Melrose 14, Selkirk 20

Thin blue line holds fast to repel Melrose's try-line siege in do-or-die final quarter

BACK in November, when Selkirk lost their opening Pool 'A' match at Philiphaugh to an understrength Hawick side, even the most diehard Selkirk supporter couldn't have imagined that five months later Michael McVie would be walking up the Greenyards steps to collect the 2010 'Radio Borders' Border League trophy.

However, that impossible dream became reality on Wednesday night, when Selkirk's players somehow managed to find hidden depths of stamina and energy to edge past Melrose in a cracking play-off final. It was the club's third successive Border League title - a fitting finale for the hundreds of Selkirk supporters at the Greenyards, many of whom had also travelled to get behind their team in the side's hard-fought away victories over Jed-Forest and Kelso.

"It's hard to take in that we've actually managed to achieve the hat-trick," skipper Michael McVie told the selkirkrfc.com web site after Wednesday's pulsating play-off final. I'm delighted for the players and for our supporters, who always make us feel as if we're playing at Philiphaugh. But it's also pleasing we've been able to make sure coaches Kevin Barrie and Michael Jaffray go out on a real high.

"They never stopped believing in us, and the way the boys have finished our Premier One and Border League campaigns so strongly after disappointing starts shows the strength of character we have in this team. All credit to Melrose for giving us such a hard game, but we've managed to hold on to the trophy yet again, and everybody's chuffed it'll be staying at Philiphaugh for another year."

Selkirk had to make two late changes to their squad after flanker David Gray broke a bone in his hand the previous night at Poynder Park in Selkirk 'A's Border Farm Supplies Championship final against Gala 2nds, while prop Gordon Paterson's troublesome neck injury ruled him out of contention. Their places were taken by Rory Banks and Steven Renwick.

Better news for Selkirk fans was that back row forward Scott Tomlinson had recovered from a calf strain and was able to take his place on the replacements bench, while David Cassidy was also on the bench after missing the Prem. One match against Currie three days earlier.

There was no sign of the expected rain as Selkirk fly-half Gavin Craig kicked off towards the Gattonside end of the ground, after Michael McVie had lost the toss and Melrose captain Scott Wight had elected to play against the stiff downfield breeze. An early break by Lee Jones down the left touchline soon had the visiting supporters in full voice, while at the other end a scything run by James King had the same effect on the home crowd.

In the sixth minute Wight sent a penalty attempt just wide, and with Selkirk giving away penalties and turnovers on a frustratingly regular basis, it took some sterling defence to keep the yellow and black tide flooding towards Selkirk's try line in check.

After 25 minutes Selkirk put the night's first points on the board. McVie cleverly nipped in to steal Melrose's scrum ball, and when the home side were penalised shortly afterwards, Scott Hendrie calmly sent his kick between the posts. A strong burst by Rob Taylor then put Melrose on the back foot, but the pressure was eased when Andrew Renwick received a yellow card following a ruck infringement.

For the next five minutes Selkirk found themselves under the cosh, but the strong-running Melrose threequarters simply couldn't find a way to the try line. Against the run of play the visitors increased their lead shortly before halftime when Scott Hendrie's 45-metre penalty kick just made it over the crossbar and no more.

Hardly had the cheers died down from the Selkirk faithful than Melrose scored the first try of the game. A charge by John Dalziel to Selkirk's 22 saw the ball quickly switched left, and James King was able to burrow his way over the line in spite of the best efforts of Selkirk hooker David Grieve. Wight's sweetly struck touchline conversion sailed over, putting Melrose 7-6 ahead at halftime.

Four minutes after the restart Hendrie had a chance to regain the lead for Selkirk, but his penalty attempt slipped past the left-hand post. A fine diagonal run by Ben Allan then gained good field position for Melrose, and when Selkirk were penalised it looked as though Wight would extend his side's lead. However, the fly-half sent his goal kick narrowly wide.

With the home players growing in confidence and Selkirk being forced into ever more desperate defence, a series of sweeping attacks down the left side of the field took play deep into Selkirk's 22. The ball was swiftly moved wide to the right, and Craig Jackson timed his intusion to perfection to slice through and release Callum Anderson, who sprinted over for a try near the corner. Wight's successful touchline conversion was a mirror image of his earlier effort, and things were beginning to look ominous for the Souters.

On the hour-mark Wight had the chance to strengthen his team's grip on the match, but his penalty attempt faded to the right. It was now that Selkirk made two crucial substitutions - Scott Tomlinson replacing injured number eight Andrew Renwick, and Callum Marshall taking over from lock Simon Willet, who had sustained a painful hand knock. The appearance of these two players gave fresh heart to Selkirk's tiring forwards.

The game's turning point undoubtedly came in the 64th minute. A good break by Tomlinson was followed by a typically powerful run from Fraser Harkness, which saw the Selkirk full-back weave his way through half a dozen defenders. When finally stopped under the posts, he found Rob Taylor in support - the Kiwi prop taking three Melrose players with him as he crashed over for a try. Hendrie's successful conversion brought Selkirk right back into contention at 14-13.

Wight's restart kick went out of play over the dead ball line, and Gavin Craig took full advantage with a dazzling 35-metre break down the stand side of the field. Callum Anderson's hurried clearance kick soon afterwards gave Selkirk a line-out inside the home team's 22. A perfect take by Rory Aglen was followed by a rolling maul towards the Melrose line, with Taylor breaking away at the last moment to burst past Chrystie's challenge for his second try in the space of three minutes. Hendrie kept his nerve to stroke over the conversion, putting Selkirk back in front at 20-14.

The remaining 15 minutes of the game saw Selkirk's players hanging on for grim death, as Melrose threw everything bar the kitchen sink at their try line in a desperate bid to save the match. John Dalziel, Graeme Dodds and James King were all within inches of crossing the whitewash, but somehow Selkirk's equally determined players managed to keep them out.

Melrose supporters thought their team had scored when Richard Higgins took a quick tap penalty and crashed over under the posts. However, referee Andrew McMenemy ruled the kick had not been taken from the right spot and called it back. Chrystie immediately re-took the penalty and fed Dodds, but the number eight found his path blocked by a pile of Selkirk bodies.

A break out of defence by Darren Clapperton brought temporary relief to Selkirk, but when Harkness was penalised for not releasing, Wight kicked to Selkirk's five-metre line to re-establish his team's positional dominance. Such was the pressure exerted on Selkirk's try line by Melrose's forwards in the dying seconds of the game that it appeared the thin blue line would be stretched to breaking point, but miraculously the Souters kept their opponents at bay.

The end of a quite remarkable game of rugby finally came when Melrose were penalised for not releasing, allowing David Cassidy to hoof the ball into touch to seal Selkirk's astonishing victory.

MELROSE - C. Jackson, C. Anderson, J. Murray, J. King, B. Allan, S. Wight, R. Chrystie, K. Cooney, L. Gibson, R. Higgins, G. Elder, S. Johnston, R. Millar, J. Dalziel, G. Dodds. Replacements: R. Ferguson, N. Beavon, N. Mactaggart, L. Scully, B. Dick, J. Helps, A. Dodds.

SELKIRK - F. Harkness, D. Clapperton, A. Dunbar, S. Hendrie, L. Jones, G. Craig M. McVie, R. Taylor, D. Grieve, M. Murray, R. Aglen, S. Willet, N. Darling, C. Johnston, A. Renwick. Replacements: R. Banks, D. Cassidy, R. Nixon, S. Tomlinson. S. Forrest, S. Renwick, C. Marshall.

Referee - A. McMenemy (Gala).