Stirling Wolves 26
THE beauty of play-offs is that the results can be unpredictable even in a first versus fourth clash. Heriot’s went into this semi-final as clear favourites, having thumped their opponents earlier in the Super Series and having been the form team throughout; yet it is Stirling Wolves, and not Heriot’s, who will contest the final next weekend after the Bridgehaugh men produced a combined effort to which their more fancied opponents did not have the answer.
In fact, Stirling were further ahead than the final scoreline suggests. The Wolves played a high-intensity game and simply refused to allow what has been a free-scoring Heriot’s team to get into their stride. And in other areas of the game, as their head coach, Eddie Pollock, affirmed, Stirling were much smarter than their opponents .
He said: “I think we were outstanding tonight. I thought we got the game right tactically. Heriot’s kick a lot of the time but we just kicked back to them and we won that kick battle. And that put them under pressure. We put a few trick plays round the line-out that worked and that spooked them a bit. Our coaches got it spot-on tonight and the players bought into everything they wanted them to do.
“I think we gave them pictures they weren’t expecting to see. The effort was fantastic and we’re really delighted.”
Wolves were ahead in many areas of the game, not least in the commitment of the respective back rows. Both Connor Gordon and Ed Hasdell stamped their name on the match with towering performances, while in the second row the mobility of James Pow and Tom Smith contributed to the Wolves being sharper round the ball.
Behind the scrum, Glenn Bryce used all his accumulated experience to post a fine performance, while at centre Ryan Southern impressed with his gritty game. Wolves can also thank scrum-half Ben Afshar for his speed and awareness round the park and for his lightning quick service that surely is worth a bit of interest from Edinburgh or Glasgow – or, as seems necessary these days, from further afield.
For Heriot’s, the disappointment of tripping up at this critical stage of the competition was palpable. Head coach Ben Cairns admitted that his side were second best, saying: “We didn’t perform tonight. But there’s two parts to that equation. One is that Stirling Wolves put us under a lot of pressure; the second is that we didn’t deal well enough with that pressure. We didn’t perform as individuals and collectively in the way we know we can and have done”.
Stirling gave an early glimpse of their ambitions when they worked a move off the front of the line-out that involved back rows Hasdell and Gordon together with hooker Gregor Hiddleston that required a brave tackle by Sam Wallace to prevent a try in the corner.
But when County drove a line0out five metres out, Gordon became first name on the scoresheet, the conversion by Marcus Holden giving Stirling a useful lead early in the game,
The Bridgehaugh men had more to offer, producing a stellar try from a clever move in midfield that brought Hasdell into the attack. The No 8 then showed exceptional pace to out-run the fragmented Heriot’s defence for a try that lit up a game which at times had threatened to borrow from the Wimbledon playbook.
From the restart, Heriot’s, for the first time in the match, looked dangerous. They converted a penalty into points via a kick to the corner, a determined drive and then a piece of sharp-wittedness by scrum-half Fin Campbell, who fastened on to a loose ball before racing in under the posts. Ross Jones, who had replaced Dan King, added the simple conversion.
But any notion of a first-half fightback by Heriot’s was scotched when Afshar delivered a 50/22 to secure a line-out five metres out. Inevitably, Stirling opted not to do a dental inspection of the gift horse in front of them, and successfully drove the line-out for Gordon to claim his second try and Holden his second conversion, sending his side into the break with a 19-7 advantage.
Heriot’s, however, showed fight in the third quarter and were rewarded with a try by Matt Davidson, who ran a clever line after the Goldenacre men had initially driven a lineout. Jones converted, but this was not to be the rekindling of the Heriot’s flame as Stirling hit back, with a period of excellent ball retention that ended with wing Ross McKnight, more used to long-range runs, dotting down from half a metre out.
Craig Jackson, taking over as goal-kicker from Holden, who had retired from the game just after half-time, added the extra points, making Heriot’s chances of salvaging the match that much harder.
To their credit Heriot’s managed to eke out a further score, this time a close-range effort from replacement prop Struan Cessford, converted again by Jones. But that was it for the Goldenacre men, and it was Stirling who were left celebrating a deserved win and a first appearance in the final.
Heriot’s: Tries: Campbell, Davidson, Cessford. Cons Jones 3.
Stirling Wolves: Tries Gordon 2, Hasdell, McKnight; Cons: Holden 2, Jackson.
Scoring sequence (Heriot’s first): 0-5; 0-7; 0-12; 5-12; 7-12; 7-17; 7-19 (h-t) 12-19; 14-19; 14-24; 14-26; 19-26; 21-26.
Man-of-the-Match: Stirling had a number of impressive performers, the best of whom was the openside flanker Connor Gordon, whose accuracy in defence, support play and ability to win ball all contributed hugely to Wolves’ victory and which mark him out as a special player.
Talking point: It is worth recalling that the possibility of Stirling Wolves missing out on a place in the top four was being talked about only last week. Yet here they are in the final, simply because in the penultimate round every one of the Stirling players showed maximum commitment to achieving what they believed in.