STORNOWAY Rugby Club were dealt a harsh lesson on what it will take to compete in a higher league this year, after suffering a 25-13 home loss at the hands of Inverurie outfit Garioch RFC last Saturday.
The islanders were beaten by a better team on the day — even if at times they were the equal, and in actual fact easily on top in the early stages of the game. In the end, however, the visitors’ superior forward power and match practice told.
In the rup-up to the game, the islanders knew that if they received enough quality possession they had a backline that would worry any opposition. It was a justified cause for concern.
They went into the game with only one recognised front row player — Innes MacCuish — with Angus ‘Bubble’ MacKay only able to take a place on the bench and the late withdrawal of Murray MacLeod, who suffered a knee injury in midweek.
Davy Graham and Angus ‘Og’ MacArthur stepped up to the front row and while they performed their duties manfully, Garioch simply had too much power and know-how. The result: Stornoway’s set piece, both scrum and lineout, struggled badly.
And yet it all looked so different early on as the home side took a stranglehold of proceedings. Some excellent direct running from Roddy Graham and Jerome Curran tore into the heart of the Garioch defence and put Stornoway on the front foot.
The islanders scored their first try of the match after around 10 minutes when excellent play down the right saw Ruairidh Stewart being held just short.
The ball was then switched to the other side of the park, but again Curran was held just short. Then in came the forwards for a secondary drive, only to see the Garioch defence hold resolute.
However, the ball popped out to Gareth Baker and he touched down across the line. It was too far out for Peter Hobson to convert.
But proving the old adage that you are never more vulnerable than when you have just scored, Garioch came storming back. Angus ‘Og’ MacArthur made an uncharacteristic mistake in fielding the restart and the visitors were given a lineout outside the 22.
A penalty infringement enabled them to kick closer to the line and while that second lineout went wrong Quintin Nel, playing at scrum-half for Stornoway, found himself under severe pressure and the big Garioch second row stole the ball from his grasp and wrestled over the line. The conversion again went wide.
Stornoway were then given a penalty in front of the posts and Hosbson obliged with another three points, only for Garioch to go up to the other end and execute an excellent drop-goal to bring the score back level.
Then came a pivotal moment in the game. Eaun ‘Moley’ MacLeod launched a blistering counter-attack and found himself free out on the right wing.
Bearing down on the last defender he had Ruairidh Stewart on his right shoulder and in space. MacLeod gave the pass but Stewarat took his eye off it and knocked on. With his pace, had he caught it, it would have resulted in a certain try — the rugby equivalent of an open goal.
Shortly after that Garioch broke free on the right for a well-taken effort which left the half-time scoreline at 8-13 in the visitors’ favour.
While Stornoway tried to re-assert themselves in the second half, it was Garioch who kicked on as they began to completely dominate the set piece.
Player-coach Angus ‘Bubble’ MacKay came on in the second half in place of Innes MacCuish and that certainly shored up the scrum, but by then the damage was done.
Garioch registered another two tries — deservedly so — and while the home side did one get back before the end through player-coach MacKay, after a short-tap penalty, it was never going to be enough to ruffle the confident feathers of a well-drilled Garioch side.
Stornoway will have better days at the coal-face and their lack of pre-season preparation was a huge factor on the day.
“Too many of the guys had an off day, it’s that simple,” said Mackay. “If nothing else it should certainly serve as a wake-up call to the squad; we have to be honest with ourselves, we had possession and pressure but couldn’t convert it into points.”
He added: “We know what we are capable of and it’s much more than what we offered on Saturday. The lads are fully aware of that and I’d expect them to lift things from now on.”
The islanders hit the road this week as they travel to Fort William to take on Lochaber. This is a fixture that has proved fruitless for Stornoway in recent years and they will be hoping for an improved performance this time round.
Score: Stornoway 13