While the rest of the country was dealing with snow and blizzards Shetland had a perfect, still day for playing rugby. Knowing a bonus try win against Aberdeen Wanderers 2XV would move them into second place in the league coach Bryan Leask selected a strong squad for the fixture.
John Roy Nicolson, Kristian Fraser and William Coghill made up the front row with Craig Mann and Sandy Cluness in the second row. Thomas Meadows, Matthew Nicolson and Don Stone completed the pack. Callum Williamson started at scrum half with Alistair McMillan at fly half. Maurice Williamson and Craig Irvine were the centre pairing with Gavin Whitrow and Paul Grant on the wings and Jon Pulley at full back. Jeff Shaw, Stuart Gray, Stewart Mouat, Harry Morton and Brett Haining provided the options on the bench.
Shetland won the toss and elected to kick off. From the start Wanderers had Shetland pinned back and for almost ten minutes the home side were camped in their own half. Eventually Shetland managed to break free and it was a trademark Maurice Williamson run which set it up. The pacy centre broke the line before passing to Irvine who found Whitrow. Using his pace, the winger made good ground before being eventually tackled inside the Wanderer’s 22. Shetland quickly recycled the ball as Cluness broke the line before offloading to Stone and Shetland were now within five metres of the line. From the resultant ruck, the ball was spun to McMillan who drew his man and popped the ball to Maurice Williamson who dived over the line close to the posts. Grant made no mistake with the conversion giving Shetland an early seven point lead against the run of play.
From the restart Wanderers were reduced to fourteen men following an unsavoury incident off the ball. Ex-Shetland player, Jake Watt was shown the yellow card and sent to the sin bin for ten minutes after a disagreement with a former team-mate. Despite having an extra man Shetland failed to capitalise as numerous handling errors and bad decision making meant they couldn’t get out of their half. These mistakes also provided Wanderers several opportunities to narrow the lead but luckily their kickers aim seemed to be off.
Just as Watt returned to the field, Shetland doubled their score through another breakaway try. Maurice Williamson managed to break the first tackle which saw him bearing down on the line but he was stopped just short. The ball found its way wide to the ever impressive Mann who bumped his way over the line in the corner. Grant successfully converted the difficult conversion giving Shetland a 14-0 lead.
Almost immediately Wanderers pulled a try back. A missed tackle in the centres allowed the away winger to stroll in under the posts for the easiest of tries. The conversion was successful, halving Shetland’s lead.
Shetland were still looking out of sorts and their play was frantic and rushed. It appeared that The Blues were trying to offload out of every tackle whether it was the correct option or not. This invariably led to knock-ons and penalties which kept them pinned in their own half.
Yet another breakaway try just before half time gave the score a respectable look as Grant scored in the corner following a fine break by Cluness. Unfortunately the conversion was missed but Shetland had a 19-7 lead at half time.
Coach Leask read the riot act at half time and reminded the players that the game was far from over. Shetland had to return to the basics and stop gifting Wanderers possession while looking to play their running rugby in the opposition half. Two changes were made with Haining and Mouat replacing Whitrow and Meadows.
Mouat had an immediate impact, breaking the line before being tackled which led to a Wanderers player being offside. Irvine sent the ball downfield with a huge punt and Shetland had an attacking line-out inside Wanderers’ 22. The throw from Fraser was true and Matthew Nicolson caught well before setting up a maul. The Shetland pack drove their opposition almost 20 metres before captain Fraser dove over the line to score Shetland’s crucial fourth try giving them the bonus point. Grant added the extras to increase the lead.
Again, Wanderers came right back at Shetland and scored their second try not long after. A mix up in Shetland’s centre pairing caused an overlap and the winger again ran in to score untouched. The conversion was missed but Shetland’s lead had decreased.
An injured McMillan was replaced by Stuart Gray which meant a reshuffle. Pulley moved to scrum half, Callum Williamson to fly half, Grant to full back, Coghill to the wing with Gray going into the second row with Mann pushing forward to prop. Meadows came back on for a tiring Stone after a good shift and Matthew Nicolson moved to number 8 to allow space for the flanker.
Shetland scored straight from the restart. Newly on, Gray caught the ball and popped it to Meadows. The flanker offloaded out of the tackle to Mann on the sideline. The big prop ran over 70 metres after shaking off two tacklers and side stepping three men to dive over in the corner. From a difficult angle Grant coolly slotted the ball between the posts. Both scores, which proved to be a turning point for Shetland, were greeted with a big roar from the large Shetland home support.
With the score 33-12 and the game effectively over as a contest Wanderers began to look tired and disheartened. Shetland found it increasingly easy to break tackles and create overlaps and with twenty minutes still to play, Shetland got their third try of the second half through Meadows. Again, Grant made no mistake and increased Shetland’s lead.
Shetland made their last change of the game with Shaw, on the eve of his 50th birthday replacing John Roy Nicolson, on the eve of his 52nd. It didn’t take long for Shetland to score again, this time through Matthew Nicolson scoring his first try of the season. Grant again added the extras.
Shaw added another try under the posts following good work from the forwards before Haining finished the scoring on the full time whistle. Grant had made 8 out of 9 conversions on the day as Shetland ran out 61-12 winners.
While the score looks impressive on paper, it was far from impressive on the pitch. Against better opposition, Shetland could easily have lost the match and while the performance improved in the second half they will have to start faster against Moray.
In the end, Shetland did what they had to do and won while not playing their best. The win with a bonus point is enough to move them to second in the league with first placed Deeside still to travel to Shetland. Cluness, Mann and Stone were the best performers for the forwards with Grant impressing for the backs. Substitutes Gray and Haining had terrific impacts when they came on.
The Northwards man of the match was awarded to Sandy Cluness, who was making his full debut for Shetland. The 17 year olds work rate was superb all day and he was always looking for the ball.
Shetland are at home again tomorrow in the semi-final of the regional bowl against Moray. Another big home crowd would be appreciated as Shetland look to progress to the final for the first time in the club’s history.
Shetland RFC would like to thank the continued support of their sponsors, Northlink, as well as the fans. It is greatly appreciated.