To Millbrae, for the game of the day between Ayr & Gala. In the shadow of the Autumn International disappointment, and Andy Robinson’s resignation, a chance to measure up two much-talked-about coaches – George Graham, former Pro coach, back in the club game and mentioned in dispatches this week after guiding Gala’s steady rise over the last 3 seasons; and Kenny Murray, Ayr’s Mr Consistency, and a fine example of the lack of a clear pathway of progress to the pro-game for coaches in the Scottish game.
Firstly, congratulations to all at Millbrae for getting the game on. Ayr are so professionally run, and their pitch-care in the extreme frost meant the big crowd were treated to a full blooded heavy hitting contest, worthy of its top-of-the-table status.
Gala started with the ball and pressure. Their metronome is veteran Samoan Opata Palepoi, who dictates both the pace of the game and the areas the team play in. To start with, it was all forwards, with Euan Dods, Gary Graham and Ewan McQuillan noticeable in their pick and drive support for their captain. ‘Keeping the scoreboard ticking over’ seems to have become so-last-year: just like in the internationals, Gala turned down kickable penalties in the first quarter in favour of scrums & line outs.
When Gala did let the ball out of their forwards hands, it usually went quickly through Graham & Millar at half back to Emond, and the big 12 hit up the middle to return the ball to the forwards. Ayr were on the defensive for the first 15 minutes, and found the referee difficult to read at times. Eventually Gala pressure told with Euan Dods rumbling over after a good break by the Graham brothers. Lee Millar added the conversion to make it 0-7.
Ayr came back at them immediately, suddenly winning quick ball and recycling it to send Craig Gossman flying over for a try in the corner, with Peter Jericevich gliding through a big gap 3 minutes later, to turn the game on its head at 12-7 Ayr after 22 minutes. That remained the score until half time.
The second period started similar to the first, with Gala having an abundance of possession, allied to a quickened pace, and looking very threatening. Ayr’s discipline in defence was outstanding as their line held firm, and Forrester, Kelbrick, White and Russell all put in notable hits. 10 minutes into the half and Scott Sutherland saw yellow for a professional foul. The big home crowd groaned at the thought of holding out against continued heavy Gala pressure with only 14 men. Murray McConnell came on for Jericevich, and Ayr’s game became little more than a 9 man game, with box kicks or sniping runs from McConnell being the only action their backs saw.
The pressure on Ayr was relieved when Gary Graham saw yellow to even numbers up, Scott Sutherland then returned and in a rare Ayr foray upfield powered over for a try which Russell converted for a 19-7 lead.
Gala threw caution to the wind, Millar throwing long passes out to Auld, who looked more than once as though his clever footwork might break through, but they never managed once to put their fleet-footed subs Gavin Young or Bryce Turner clear. With 2 minutes to go Euan Dods got his second try and Millar converted to give the maroon Borderers hope, but a losing bonus point was all they were to get as Ayr’s exceptional defence, led by the rumbustious Mutamungara, saw out the remaining moments without further incident.
It’s a long time since Scotland had a 10 who could control a game like John Rutherford. We’ve tried hot-housing young potential 10s into the pro game straight from school. None of them yet seems to be able to control a top level game. Rutherford was 24 before he won his first cap. When he first emerged people said he couldn’t kick, but he learned to, and did so beautifully eventually. Gala’s Lee Millar has never had a look-in professionally, but seems to be able to control a game, kicking and passing as well as anyone in Scotland. Physically he is on the small side, but his reading of the game may make up for that. In the Ayr team Finn Russell appears to have all the physique you would want in a 10, his kicking is becoming more confident, but his game management still looks a little immature. Intense Premier 1 games like this can only help develop those skills. The benefit of good coaching from Murray, Graham and their assistants is evident in the steady progress of young players like these.