Original report by Stephen Brunsdon.
MUSSELBURGH head coach Derek O’Riordan knew it. The players knew it. With Premiership survival at stake, everyone knew this was a must-win match for the hosts against travelling Jed-Forest. That they did so with a bonus-point was proof enough that nothing is decided at the bottom of the table yet.
The home side scored six tries in total, including three from driving line-out mauls in a dominant first half, but came under intense pressure as Jed muscled their way back into the match in the second period. It was a gutsy performance from Burgh, who made sure of their fourth victory of the season thanks to a crucial late turnover.
Musselburgh are now level on points with GHA with both teams having a game left to play (against Glasgow Hawks and Hawick away, respectively, on 18th February), while Heriot’s Blues are one point behind but have a game in hand.
“We came into this game with a pretty coherent plan of what we needed to do to win,” said O’Riordan. “And for 50 minutes or so we executed well, but we knew there would be a momentum swing in the game and how we managed that was going to be key.
“It never felt like Jed had a killer instinct in the match and, if we had another chance to score, everything would go right for us.”
Key to executing the plan for the home side was keeping hold of the ball and not letting attacking-minded Jed fire a shot. To say that worked a treat would be an understatement as a trio of almost carbon-copy set-piece tries gave Burgh a healthy 15-0 lead inside half an hour.
Jed’s indiscipline undoubtedly played a factor in giving Burgh the upper hand early doors, however.
Hooker Robert Stott was the beneficiary of the first catch-and-drive after 18 minutes, and he didn’t have to wait long to bag his second on the other side of the pitch as Jed lost back-rower Ben Fotheringham to a yellow card for collapsing the maul.
Barely 10 minutes later, Burgh had a third score, and you would be hard pressed to find much difference in the build-up, except this time it was prop Neil McNairn who touched down. Again, Jed infringed near the halfway line and were pegged back deep in their 22 by Paul Cunningham boot. And much like the second try, Jed lost another player to the bin, as centre Owen Cranston took a 10-minute rest.
The half-time break could not come quickly enough for the visitors, having failed to translate early periods of possession and territory into points. When they did have the ball, Jed looked dangerous but too often they found themselves on the other side of refereeing decisions and excellent breakdown work from Musselurgh’s dynamic back-row.
“We were playing catch-up all game really, and we didn’t shut them down enough in the first half,” Jed-Forest coach Andrew Brown said. “We never fired a shot in the first half either and our penalty count was too high. As soon as we started increasing the tempo, we pulled them apart and they couldn’t live with us, but we weren’t consistent enough.”
Jed needed to respond in the second half if they were to stand any chance of reducing the 15-point deficit. They did that, but not before Burgh secured the bonus-point try two minutes after the break through Danny Owenson.
The home team’s scrum-half and captain had misfired from the kicking tee in the opening period and had injured his ankle following a challenge for the ball on the ground, but sniped from the base of the ruck two yards out as a dazed Jed struggled to contain a rampant home side.
The Jed fightback began with a distinct change in mindset from Brown’s squad. There appeared to be a desperation in their play which, when ball went to hand, proved too much for Burgh to cope with.
Back-rower Garry Young touched down from short range as the Jed pack asserted their physicality in typical Jed fashion.
Thee hosts responded superbly to score their fifth try by reverting back to the tried-and-tested rolling maul from a penalty line-out. Having briefly left the field through injury, McNairn crashed over for his second of the day. Cunningham took over from Owenson with the conversion, but his effort was pulled wide of the posts.
At 25-5, the game looked won but Jed are rarely beaten until the final whistle blows. Steering the ship in attack was Gary Munro, and he scored his team’s second try by taking a quick tap penalty five yards out and sliding over.
Munro converted himself and then just five minutes later helped winger Robbie Shirra-Gibb cross for the Borderers’ third try, changing the line of attack with a cross-field kick which was missed by Burgh’s Rory Watt.
Jed were now in search of a pair of bonus points at worst and an unlikely victory at best, but Burgh had the last word as winger Tom Foley finished off a flowing attack in the corner to all but guarantee the win.
Shirra-Gibb ensured Jed didn’t leave Stoneyhill completely empty-handed as he scored his second try after a long floated pass from Munro with five minutes left to play, but it proved too little, too late for the visitors.
“It was always in the back of the mind that we might throw the win away, but I was pretty confident that we had learned our lesson from last weekend against GHA where we nearly did the same,” O’Riordan added. “That would have been us in terms of relegation, but today I think there was always enough in the tank to see out the win, it was just our strategy that needed to work well. We got a couple of turnovers, won the restart and did the right things in terms of managing that momentum swing.”
For Jed, defeat has not affected their placing in the table, but Brown is keen to build towards next season with strong performances and consistency to see out this year’s campaign.
“You can’t win without the ball, and we didn’t have the ball,” he acknowledged. “We’re looking to finish strongly, this is a three-year plan for us, we are a team in transition, and we need to hit the ground running next year. The Cup fixture against Hawick next week is a Border derby and we want to improve against the best team in the league.”