Sunday, 8 December 2013

Ayr 41 Ulster Ravens 22

It might be the Ulster 'A' side who have the ornithological nickname, but it was Ayr who spread their wings and flew through an exciting eighty minutes of British and Irish Cup action at a muddy Millbrae yesterday.

Coming on the back of three defeats in a row in the RBS Premiership, the home side were looking for a morale-boosting display and from the whistle, it didn't look like they were going to achieve it. 

Ravens quickly gathered the ball and fired it to outside centre Stuart McCloskey, who skipped his way through the Ayr defenders and before anyone knew it, had raced up the wing to score with barely a minute on the clock. James McKinney added the conversion.  0-7.

Ayr refocussed and got the upper hand at the line-out, stealing Ravens ball, and held their own at the scrum.  Winger Richard Dalgleish displayed some fancy footwork early on and scrum-half Murray McConnell showed great strength to fend off tackles from Ulster academy players Jonny Murphy and Kyle McCall and bash his way out of his own half.

Centres Ross Curle and Robbie Fergusson combined to move the ball quickly up the park, finding flanker James Eddie who almost reached the tryline, dragging two Ravens tacklers along behind him before they could bring him down.  They kept the attack going and moved the ball left to find stand-off Finn Russell who dived over for their opening try, which he also converted.  7-7.

Peter McCallum showed just why he had been voted Ayr's player of the month for November, his catch from the restart just one example of his all-round skill.  It allowed Russell to release Scotland 7s cap Byron McGuigan to launch his first proper attack, which eventually came to nothing when he ran out of space on the wing.

Russell and McGuigan were involved a few minutes later when, along with Curle and Fergusson, they got the ball to within centimetres of the Ravens line.  The visitors' strong defence held out for a few phases, but flanker Andrew Dunlop burrowed his way over for Ayr's second try.  Russell's conversion was wide.  12-7.

McGuigan and Fergusson were putting in some big hits, as well as confounding Ravens with their mazy running.  Prop George Hunter put in a good shift with some much needed turnovers and solid tackles and Scott Sutherland was yet again Mr Reliable in the line-out before he limped off to be replaced by Graham Williamson.

Ayr's confidence, typified by some cheeky interplay between Russell and Fergusson, seemed to rattle Ravens, but the presence of Grand Slam winner Paddy Wallace, captaining the side at outside centre, steadied the visitors. 

Man-of-the-match McConnell was spotting holes in Ravens' defence and providing his attackers with swift ball, but Fergusson, along with full-back and captain Grant Anderson, couldn't find a way through, as Wallace and McCloskey closed the gaps.

It was Ravens' infringement at the scrum that gave Ayr their next chance for points and Russell kicked a penalty with five minutes to go in the first half.  15-7.

A few minutes later and Ravens replied with a penalty by McKinney.  15-10.

A charge-down by Ayr hooker Fergus Scott further frustrated the Northern Irish side and they must have breathed a sigh of relief when half-time came.

The Ulster men returned to the now churned-up turf with a spring in their step in the second half and a fumble on his own tryline from Fergusson almost let Ravens' replacement back David Busby touch down for a score, but Ayr's young centre managed to shove him off the pitch.

Ravens' full-back Ricky Andrew was leading the charge and only a tough tackle from Glasgow Warriors' hooker Finlay Gillies, making his first appearance for Ayr as a substitute, stopped him doing any real damage.

However, the Ravens' tails were up and they displayed great patience and fortitude to get flanker Conor Joyce over for a try at forty-seven minutes.  McKinney missed the conversion.  15-15.

It was at this point that Ravens could have pulled away, but Ayr wouldn't let them.  Gillies surprised everyone by deftly kicking on and when the visitors sent it back, the ball went straight into the arms of his fellow Warrior Scott Wight, who had come off the bench for Ayr a few minutes before.  He moved it out wide to reach the hands of Curle, who motored in behind the posts for a try.  Russell got the extras.  22-15.

Five minutes later, Wight and Curle were causing trouble for Ravens again, pushing play right up to the five-metre line.  Hunter somehow emerged from the huge muddy pile of bodies to go over for his first try of the season and Ayr's fourth of the game.  Russell's conversion just floated over the crossbar.  29-15.

By now, the Millbrae crowd was reaching its rowdy peak and as the fans got fired up, so did the players, perhaps a bit too much.  Although they secured another turnover, they knocked on a couple of times, as did Ravens. 

With the visitors getting a scrum on their own five-metre line, Ayr saw the perfect opportunity to mess it up and it was terrier-like McConnell who snapped at the ankles of number eight Adrian Hamilton to get the ball.  A few moments later and Curle had got it to touch down out wide for his second try.  Russell's conversion was short.  34-15.

Ravens weren't done yet, however.  Winger Peter Nelson combined with full-back Andrew to allow replacement Adam Liddell to go over for a try.  McKinney got the conversion.  34-22.

Ayr decided that attack was the best form of defence and although the vistors were pressing for more points, Wight, McGuigan, Scott, replacement scrum-half Peter Jericevich and winger Kerr Gossman, who came off the bench for Dalgleish, were keen to stretch their legs.

When they did have to defend, they were dogged, not allowing Ravens to leave their own half.  Stuart Fenwick, on for prop D'arcy Rae, led the way with an excellent turnover.  A scrum for each side followed, but it was a line-out that allowed Ayr to have the final say.  A good catch from Eddie set up a strong drive and Hunter went over for his second and Ayr's sixth try.  Russell converted.  41-22.

Time was up and after applauding their opponents into the clubhouse, the men in pink and black returned to the field for a post-match huddle to mull over a spirited team performance.

Final score: Ayr 41 Ulster Ravens 22.

- Elena Hogarth.

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