Reversal of Fortune

5th December 2021

Having won all their first 11 fixtures, Lasswade RFC are the clear leaders of the Tennent’s National League Division 3 – the fourth tier of amateur rugby union in Scotland – and are firm favourites to take the league title. The battle for the second promotion place is being closely fought, however, with four clubs – West of Scotland, Berwick, Howe of Fife and Hillhead-Jordanhill – currently in the mix. Yesterday, I went to Burnbrae to watch West of Scotland play Howe of Fife: second versus fourth at the start of play.

I had wondered about the sustainability of West’s league position and not only because their nearest challengers all had games in hand. Some of their 7 wins had come in high-scoring matches, in which they had impressively come out on top (38-28, 31-24, 38-32), but their 4 defeats had been in matches against the other sides in the top 5, when they had conceded a total of 227 points. In the reverse fixture in September, Howe of Fife had beaten them 82-10.

In the re-match, West could not have made a better start. At the first ruck, a charged down kick led to a five-metre scrum from which the captain, Scott Cochrane, forced his way over the try-line. Howe responded with an impressive try of their own mid-way through the first half, courtesy of their skilful and speedy back division, but a second West try and a penalty goal gave the home side a 17-5 lead as the game entered its final quarter of an hour.

At that point, it looked as if the West pack had given them the upper hand. They had the advantage in the set scrums and, following the lead of Cochrane and his second-row partner Gareth Reid, were able consistently to make good ground with the well-rehearsed catch-and-drive at the line-out. These tactics were ideally suited to the conditions: the ground was heavy following a prolonged period of wet weather though, thankfully, the rain held off during the match itself.

However, the contest was then turned on its head. Howe registered two tries in five minutes – one of which was converted – to draw level at 17-17. Apart from the occasional dropped pass, the visitors’ backs remained a significant threat, none more so than the teenage full-back, Gregor Smith – a consistently dangerous runner in broken field – whose 70-yard break ultimately led to his side’s levelling score. The momentum of play running strongly in their favour, Howe must have sensed the win.

But it was not to be. The West forwards re-asserted their control and laid siege to the Howe try-line for most of the remainder of the game. The defence held out until the final play of the match – the electronic clock, showing that the 80 minutes were up, was shining brightly on the scoreboard – when a cynical offside in front of the Howe posts led to a yellow card for the perpetrator and a straightforward penalty kick for West to take the honours. A reversal of fortune, indeed, after events in September.

It turned out to have been a very good round of matches for West. The respective games involving Lasswade and Berwick were postponed and Hillhead-Jordanhill managed only a losing bonus point. West have consolidated their second place in the league table, therefore, though there is much of the season’s rugby still to be played.

West of Scotland versus Howe of Fife was the first rugby union match I had been to see since Otley played Caldy 21 months ago (“Let’s Keep It Up, Otley”, 6th February 2020). The weather was cold and damp, though there was a brief period when the late afternoon sun seemed to illuminate the trees down the main road to the left of the clubhouse. I had a full (and dry) view from the top of the main stand. The players were committed and disciplined, cheered on by their respective bands of supporters and guided by a sympathetic referee (Rob McHenry). It was an enjoyable afternoon of Scottish club rugby.

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