Rugby: Stew-Mel at the head of play-off pack

Alan Whittingham scores one of the six Stewart's Melville tries. Pic: Phil Wilkinson
Alan Whittingham scores one of the six Stewart's Melville tries. Pic: Phil Wilkinson
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Stewart’s Melville coach Bruce Macnaughton has hailed the contribution of his pack to a masterful display that saw the Inverleith men seize the initiative in the race for the RBS ­National League promotion play-off spot.

Macnaughton’s side saw off Hillhead/Jordanhill 34-10 to claim all five points and leapfrog Capital rivals Watsonians, who went down 26-13 at home to Kelso. That result also put paid to ’Sonians’ title bid and handed the title to Boroughmuir.

Stew-Mel dominated proceedings, bagging six tries to extend their unbeaten run in the league to 12 matches, and although winger Matt Morrell was the star man with a hat-trick of tries, Macnaughton handed the credit for the win to the forwards.

“Our scrummaging was good and that’s traditionally a big pack [Hillhead/Jordanhill] and we murdered them in the scrum. Our front row is very strong,” said Macnaughton, who admitted that his players are feeling the strain as the possibility of a step into the top flight moves ever closer.

“Nobody is mentioning it. We just count down and say: ‘If you win the next four games you’ll be in Premier 1’, so now it’s: ‘If you win the next three games you’re in Premier 1.’ But they’ve got to go out and win them. They know they are under pressure and they can’t afford to lose,” he added.

While taking nothing for granted with matches against Kelso and Watsonians next on the agenda, he is confident that his men have the weapons in their armoury to book a showdown with the second bottom team in the Premiership.

Stew-Mel squandered umpteen scoring opportunities before finally making the breakthrough in 24 minutes when Morrell darted in for the first of his three scores. By the interval, the hosts were 17-0 ahead after Ruaridh Stewart applied the final touch following a powerful drive at a close range scrum, then Dave Hampton sprinted in to dot down and leave Nick McCashin a straightforward conversion.

Macnaughton conceded that nerves had played a part in the delayed arrival of the opening try, although the truncated nature of the league programme was also a factor.

“The way we played second half was good. The first half was a bit nervy. That’s understandable – not just nerves, it’s the system as well. They haven’t played for a couple of weeks and they’ve only played twice since December, so you’re going to get rustiness, but once they got into the game in the second half, they played some really good stuff.”

The bonus point score came within three minutes of the restart, the impressive McCashin sparking a move that featured hooker Nick Hart as the link man before Morrell raced over for a converted try.

Allan Whittingham barged his way over for number five and Morrell took the touchdown tally to six when he speared through the opposition defence to score between the posts. McCashin’s conversion put the hosts 34-0 ahead entering the final quarter. And although the visitors trimmed the deficit with tries by Andy Leslie and Blair McPherson, Macnaughton was not too concerned given that Stew-Mel’s points difference is inferior to that of their rivals for second spot in the table.

“The main thing was that all our subs were on. There are a couple of teenagers on there and I wouldn’t normally give them a game if it’s tight, so I’m not too concerned,” he added. “It’s better for them to have the experience. The points aren’t going to make any difference.”

Across the city, ’Sonians went into their match at home to Kelso with a one-point advantage over Stew-Mel and knowing that wins in each of their remaining three fixtures would clinch the runners-up spot and might even snatch the title on points difference from Boroughmuir. However, the Borderers had other plans and defeat for ‘Sonians means the Myreside men can no longer bridge the gap at the top of the table.

Their focus is now on the race for second place and a chance to go head to head with the side finishing second from bottom in the RBS Premiership.

Wins next time out for both ’Sonians and Stew-Mel will set up an intriguing showdown between the duo on the final day of the season.

However, Dundee High have not yet been ruled out of the reckoning, and could yet muscle in on the race for second place.

Scorers:

Stewart’s Melville: Tries – Morrell (3), Stewart, Hampton, Whittingham. Cons – McCashin (2).

Hillhead/Jordanhill: Tries – A Leslie, McPherson.

Stewart’s Melville: M Hanning, M Morrell, D Hampton, N Bowie, A Whittingham, N McCashin, F Strachan, W Aitken, N Hart, R Morgan, S Brewster, F Morrison, B Wilson, S Wilson, R Stewart. Subs used: C Mackay, G Campbell, J Hamblin, C Beattie, S Trotter.

Hillhead/Jordanhill: S Mills, D Osugo, C Butler, A Holland, S Halliday, R Holland, A Leslie, W Goulden, J Leslie, M Robertson, A Lean, E Grai, D Grove, S Ross, B McPherson. Subs used: C Buchan, D Crichton, D Paterson, A Macmillan, L McKinney.

Referee: N Muir