by Craig Wright
Stirling County are into their first-ever national cup final, after a clinical 51-19 victory over Hawick at Bridgehaugh.
The Bridgehaugh side proved too strong for their opponents, running in eight tries in total in a dominant attacking display.
In front of their home supporters, it was County that made the stronger start as Hawick struggled to live with the early defensive pressure. The home side were duly rewarded with the first points of the game after eight minutes, with captain Jonny Hope slotting a penalty from 35 metres to put his side 3-0 in front.
The Bridgehaugh side were beginning to dominate in contact, with the home crowd sensing a breakthrough was imminent. It arrived in the form of the game’s first try on 15 minutes; a miscued Hawick clearance was fielded by Kerr Gossman, who fed Hope infield. The full-back linked up with Niko Matawalu to burst into the Hawick 22, before feeding Peter Jericevich to allow the scrum-half to barge over the line from close-range. Hope converted, and County led 10-0.
However, with the two sides having been separated by a single point in the final standings of the BT Premiership, no-one at Bridgehaugh was expecting a one-sided score-line. As if to prove this point, the visitors scored their opening try on their first visit to County territory, with scrum-half Greg Cottrell sniping over from the base of a ruck. Lee Armstrong converted, and the game was well and truly on.
Chances were proving to be few and far between in the opening stanza, with both sides looking to make the most of them when they came their way – something at which Matawalu has proven himself to be an expert time and time again. After a maul was stopped just short of the line, the Fijian proved to be sharpest of mind to pick the ball up from the base of the ruck and dot down for the score. Hope was off target with the conversion, leaving the score at 15-7 in favour of the home side.
With three minutes left in the half, County struck again. Once more, it was Matawalu who proved to be the beneficiary, with the Glasgow Warriors professional the one to cross after sustained attacking pressure from the hosts. Hope made light of the tricky conversion, taking the score to 22-7 at the interval.
County knew that there could be no let-up in their intensity at the start of the second period, and duly extended their lead yet further on 42 minutes. A driving maul from 10 metres proved too much for Hawick to handle, with hooker Reyner Kennedy touching down. The conversion went astray, but the home side now had a 20-point cushion.
The visitors knew they needed to score next to maintain their hopes of cup glory, and score next they did. With a penalty advantage in his back pocket, Armstrong’s floated pass was collected by Gary Munro, who finished well in the corner. Armstrong’s conversion attempt sailed wide, with the score-line reading 27-12 to County after 53 minutes.
However, as had been the case all afternoon, it was once again the County defence that was the game’s dominant factor. With Hawick looking to find a breakthrough, a loose pass in midfield was scooped up by replacement Chris Fusaro, with the back-row scampering home from 45 metres to slide over under the posts. Hope made no mistake with the simplest of conversions to take the score to 34-12 to the hosts.
The Bridgehaugh men were now beginning to enjoy themselves, throwing the ball around with abandon. With the Hawick defence stretched, Kerr Gossman showed great strength and footwork to break through three tackles and touch down under the posts. Hope converted, and the County supporters were in full voice.
Their voices got even louder just two minutes later, as a terrific break from replacement hooker Matt Emmison was illegally halted just inches short of the line. With Hawick’s Andrew Mitchell sent to the sin bin for his troubles, it was a simple matter of feeding Gossman from the resulting scrum for his second try in as many minutes. The conversion was missed, but with the score now reading 46-12 to the home side, few spent too long lamenting the fact.
Indeed, they could barely afford to linger on missed points, with County now cutting through the Borderers’ defence at will. Impressive interplay between the Stirling back-line once again saw Fusaro break an attempted tackle and sprint home from 45 metres, roared on by the home crowd. Gary Robertson, on at full-back for Hope, missed his first conversion attempt, but County were now past the half-century.
There was to be a consolatory score for the visitors as the clock ticked towards full-time, with Callum McClelland eventually crossing the whitewash after a lengthy period of Hawick possession. Armstrong converted, giving the travelling supporters something to cheer about.
It would be the home supporters that would go home by far the happiest, however, with their side securing a place in the BT Cup final for the first time in their history. The men from Bridgehaugh advance to take on Melrose in the final at BT Murrayfield on Saturday 28 April, with their hopes of silverware still very much alive.