Hamilton went into the weekend's fixture against Watsonians fully aware that only a win would give them the slimmest of chances of avoiding relegation. Sitting second bottom of the RBS National League, the Bulls were also relying on Kelso beating Biggar that afternoon and on Selkirk doing likewise on the following Saturday.
Saturday was also the league decider for Hamilton's 3rdXV who were scheduled to play Annan and early morning it looked highly probable that neither fixture would go ahead. An inch of snow had fallen overnight, leaving Laigh Bent playing fields looking more like an arctic tundra. However, calls were made and a squad of 30 volunteers arrived to give groundsman Rab Brown a much needed hand to clear two pitches in time for kick-off. It is believed that this is only the second time in the club's history that the pitches have been cleared of snow on the morning of a match - the previous occasion was only 2 weeks earlier when a team of volunteers mucked in to ensure that the Scotland U18 match against Ireland went ahead. It is great credit to the club and its membership that people have been willing to turn out on such a bitterly cold day to ensure rugby could be played.
Although Watsonians had lost their form of late - having not won a league match since early November - their coaching staff would have wasted no time in reminding their players about the scale of their victory over the Bulls in Edinburgh. There were two questions to be answered. Firstly, how could a defence which has been suspect for much of the season, deal with a team that had cut through their line with such ease in the previous encounter? Secondly, could this young squad, who clearly understood the significance of the match, cope with the pressure. The visitors went looking for answers straight from the kick-off.
For the first 10 minutes Watsonians pushed deep into Hamilton territory and had the appearance of a squad that could quickly turn the pressure into points. The Bulls were up for it! The defensive line reacted well and line breaks were cancelled out by a reliable scramble defence - a feature that has been missing on several outings since August.
Despite the 15 minutes of play, Hamilton had only crossed into Watsonians' territory twice. On their first foray the ball was carried to the 5 metre line before being stolen at the back of a ruck and then cleared by Watsons. The second was much more fruitful. Hamilton were awarded a penalty on the Watsons' 5 metre line and opted to kick for touch. Richard Maxton caught David McGrath's throw-in and ball was delivered to the back of the maul which drove over the line. John Selfridge dove over for the first 5 points of the match. The wind put paid to McLeish's conversion attempt.
Watsonian's account was opened 9 minutes later when Brian Walls received the ball from the back of a ruck in front of the posts and slotted over a drop goal for 3 points.
Hamilton once again applied the pressure and scrum-half Stevie Turnbull was soon crossing the line. Turnbull received the ball at the back of a ruck 5 metres out, sold an outrageous dummy pass which Watsonians bought with interest and created a huge gap for him to sprint between the posts. McLeish was successful with the kick taking the score to 12-3. Just before half time both teams were reduced to 14 men when Ibarbaru from Hamilton and Grant for Watsonians were sent to the bin after a minor disagreement
As the second half got underway, Watsonians showed some of the flair that had made them so dangerous early in the season – immediately stretching the Hamilton defence left and right over a series of short phases until they created a 3 on 1 overlap. On collecting the ball Watsons’ stand-off Ross Aitken was left with an easy jog to cross the line to make it 12-8. Walls was unable to secure the extras.
Hamilton took little time to respond and were soon deep in Watsons’ half . John Selfridge made a break from 30 metres out before being brought down short of the line. The ball was recycled and passed out left where a number of Hamilton players were standing unguarded. McGrath was the receiver who collected and dove over for the Bulls’ third try of the day.
Their fourth came less than four minutes later. With the ball deep in Watsons’ territory, Hamilton’s forwards carried the ball from ruck to ruck, edging ever closer to the try line. The ball was spun out left by Turnbull and was gathered by Craig Inglis who stepped inside two defenders to score between the uprights. McLeish’s conversion took the score to 24-8.
For the next 20 minutes the match was a more evenly matched affair with good line breaks by both teams which were cancelled out by equally good defensive effort. With six minutes to go Aitken was put into space and sprinted under the Hamilton posts. Walls converted to make the final score 24-15.
This was a strong and confident performance from a Hamilton squad. However, celebrations were short lived. The announcement came that Biggar had beaten Kelso – confirming Hamilton’s relegation from the National League. This is a bitter disappointment for a club who have demonstrated their capacity to play at this level. They have an impressive attacking record (fourth in terms of points scored) but have been inconsistent in defence, with only Jed Forest bleeding more points than the Bulls .