Saturday 6th March. Roy Lawton reports.
With only three games in the AIB League remaining and senior status still not fully secured for another season, Ards welcomed top four side Nenagh Ormond to Hamilton Park on Saturday. Nenagh are lying eight places above Ards in the league, sitting comfortably in fourth place just behind Banbridge, so Ards would need to be at their best if they were to salvage anything from such formidable Munster opposition.
In glorious sunshine, the visitors kicked, long and deep into Ards territory and so commenced this very intriguing encounter between these two very capable sides. Ards were buoyed from last week’s handsome victory over Portadown and were looking to continue with their recent good form, as the visitors surged forward to pressurise the Ardsmen.
The ball was initially fielded well but a couple of handling errors by Ards gave possession away and on 3 minutes Nenagh’s left winger Davy Corcoran, touched down for the opening score converted by Davy Delaney. This served as a warning to Ards who up upped their game plan accordingly to shrug off this early setback.
At times, Ards seemed to struggle to gain possession in the opening exchanges and On 15 minutes, Delaney landed a penalty to go 10 points up in the first quarter. Ards skipper Stewart Paul, barked his demands of his players and on 19 minutes, laid down his own marker with a barnstorming run and a superb try, supported by the ever present Scott Young, converted by Michael Lawton.
This is what the team and the large support needed, as this very exciting game started to unfold. Nenagh are well known for their clever use of the boot as they chipped, grubbered, boxed and punted the ball behind the Ardsmen, trying to force them onto the back foot. This tactic was met with an equal determination of counter attack as Ards quickly gathered the ball and ran it straight back at the opposition.
Kenny McCombe played out of his skin once again as he covered every blade of grass to put in the tackle or get to the breakdown point. He also made some excellent breaks and worked tirelessly at the rucks and mauls throughout the game.
On 31 minutes, Ards levelled the score to 10 apiece with a well struck penalty by Lawton and all of a sudden, Nenagh didn’t look as invincible as their reputation might have suggested. Scott Young, Taylor Ferguson, Conor Piper and Jaydon Hill all put in a hard shift and took the ball on long carries gaining good yardage or tracked back to make that all important tackle as and when required.
Ards confidence was now brimming as they met the visitors head on and competed on equal terms at every situation. John Dowey and Kenny Heaslip took great ball in the lineout and held the scrum solid in the second row to help give Chrissy Allen at scrumhalf, more time to unleash his backs to run the ball at will and force the visitors to share in the some of tackling duties.
On 39 minutes, Delaney kicked another penalty as both teams pushed to get the upper hand but this only seemed to spur on the Ardsmen as Johnny Millar, Andy Hassard and Andrew Foster’s physical presence became even more noticeable at the rucks and mauls as they bulldozed and battered their way round the park, ripping into their opposite numbers and driving them back. And to prove a point, Stewart Paul raced up at the restart and plucked the ball out of the sky from under the noses of the startled Nenagh forwards, such was his desire to set the pace for his team to follow.
As the halftime whistle sounded, both teams took a well earned break and regrouped for the impending second half. This was great stuff with some good all-round rugby being played by both teams giving everybody plenty to shout about.
Five minutes into the second half and Delaney landed his third penalty of the day and increased Nenagh’s lead to 16 points to 10 but Ards were to have the final say later on in the game.
Ards back three of Mark Banford, Lawton and Ferguson had to be on top of their game as Nenagh’s game plan was now even more evident as they repeatedly kicked possession away and raced up forcing Ards into making a couple of hasty and sometimes risky decisions but thankfully everything paid off and the danger was cleared.
Fifty five minutes into the game and Ards were on the charge once again. Good ball was being recycled by player after player before it eventually found its way into the hands of Scott Young. The former Ulster player then showed great pace and excellent skill to finish off a great passage of play as he raced for the line to score his fourth try of the season, again converted by Lawton.
As the game moved into the final quarter, Ards Ajay Derwin used his considerable experience to help control the back play and ensure that no sudden rush of blood to the head was going to spoil the impending outcome of this very entertaining game.
In the final 10 minutes, it was all Ards as John Dowey and his forwards took full control of the rolling maul exercising excellent discipline as they forced Nenagh to concede two penalties in kickable positions. Such was the confidence in this Ards side that they gallantly opted to go for line outs in an effort to try and score another couple of tries and perhaps get a winning bonus point. As it turned out this was not to be but Ards still managed to bag another four league points at the final whistle as they ran out 17 – 16 victors on the day.
This was a very pulsating sort of a game which could have gone either way at any time. It was also probably Ards best performance so far as the young guns near the end of their first season in the AIL It will also live on for a while in the pubs and clubs in this part of County Down for a wee while yet. Incredibly this result still sees Ards sitting in 12th position in the league with three of the chasing pack also winning against higher placed opposition at the weekend.
Ards next opposition and final home game in the AIB League is against Suttonian’s on Saturday 27th March. In the meantime time, Ards will be back at Shaws Bridge on Thursday 11th March to face Instonians in the quarter-finals of the First Trust Senior Cup. Kick-off will be at 7.30pm and all support will be very welcome.
Ards team :- J Millar, C Piper, A Foster, J Dowey, K Heaslip, A Hassard, K McCombe, J Hill, C Allen, S Paul, A Derwin, S Young, T Ferguson, M Lawton, M Banford, C McClure, J Garrett, D Algie, D Armstrong, T Devlin.
Good luck to Michael Lawton and his Ulster Colleges teammates when they face Leinster Colleges in the Inter-pro College Finals on Friday afternoon in Dundalk. Ulster defeated Munster in the semi-finals in February, but then had to wait longer than expected for a neutral venue to be located to host the final.