A superb team performance secured a famous away victory for Ards against Division 3 newcomers, Navan on Saturday. With the squad weakened by a number of injured and absent players and Navan sitting three positions above Ards in the league table, this was going to be a hard ask of the players who took to the pitch to step up to the mark, but step they did.
With a fast firm pitch and generally good playing conditions, Ards kicked off to the hosts but within minutes were reeling from a heavy impact injury to right winger Chris Agnew, resulting in the first unconverted try of the day being scored by Navan’s Simon Hogan on the far side. Agnew had to leave the pitch after only 3 minutes with a knee injury and a re-jigging of the backline introduced Mark Banford at fullback with Michael Lawton moving onto the right wing.
The game then settled down as both teams attacked and counterattacked looking for that all important opening to get the scoreboard moving again. The Ards forwards were up against it in the set piece where they faced a much bigger and heavier Navan forward unit, but more than made up for their lack of height and weight in the loose. Some fierce tackling and ball carries by Kenny Heslip, Jaydon Hill, Andy Hassard, Kenny McCombe and David Algie helped disrupt a lot of the host’s fluidity while the front row of Johnny Millar, Conor Piper and Johnny Wylie dug in against their much more experienced opposite numbers and held their own.
After much end to end rugby, Navan finally made the break to score their second unconverted try on 38 minutes, to leave the hosts 10 – nil up as they headed towards the break. On 40 + 3 minutes, Ards were awarded a penalty which was converted by Michael Lawton to help narrow the gap to 7 points and keep the visitors within touching distance at halftime.
Ards were more than happy with their first half performance as were their travelling support and looked forward to the re-start so they could get going again.
In the second half, Navan kicked long and deep to try and keep the pressure on but the ball was well fielded and a counterattack unfolded. Mark Banford ran towards his 10m line with the ball and put in a great kick for Taylor Ferguson to run on to. The ball tumbled forward then bounced up beautifully into the powerful young centres hands. He raced forward splitting the defence and off-loaded round a defender to Kenny McCombe on his right. McCombe then drew one of two defenders before off-loading again to Michael Lawton also on the right. Lawton then turned on the burners and powered away from the covering defence to score a morale boosting try, which he also converted.
What a start to the second half, the self belief in this Ards side was there for all to see. Moments later, things got even better. A Navan attack on the halfway line was suddenly and dramatically snuffed out when big Kenny Heslip decided enough was enough and plucked the ball out of the sky with a tremendous intercept before sprinting a full 50 metres to score another massive try for the visitors, again converted by Lawton. Two minutes later Lawton added a further penalty to increase the lead by 20 points to 10 with 35 minutes still remaining on the clock. Ards had hit a rich and timely vein of form scoring 17 points in just five minutes leaving the home side and their supporters in total shock.
As expected though, Navan regrouped and began to claw their way back into the game. Great defensive play by Chrissy Allen and Ajay Derwin stopped a number of options in their tracks while Taylor Ferguson, Scott Young and Davy Armstrong all played with distinction holding back wave after wave of Navan attacks with heroic tackles.
On 56 minutes, Navan found another chink in the Ards armour when Kieran Mattson at 9, dummied a pass and nipped in for a soft unconverted try and pulled back another five points. The home side were using all their might up front to throw everything they had at the Ardsmen and on 69 minutes, their big number 8, Lee Jackson powered his way over for another good try, this time converted by Ryan Roberts, to go 22 – 20 points ahead. This was nail biting stuff, as both sides looked to capitalise on the other at every opportunity.
As time wore on, Ards upped their attack rate with Jaydon Hill, Kenny Heslip and Kenny McCombe, all taking the ball on the charge and driving into the opposition ranks knocking them onto the back foot in the process. Their supporting forwards of David Algie, Andy Hassard, Johnny Millar, Johnny Wylie and Conor Piper, all hit the ensuing rucks to ensure that the ball stayed on the Ards side with such ferocity that Wylie had to leave the field of play with suspected broken ribs. Andrew Foster entered the arena and continued on where Wylie had left off.
On 80 minutes, as Ards fought their way into the hosts half, the ref spotted a Navan infringement and blew for an Ards penalty. The atmosphere was electrifying as Michael Lawton stepped forward to take the kick. With a sweet strike, he slotted the ball neatly between the sticks to lift his personal points tally to 18 on the day, but more importantly put Ards in front by one point. No pressure there then, as the ref signalled that there was still time remaining.
Navan kicked long and chased up putting Ards under intense pressure when the ref again sounded his whistle, this time for an Ards infringement. He’d adjudged that the ball had been carried over the try line by an Ards player and awarded a 5m scrum, attack ball.
Ards dug deep and the scrum turned forcing a reset and an Ards put in. This was magnificent stuff from the lighter Ards forwards. The ball was cleared only to return to the exact same spot where their forward power came into play yet again. The huge Navan pack drove Ards back over their line before Jackson picked up and scored what he thought was a winning try only to have it disallowed for accidental offside when he collided with one of his own players before grounding it.
After more unbelievable sterling defence from the Ardsmen, the final whistle was eventually sounded after no less than 8 minutes of stoppage time, to leave the final score 23 – 22 in Ards favour and another four valuable league points in the bag..