Newton Stewart RFC welcomed old rivals Annan RFC to Bladnoch Park last weekend for their second meeting this season.
The away leg at Annan in September was a nail-biting affair with only a glorious final minute try from William McCornick stealing the win for Newton Stewart on that occasion.
As the game got underway, Newton Stewart looked to attack early and put some pressure on the Annan defence. A series of handling errors from the Reds hindered their progress however and they failed to make any significant headway.
The possession was evenly split between the two teams, but it was Newton Stewart who demonstrated the more convincing defence efforts. Annan’s reliable stand-off McCann put his team in some promising field positions with his precise kicking, however the Red wall quickly cleared their lines each time and refused Annan any reward.
Almost 20 minutes passed in the game before any score came, and it was in the form of a penalty kick for Annan, taken by the aforementioned McCann.
Only minutes later, Newton Stewart were awarded a very kickable penalty of their own to even up the scores, however stand-off Muir failed to find the target and the Annan lead prevailed.
As the first half progressed, the Reds continued to thwart their own attacks with loose passes, knock-ons and an apathetic attitude at times. As the Annan players made a nuisance of themselves wherever possible, enjoying the frustration of their opponents, heads went down and tempers flared.
The two fly-halves on the pitch could not have had more contrasting games. Where McCann controlled and challenged, scoring another penalty in the 32nd minute, Muir was lacklustre and missed two more penalties, as well as failing to find touch on occasion.
Late in the first half injury forced some personnel changes, and William McCornick was brought on from the bench to his usual position in the second row, immediately making a positive impact on the attacking play from Newton Stewart.
As half-time rolled in, the Reds found themselves 0-6 down and with a huge psychological challenge ahead of them, as they were finding the greatest hindrance to their scoring in this game was their own mistakes.
The second half remained a painfully tight game to watch, but slowly Newton Stewart began to right some wrongs. James Wallace (capt) and Mark McCornick, both playing in the back row, made some powerful ball carries and started to break through the Annan defences.
Newton Stewart were awarded another penalty for their efforts, and Muir had to square up to his target once more with the immense pressure of knowing that he had missed all kicks so far. This time Muir found the goods and the Reds closed the gap to three points.
Chasing the game now, Newton Stewart played like men possessed. The game remained scrappy and was fraught with tension, but the Reds finally got some fire in their bellies and began to fight to maintain their unbeaten record this season. Back row Euan Dewar was ferocious in his tackling, stopping the Annan advances in their tracks.
As time ticked by the Reds were beginning to look like the dominant team at last, but struggled to get field position from which to attack. The was a real sense of desperation from stand-off Muir now, gunning to make up for the unconverted points in the first half, and he began to play mercilessly in both attack and defence.
With ten minutes left to play, the Reds were hovering anxiously around the halfway line, looking for a way through. Poetic justice was alive and well when the gap fell to Muir and he needed no invitation to run hard through it, being tackled agonisingly close to the try line. Fortunately the support runners were quickly in position and secured the ball, recycling it until it was eventually crashed over the line by William McCornick, who once again proved himself the thorn in Annan’s side! Muir’s kicking continued to misfire and the conversion went wide.
As the minutes ticked by now the defensive effort of the Reds, which has been so consistent this season, became critical. Knowing that giving away a penalty would spell disaster with the in-form McCann on the pitch, composure was essential despite the surging adrenaline.
With the supporters nerves in tatters, the referee blew the final whistle to leave Newton Stewart victorious at 8-6 despite a dismal performance.
It certainly could not be suggested that Newton Stewart deserved to win this game, however the team gritted their teeth when it mattered and made up for their earlier transgressions at the critical moment.
Diamonds in the rough for the Reds this week included James Wallace who kept a cool head when everyone around him was losing theirs. Scrum-half Robbie McCornick had a solid game and ran some serious yards around the pitch, but the standout player once again was Euan Dewar. Powerful running with the ball in hand and fearless tackling made him invaluable once more.
Despite their poorest performance of the season so far, Newton Stewart have not only come out of the weekend victorious in this match, but also top of the league after East Kilbride lost for the second week in a row to leave the Reds one point ahead with a game in hand.
This weekend Newton Stewart welcome Oban RFC. Although sitting near the bottom of the table, they are always a big pack and bring a physical game. The Reds will need to improve on this weeks performance to come out on top.
Team: Tyrell Wilson, Russell Morton, Graham McMillan, Fraser Morton, Liam Brawls, Jamie Muir, Robbie McCornick, Martin Wallace, Thomas MacDonald, Richard Fiskin, Craig Johnstone, Duncan Skimming, Euan Dewar, Mark McCornick, James Wallace (capt). Subs: Craig Murray, William, McCornick, Alisdair Gaw, Stewart McAllister.