AN injury-ravaged and depleted Greenock Wanderers side posted what was arguably their best performance of the season on Saturday when they faced title challengers Hamilton Bulls at a blustery Laigh Bent in the BT National League Second Division.

Wanderers’ selection was decimated by the late withdrawal of Lee Tyley, Kenny Diffenthal, Gregor Fletcher and Dougie Smith and resulted in head coach Graham Knox patching together a side at the last minute.

Amazingly the Greenock men showed admirable spirit in adversity and battled bravely as a team throughout, while posting some outstanding individual performances.

Prop forward-turned-back-row star Martin Lavelle was forced to play his first game of rugby ever in the backs and he was a revelation at centre.

Strong in the tackle, tactically aware defensively and penetrating in attack, Lavelle was an inspirational figure in the Greenock effort.

Former skipper Ally Abernethy was also superb having to work behind a scrummage that was shunted back at alarming speed by a powerful Hamilton pack.

Abernethy took the responsibility and picked up at the base of the regularly retreating scrum and drove forward, ensuring that Wanderers surrendered as little ground as possible.

Half-backs Andy McDougall and Callum Harrison made best use of the possession they received and Fraser Reid made an impressive return to action on the wing, making several try-saving tackles to prevent Hamilton adding to their points tally.

The game started with the hosts on top and several early attacks gave them the initiative and territorial advantage.

A series of rucks close to Wanderers’ line eventually yielded points when scrum-half Stephen Turnbull barged over from short range with the Greenock defence stretched.

Wanderers kept their heads up though and on 19 minutes went on the offensive when Lavelle made the first of several breaks through the midfield channel. He carried play deep into the Hamilton half and some impressive phases of play forced the home defence to stray offside, resulting in referee Neil Muir awarding Greenock a penalty. Goal-kicker Michael Frizzell made no mistake from 30 metres out to reduce the deficit to 5-3.

The Greenock defensive effort was strong with the entire side showing admirable resistance to a strong Hamilton forward effort.

On 25 minutes the pressure eventually told when Hamilton second row Jerry McKee made a break and number eight John Selfridge was on his shoulder to take the pass and dive over for the try.

Five minutes later and the power of the Bulls scrummage was clear for all to see as they took the strike against the head, pushed Wanderers back 10 yards then number eight Selfridge picked up and drove over from 20 metres out to extend the advantage to 15-3.

Greenock maintained their composure and were awarded three penalties in quick succession just before the interval. Frizzell was successful with one effort to narrow the gap to 15-6.

The second period started badly for Wanderers as hard-working and influential prop forward Dave Paton went down awkwardly in the tackle.

A stretcher was summoned immediately and the stricken player, clearly in pain, was carted from the park to warm applause from both home and visiting supporters.

A spiral fracture of the ankle was later diagnosed and all at both clubs wish the popular Wanderer a speedy recovery.

The match continued with Wanderers probing the Hamilton defence, mainly through Frizzell and Lavelle in central midfield. A further penalty went Greenock’s way in the 56th minute and Frizzell gratefully accepted the gift by slotting his effort to reduce the deficit further to just six points.

With the tie now very much in the balance, Hamilton had to up their game and did so with some impressive phases of their own.

On the hour mark crisp back play off good quality line out ball some 20 metres from Wanderers’ line was spun left then switched back right again, leaving the Greenock defence exposed.

Wing forward Scott Alexander was on hand to take advantage and cross the white wash wide on the right.

Stand-off Owen McLeish converted from a difficult angle to regain the initiative for the hosts.

The final word also went the way of the Bulls. On 74 minutes a textbook catch and drive move from securely taken lineout ball was executed to perfection and with the Greenock defence being shunted backwards Selfridge broke off and dotted down wide on the right to claim his hat-trick. McLeish obliged with the conversion to complete the scoring. The five tries to nil scoreline was comfortable enough for the hosts but Wanderers took plenty of plaudits and credit from their performance.

Coach Knox said: “I was really happy with the display today and I thought Matt Gray, Stu Alexander and Andy Love showed up really well up front and the experiment with Martin Lavelle at centre was definitely a success and worth looking at again.

“Despite the defeat the mood in the camp is buoyant and we now look forward to next week’s home game against Aberdeenshire with renewed confidence.” Wanderers are sponsored by Texas Instruments.