Rugby: Title dream over as Currie succumb to Melrose

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Currie coach Ally Donaldson admitted another Scottish Premiership rugby title was now out of reach after a 22-26 defeat by leaders Melrose at Malleny Park.

But, while disappointed with the outcome, Donaldson immediately set his side the target of maintaining acquaintance with the British and Irish Cup by finishing in the top three for the third successive season.

“The league has gone, but if we win the three games we have left at home to Ayr and Aberdeen and away to Dundee I’m sure we’ll be in the B&I Cup with a squad that has been expanded with younger players coming through this season.”

While this was Currie’s first defeat at home to Melrose for three seasons, Donaldson refused to be down on his players or take umbrage at a high penalty count which meant a flowing game struggled to break out among the constant blasts on referee James Matthew’s whistle.

Insisting that the emphasis was better placed on “a couple of tactical errors” made by his side, Donaldson, who has been heard shouting “discipline” from the sidelines, nevertheless admitted: “Some of our experienced guys are baffled as to why they were getting penalised. For example, we had dominance in the scrum but we were getting penalised there. Why would we collapse a scrum five metres out from the Melrose line?”

And with an air of exasperation which matched the unfamiliar booing from a section of the Currie crowd at full time, which was clearly directed at the match officials, the coach added: “We’ve put a huge amount of effort into our discipline. We don’t want to cheat refs.

“We have experienced players like Mark Cairns and Ross Weston with Fergus Scott a member of the [Scotland] under-20 squad . . . There’s a feeling in the dressing room that decisions weren’t going both ways.”

Doubtless every decision could be justified, but it seemed strange that referee Matthew could spot, and crack down hard on, the most marginal transgression at the bottom of a ruck while oblivious to a series of Melrose scrum feeds going in closer to the feet of the back row than the front row.

Credit the Borderers for the way they related better to the referee’s interpretations and for showing character when falling behind with 16 minutes remaining. But it all added to home frustration, albeit a stoical Donaldson maintained: “I am very proud particularly to have taken the try count 3-2 against the league leaders and with the injuries we have got behind the scrum, the disruptions we have had.”

That casualty list intensified when stand-off Jamie Forbes retired with cracked ribs minutes after giving Currie an early 3-0 lead with a penalty.

“Jamie was probably the back we could least afford to lose and we even started with a forward, Malcolm Peacock, on the wing,” noted Donaldson.

“Guys who came in like Malcolm and [sub] Fraser Strachan, who was thrown in at the deep end, did well and we have made progress in adding to our squad this season. If we get into the B&I Cup it will be a big achievement with all that’s gone on. We’ve had a lot of bad luck – but that’s rugby.”

Coincidentally an article in the Currie programme had centred on the “if onlys” which can determine the outcome of matches. Just how narrow the margins are can be summed up by the fact that if they’d managed a fourth try without further reply Currie would have capitalised on defeats for Dundee and Gala to leapfrog a Melrose side who, admittedly, have a game in hand to go top of the table.

At least Currie improved their situation through the losing bonus point and that rewarded leadership shown in adversity by the likes of centres Andy McMahon and Barry Mansfield as well as scrum-half Richard Snedden and prop John Cox.

When Loma Kivalu rumbled over for his second try to put Currie ahead, there were ample opportunities to close out the contest, but a series of handling errors coupled with Melrose’s fighting spirit put paid to that.

After Forbes’ fifth minute penalty three similar awards for Andrew Skeen opened up a gap which increased when he converted a try by Fraser Thomson owning much to a missed tackle in open play.

Two close range tries from Kivalu, who arrived last month from New Zealand, converted by Mansfield overturned the visitors’ lead after fierce scrum pressure, but instead of kicking on more, errors saw Alan Dodds cut through for Skeen to add a conversion and a penalty before Steve Burton’s late try off a charged down kick brought that losing bonus which could be vital in the B&I Cup place quest.

Scorers: Currie: Tries: Kivalu (2), Burton. Conversions: Mansfield (2) Penalty: Forbes. Melrose: Tries: Thomson, A Dodds. Conversions: Skeen (2) Penalties: Skeen (4).

Currie: A Whittingham, R Neill, B Mansfield, A McMahon, M Peacock, J Forbes, R Sneddon, J Cox, F Scott, L Kivalu, S Marcell, G Temple, S Burton, R Weston, M Cairns. Subs: M Erskine, W Elmslie, A Best, F Strachan, I Downie.

Melrose: F Thomson, A Dodds, B Dick, C Murray, J Helps, A Skeen, B Colvine, N Little, R Ferguson, G Holborn, S Johnson, R Millar, R Ovens, G Dodds, G Runciman. Subs: N Beavon, C Keen, D Crawford, S McCormick, S Wight.

Referee: J Matthew (SRU)