County were seeking a fourth win from four pool games in the Sarah Beaney Cup, at Hillhead on Sunday. On a beautiful day, conditions were perfect for attacking rugby. A win would guarantee a home semi-final and go some way to putting right two narrow defeats to Hills in the league. It was a Hills team which had two internationals in the squad – Mhairi McDonald at scrum half and ex-County junior Evie Wills in mid-field. For County, Evie Gallagher was available for a second half appearance, before joining the national squad for the Wales game.
County got off to a poor start. A couple of early handling errors took play to the County twenty-two and instead of exiting, Stirling played across the pitch and gave possession away. Some unconvincing defence let Hills in for a try under the posts after just two minutes. The situation got worse with another try on 11 minutes from a scrum on half-way. Hills pulled the defence in and went out the back, to create an overlap on the right wing. Just four minutes later the problems got worse for County, with more weak defence allowing Evie Wills to carve a good inside line and score under the posts to make it 21-0.
Heather Davis was a late arrival from work and was introduced after twenty minutes. She immediately made a difference with some strong carries and her usual high work-rate. County got a foothold back in the game with a break down the left wing from Rachel Shankland, who mixed power and pace to score from half-way. At 21-7 County were back in the game but two more tries before half time left a mountain to climb, with the score 35-7.
The introduction of Evie Gallagher galvanised Stirling and meant this was very much a game of two halves. Evie scored herself on 46 minutes to makes the score 35-14 but Hills responded with a try on 60 minutes to stretch their lead to 40-14. The final twenty minutes saw a pulsating response from County. First Rachel Shankland added her second try. Three minutes later Heather Davis went over in the corner for the bonus point try. With a tricky conversion, Rachel Shankland hit the post – an exceptional effort! The score as 40-26, so County needed another 7 points to claim a second bonus point. County pressed on and put speedster Kirsty Wilson over in the same corner. This time, the conversion went wide. There was time for a kick off and County were straight back on the offensive but wing Amy Coyle was bundled into touch and the final whistle ended a fantastic come-back.
The final score of 41-30 meant the Hillhead took 5 points and County took 1 point. Hills will need to win their final pool match against West of Scotland by 50 points to top the group and claim a home semi-final.
County delivered a gutsy second half performance. Rachel Cox was outstanding at inside centre, with strong defence, a series of turnovers, deft handling and some powerful carries. Neve Henderson continued to show the development in her attacking game, allied to her usual brave defence at full-back. Evie Gallagher showed her international class and worked exceptionally hard to inspire her team-mates. The reflection for everyone is that you can’t afford to start poorly and concede soft tries.
County will now wait to see whether they play Cougars at Bridgehaugh or Watsonians away in the semi-final on 24th April.