Stirling County came into this fifth game of their first season in the British & Irish cup looking to restore some dignity after their 10-87 loss at Goldingham Rd in November. They did so not without some hope after a good run of form in recent weeks. County had Johnny Hope at full back for the injured Ben Addison, and were glad to have their regular additions from Glasgow Warriors, Byron McGuigan, Mark Bennett and Scotland call-up Sean Kennedy all starting, as well as Ed Kalman and Jon Welsh, much needed props returning from injury, to play 40 minutes each.
Bedford are third in the Championship and started off with a bulky pack which threatened to steamroller County, and an intelligent half back combination of Luke Baldwin and Ian Vass, who linked quickly and set their pacy backs, Stephenson, Pritchard and Dodge running freely. Just 5 minutes had gone when Vass & Baldwin exchanged quick passes to put the impressive hard running No 7 Tom Armes (ex Leicester) in for a score under the posts. Pritchard converted. It looked ominous.
Then Mark Bennett entered the game; a miss step, beat his man on the outside, and ran purposefully deep into the Bedford 22, before his pass to Rory Hughes landed in touch. Bedford had a mis-throw from the lineout which the alert Robbie Boswell pounced on for a try with Brian Archibald converting. Game on.
20 minutes in and the big Bedford pack mauled hooker Chris Locke over for their second try. At this stage Vass was spreading the play quickly from side to side and County had Hughes and Hope to thank for last ditch tackles that kept Bedford at bay. Gillanders, the Bedford 6, is Scots qualified, and was leaping at the lineout like a salmon, but many of the other bulky Blues forwards were flattering to deceive. Swindall & Barsanti were showing all their nous in the back row and young Rauridh Leishman showed enough at the heart of the forward battle to suggest he might be the next lock of the County conveyor belt after Gilchrist, McAlpine and Adam Sinclair, with the Daddy of them all – Al Kellock – supporting them warmly from the stand.
County’s players don’t lack for collective self-belief – they often come back into a game after falling behind – but they sometimes could show a little more arrogance and volume in the face of the opposition to intimidate them. Their quiet start to the second half yielded 2 more tries to Bedford – the fleet-footed Stephenson and the languid Mark Atkinson (ex-Wasps) – with Pritchard converting one to give Bedford a four try bonus and a secure looking 24-7 lead.
But Jon Welsh had come off the bench for County and was already producing pressure in the scrum and when Bedford had their replacement prop yellow-carded Stirling took advantage. Kennedy drew his man, slipped a pass to Mark Bennett who turned on the after-burners to again beat his man on the outside, before drawing the full back to him and giving a lovely inside pass to Byron McGuigan to score. Archibald concerted. Then the legendary linesman Gus Tweedale gave County a helping hand by calling a pass to McGuigan ‘forward’, which stopped the Bedford wing dead in his tracks, before the referee indicated ‘play on’ and by this time McGuigan had up a head of steam that enabled him to beat 3 despairing tackles and score under the posts. Archibald’s conversion made it 24-21 with 10 minutes left. County nearly grabbed it at the end when Bennett again beat his man on the outside and was hauled down just 1 yard short of the line.
The watching Gregor Townsend must have been pleased to see Ed Kalman back on the pitch, impressed by Jon Welsh’s immediate impact, and be finding it increasingly difficult to ignore Mark Bennett’s claims for a shot in the Glasgow 13 jersey. He really can take & give a pass very impressively, not always a given in Scottish back play, and he can spot a gap & has the pace to exploit it.
At half time I glanced at Stirling 1st XV pictures in the club house. There’s one from 2001 that features Kellock, Hogg and McMillan who’ve all gone on to successful pro careers. But alongside them 11 years ago sit Alex Moffat & Craig Deacons – still out on the pitch at the heart of County’s forward effort. That kind of loyalty, stamina and consistency is the heart of a team that allows it to develop the Kennedy’s and the Bennett’s and playing at this level is fitting reward for their outstanding club careers.