lead in the first 16 minutes of Saturday's match, it looked as though history might be about to repeat itself.

With the wind behind them, Watsonians set a hot pace from the outset, and it took a couple of cracking tackles by comeback man Ross Armstrong to keep the visitors' slick back division in check. A rare (but surprisingly accomplished) touch kick from Gordon Patterson was followed by a touchline burst from Scott Hendrie, after Scott Tomlinson had switched play left.

The visitors took the lead in the 13th minute when turnover ball allowed Michael Ker to chip ahead and gather. The fly-half made ground before off-loading to Jamie Blackwood, and the centre sprinted over for a well worked try. Ker's conversion kick sailed between the posts. Four minutes later Watsonians doubled their lead, this time a missed tackle allowing Richard Minto to blaze a path towards the home try line, with skipper Torrie Callander eventually touching down under the posts. Ker added the extra points to give his side a deserved 14-0 lead.

With Darling off the field to have a blood injury seen to, Rory Aglen came off the replacements bench and made an immediate impact. The lanky lock linked with Scott Tomlinson before releasing Martin Murray on a concerted drive to the visitors' 22, and moments later pro. hooker Sean Crombie was driven over for a try. Armstrong's sweetly struck conversion kick put Selkirk right back in the game.

Duly bolstered by this turn of events, a break upfield by Gavin Craig soon had Selkirk on the front foot once more, but an offside penalty against Michael McVie gave Ker the chance to kick at goal, which he just pulled wide. Two minutes later Armstrong made no mistake from a similar award, his kick cutting the deficit to 14-10.

Watsonians regained the initiative almost straight from the restart, when a clearance kick by Guy Blair failed to find touch, and Minto produced a burst of sizzling pace to cut a swathe through the home defence and score an excellent solo try. Just when it looked as things were beginning to look bleak for the home side, Lee Jones popped up on the right touchline and chipped towards the corner flag. The ball took a high bounce, eluding Alan Nash but being plucked from the air by Scott Hendrie, who crashed over the line for Selkirk's second score.

Once again Selkirk failed to deal effectively with the restart kick, and Simon Willet was penalised for going to ground at the ensuing ruck. Ker's touch-kick took Watsonians to within five metres of the home try line, and following a bout of sustained pressure it was lock Jeff Nicholson who ran a clever angle to slice open Selkirk's defence and score a bonus point try for the visitors wide on the left. Ker's successful conversion kick gave the visitors a commanding 28-15 lead.

Just before the interval Selkirk suffered a serious setback when talismanic lock Eddie Gauché had to be helped to sideline in obvious pain, having sustained a rib injury when making a typically barnstorming run out of defence. Rory Aglen took the field for the second time in the match - Watsonians maintaining their 13-point lead as the halftime whistle blew.

With the wind now at their backs, Selkirk relied on Tomlinson's powerful left boot and a series of clever grubber kicks from McVie to keep Watsonians pinned in their own half. Even so the home threequarters were finding it difficult to break through the city team's well organised defence. Good runs by Lee Jones, Callum Johnston and Ian Walling kept up the pressure, but in the 52nd minute Johnston was forced to leave the field after taking a big hit a fraction of a second after offloading the ball.

Sean Crombie returned to the fray to take over at openside, and soon afterwards visiting skipper Torrie Callander received a yellow card for repeated ruck infringements. Instead of kicking the straightforward penalty, Selkirk opted for the scrum. As the short-handed city pack were shunted backwards at a rate of knots, Scott Tomlinson pounced on the ball for a classic pushover try.

Armstrong's conversion reduced the deficit to 28-22, and with the home crowd roaring them on, Selkirk's players were growing in confidence by the minute. A break involving Craig and Nixon stretched Watsonians' defence, but turnover ball led to Scott Hendrie having to save the day with a superb touchline tackle on pro. player Kyle Traynor.

The turning point came when yet another mazy run by Lee Jones carved an opening for Gavin Craig, who dummied his way past two defenders to score a superb try. McVie's successful conversion put Selkirk ahead for the first time in the match, and when the same player added a penalty to stretch the home team's lead to 32-28 in the dying seconds of the game, it looked all over.

However, referee Andrew McMenemy still had nine minutes of injury time on his watch, and Selkirk's players had to strain every last muscle for a last-ditch defensive effort as Watsonians threw everything bar the kitchen sink at the home team in a desperate bid to salvage victory. Thankfully the thin blue line held firm, and the crowd's roar of delight when the final whistle eventually sounded must have been audible as far away as Netherdale.

Afterwards coach Kevin Barrie was in typically candid mood. "We don't make it easy for ourselves that's for sure, but all credit to the boys for having the character to come back yet again. The players knew they had to regain their pride after last Saturday's heavy defeat at Hawick, and they certainly put things right today. The belief in this team is tremendous, but there's still a long way to go, and we've still got plenty of areas of our game to put right."

GREAT SCOTT! Watsonians fly-half Michael Ker can only watch in disbelief as Scott Hendrie plucks Lee Jones' chip out of the air to crash over for Selkirk's second try. (Pictures: Grant Kinghorn)

SELKIRK - G. Blair, S. Hendrie, R. Nixon, R. Armstrong, L. Jones, G. Craig, M. McVie, G. Patterson, S. Crombie, M. Murray, S. Willet, E. Gauché, N. Darling, C. Johnston, S. Tomlinson. Replacements: R. Aglen, I. Walling, R. Taylor, A. Lyall, J. Hendrie.