By Kevin Robertson, at Myreside
TWO soft tries conceded either side of half-time proved to be Stirling County’s downfall, as the Bridgehaugh side narrowly lost out to Watsonians at the weekend.
It was a closely-contested encounter at a bitterly cold and damp Myreside, but there was some positives as County’s losing bonus-point will undoubtedly prove crucial in their battle to avoid relegation.
Despite four of County’s squad away with the Scotland Under-20s, the visitors’ team was on familiar lines, with props Mike MacDonald and Colin Hutton returning to the front row, Hamilton Burr back in the second row and Alex Taylor at open-side flanker.
Andrew Grant-Suttie made his first league start of the season at blind-side flanker. In the backs Glasgow Warriors professionals Nemia Kenatale returned at scrum-half and South African ex-Stormers Brandon Thomson made his County debut at outside-centre.
Shaun McDonald continued on the right-wing with Jonny Hope captaining the side from full-back.
County attacked from the kick-off, and kept their hosts penned into their 22 and a break by Fijian international Kenatale, put his side to within 10 metres of the home try line, but the visitors squandered the early scoring opportunity.
On six minutes, Watsonians were caught offside in midfield, but the usually reliable Jonny Hope missed his 30-metre penalty attempt, as the swirling wind made goal kicking difficult.
Watsonians came more into the match, and right-winger Rory Steele found himself in the clear, but lost the ball in contact.
The home side continued to press forward, and full-back Andrew Chalmers gathered a high ball and made ground through the centre, before County were penalised for not rolling away from the tackle. Stand-off Ewan Scott kicked the 25-metre penalty to give Watsonians a three-point advantage with 15 minutes played.
Ten minutes later, the home side had a clear opportunity to extend their lead when scrum-half Reiss Cullen and his pack got to within a few metres of the visitors’ line, before the ball was passed to the on-rushing Craig Borthwick, but County’s defence stood firm and the ball was stripped from the Watsonians’ second-row allowing the visitors to clear..
On the half-hour, County stand-off Ross Jones broke clear from inside his own half before off-loading to Kenatale who took play into the home ‘22’.
The visitors then won a penalty from a good scrum and Kenatale took a quick tap which caught the home defence off-guard
The quick-footed County scrum-half was tackled close to the try-line, but he managed to slip a pass to the supporting back-rower Andrew Grant-Suttie who dived over for the opening try to the right of the posts, giving County a 3-5 lead. Hope missed the conversion.
Three minutes before the break, Watsonians’ skipper Rory Drummond was yellow carded for a deliberate knock-on. County immediately took full advantage when inside-centre Alex Black went over for a try close to the uprights, following a series of attacking phases within the home 22. Hope added the conversion to put County 3-12 ahead.
County hooker Reyner Kennedy left the field with a blood injury, with Matt Emmison coming on as temporary replacement.
Fourteen-man Watsonians responded and attacked down the right flank, but the ball was knocked on and County were awarded a scrum five-metres from their own line.
The visitors initially secured the ball from the set-piece, but took the ball into contact rather than kick to touch and carelessly turned over possession to the grateful Watsonians' winger Keith Young who scored an unconverted try in the left corner, with the last play of the first half, to reduced County’s lead to four points.
Half-time: Watsonians 8-12 Stirling County.
Four minutes into the second half Scott missed a kickable penalty for Watsonians, after County were caught off-side, before Drummond returned to the action from the sin-bin.
After 50 minutes County brought on prop Mark Hunter for Mike MacDonald to freshen up their scrum, but from the next set-piece Watsonians took the lead when Drummond picked up from the base of the scrum, surprisingly found himself in space, and ran in from 20 metres un-opposed to score a try in the right corner, which Scott converted from the touchline to put the Edinburgh side back in front at 15-12.
Both sides tried to attack at every opportunity in deteriorating weather conditions, but scoring chances were scare.
County brought on Logan Bonnar for Alex Black, with Bonnar going to full-back, Hope covering outside-centre and Thomson moving to inside-centre.
Emmison then replaced Kennedy at hooker and Matt Donaldson came on at scrum-half with Kentale moving to the left-wing and Shaun McDonald to flanker in place of the retiring Alex Taylor.
With 10 minutes remaining, a kick ahead and hack on by Jones nearly led to a County try, but Watsonians’ McKean won the chase to recover possession.
In the closing stages, the visitors kept the pressure on, and when the ball was moved wide to the left wing, Logan Trotter briefly found himself in space, but he was bundled into touch by the scrambling Watsonians’ defence, just short of the try-line.
In the final seconds, County secured possession from their scrum feed, five-metres from the home line, and drove the ball forward, but a couple of phases later the ball was lost, allowing Watsonians to clear, secure the victory and their place in the BT Premiership next season.
Final score: Watsonians 15-12 Stirling County 12.
County remain in seventh-position in the BT Premiership, only three points above the relegation play-off place, meaning the Bridgehaugh team still need to win at least one of their final two matches to ensure they retain their top-flight status.
Their penultimate BT Premiership match is at home to Heriot’s this Saturday, February 18, with a 3pm kick off at Bridgehaugh is 3pm.