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Garnock U18 Lose Thrilling Semi-Final

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National U18 Bowl Semi-final

Orkney 24-20 Garnock

A depleted squad of 15 players and 4 coaches left a stormy Beith at 07:30 on Friday morning to make their way to John O’Groats to catch the evening Gill’s Bay ferry to Orkney. I should add at this point that the staff at Pentland Ferries drew aside the coaches and commended us on the boy’s courtesy and charm; clearly the influence of their coaches is having a desirable effect. Thankfully, despite storm Abigail’s best efforts, the ferry ran on time and the party arrived safely at the rain-battered Kirkwall YHA for the night.

By midday on Saturday the skies had cleared but the gales continued unabated.  Like Garnock, the Orkney squad found themselves stripped to the bare minimum as the Saturday morning ferry had been cancelled leaving 6 Caithness players stranded on the Mainland. A succession of rapid phone calls and some strenuous arm-twisting succeed in increasing their ranks to 18, an advantage that proved to be critical.  In addition, Garnock travelled without several key players and some serious re-jigging of the team was required.

The squad: (1) Euan Ferguson: (2) Aaron Armstrong: (3) Grant Bryden: (4) Manu Clark: (5) Jay Hyslop: (6) Alex Shearer: (7) Ross Brocket: (8) Fraser Ewington: (9) Matt Richmond: (10) Per Jacobson: (11) Angus Dickson: (12) Keir Walker: (13) Fraser Brocket: (14) Evan Sandford: (15) Jordan Gilbert

Garnock lost the toss and played into the gale but soon demonstrated their resolve through a succession of quick rucks, driving fringe play, and slick back moves that put Fraser Brocket (13), in for a try by the right-hand corner flag. The wind made the conversion impossible from the touch line but Garnock were 0-5 up.  Garnock continued to dominate with good breaks from Fraser Ewington (8) and Fraser Brocket (13) again who both carried for over 20 metres and were stopped just short of the try line inside the 5 metre zone. Orkney clung on, defended desperately and used the advantage of the wind to clear their lines. On one of their few forays into the Garnock half Dylan Evans, Orkney’s number 3, slipped a couple of tackles and raced 30 metres to score between the posts; the conversion was successful, 7-5 to Orkney. Immediately after the restart Garnock re-imposed their authority and were awarded a penalty for a ruck infringement deep inside the Orkney 22. Keir Walker (12), took advantage of a quick tap and darted over the line to score, but again kicking into the gale proved to be impossible; Orkney 7- Garnock 10. The half continued with Garnock in the ascendency and Jay Hyslop (5) dominating both offensive and defensive lineouts, and the Garnock pack exerting tremendous pressure in the scrum. Also, Matt Richmond (9), a winger-come-full-back converted for the first time to number 9, began to gain confidence and find his rhythm; with quicker and better quality ball the Garnock backs began to look a bigger threat. None-the-less, despite several decisive breaks (from Euan Ferguson (1), Fraser Ewington (8) again, Fraser Brocket (13), and Keir Walker (12)), the scoreboard remained unchanged at the turn-around. With the wind now behind them and the scoreboard in their favour, Garnock’s confidence was high.

Unfortunately for Garnock, however, the wind dropped significantly just as the second half started and Orkney began to make good use of their rolling substitutes. As the half wore on Garnock started to tire and Orkney got into their stride with excellent play from their outside centre, Douglas Murray, in particular, who crossed the Garnock line near the posts to make the score 12-10 in Orkney’s favour.  Unperturbed, Garnock re-grouped and worked the ball back up field with a succession of driving rucks and the occasional wide move.  Orkney again infringed at the breakdown just outside of the Orkney 5 metre line, and again Keir Walker (12) caught Orkney napping, took a quick tap penalty and raced over the line; the decreasing wind still proved to be a decisive factor, however, and the conversion sailed wide leaving the score 12-15 to Garnock. With ten minutes remaining Garnock found themselves camped in Orkney’s half and were awarded another penalty for a breakdown infringement; the ball was despatched to the touchline 8 metres from the Orkney try line.  The ensuing lineout was executed brilliantly and from the driving maul, the excellent Fraser Ewington (8) broke away to score near the corner flag; the conversion attempt was unsuccessful. At 12-20 and only eight minutes left Garnock were beginning to believe this was their day, but tiredness had clearly slowed their line speed and the refreshed, big ball-carrying Orkney forwards were starting to wrestle the ascendancy away from Garnock.  To their credit, Orkney didn’t let the clock or their situation affect their resolve and they worked tirelessly to drive the ball up to the Garnock 5 metre line; there were countless phases of play and eventually the Orkney pack drove hooker Robbie Hay over near the left-hand corner flag to make the score 17-20 to Garnock.  Garnock were now dead on their feet but still continued to defend heroically with Garnock’s left wing, Evan Sandford (14), making two try-saving tackles in rapid succession. With just one minute left on the clock, the Orkney backs worked the ball wide and Sam Croy (10) managed to evade two desperate Garnock tacklers and race down the touch line for a wonderful try and what proved to be the winning converted score; 24-20 to Orkney.  Garnock’s ‘make-shift’ scrum half, Matt Richmond, was now in total command of his forwards and bullied them into ‘fronting up’ and find the strength from somewhere to work the ball back into Orkney’s 22 and apply some pressure – thrilling end-to-end stuff – but Orkney’s defence was commendable and when the ball did finally go dead, full time was called and there were exhausted, delighted, relieved, bloodied, and despondent players scattered across the turf.

Needless-to-say the Garnock boys were devastated, but found the grace to be magnanimous in defeat. The Orkney club, their players, and their coach Les Howard in particular, were excellent hosts and kept us all entertained in their club house until the evening curfew. The consensus for the night was that either team would have been worthy winners: Garnock are a young squad (we had only two players born in 1998 whilst Orkney had only three born in 1999) who simply ran out of energy: with a few reserves the game could have swung in Garnock’s favour. Orkney will be worthy winners if they can defeat Dundee Eagles in the final – we wish them good luck.

Man of the Match?  Someone else choose, please – I can’t.  And what positives can be taken from the game?  Garnock’s scrum and line out are still to meet their match.  The fine margins between success and failure are vanishing. Hard work is getting more bodies to the breakdown, and once there clear heads are affecting the outcome. Evasive heavy and light brigade ball carriers now routinely cross the gain line. There is a declining missed tackle count and the defensive line speed is improving. There are fewer tactical errors. Sadly, no National Final this year, but most pleasing (and if I might be permitted to paraphrase – perhaps this best sums it up) “…we few, we happy few, we band of brothers; for he that sheds his blood with me today shall be my brother…”. Alright, now put the box of tissues and weepy sentiments away for a few days, Kilmarnock are up next.

(Update: National Bowl U18 Final Orkney/Caithness 21-12 Dundee Eagles.  Congratulations to them..!)

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