AIL Junior Cup quarterfinal: SLIGO Rugby I XV 24 v ARMAGH Rugby I XV 21

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Saturday saw the Armagh team make the long trek west to play Sligo in the quarterfinal of the All-Ireland Junior Cup. Last year’s final debacle in this tournament was still fresh in the minds of all the Armagh players and there was a real desire in the Armagh camp to pull out a special performance for this game.
It was especially ironic that the last occasion these two clubs met was in 1998 when Sligo narrowly beat Armagh. This led to Armagh being relegated out of senior rugby.
The weather conditions for this encounter weren’t conducive to rugby. Indeed, only after the Sligo grounds man confirmed on Saturday morning that the pitch was playable was the Armagh team bus able to depart.
The game kicked-off early, at 2-00pm to facilitate clubs with no floodlights. Armagh played with an Arctic, northeasterly breeze at their backs. The smallish pitch had a severe slope in Armagh’s favour in the first half. The actual playing surface was incredibly sticky which wasn’t going to favour Armagh’s style of fast flowing rugby.
Five minutes into the game saw Sligo forwards penalized inside their ‘22’ for a rucking infringement. Johnny Steenson was successful with the kick to put the visitors 0-3 ahead.
As the game progressed it became obvious that Armagh had a massive challenge on their hands. The enormous Sligo pack was both mobile and skilled. This pack was by far the biggest Armagh had confronted for many seasons. To add to Armagh’s troubles the Sligo backs were also on the large side, they were seen to breech the visiting defence on several occasions. Sligo had recruited most of its team from the southern hemisphere with a few Eastern Europeans thrown for good measure.
After ten minutes play the Armagh forwards were penalized for off-side and Sligo evened the score to 3-3. The Armagh side were now playing all the rugby when they continued to move the ball to all fifteen of the team but, frustratingly, failed to score due to the simplest of errors. The uncommonly small playing area continued to figure dramatically in the game due to the fact that the simplest of clearance kicks could bring play from one end of the pitch to the other!
Armagh’s quality showed when they almost scored in the left corner but some fine handling saw Johnny Allen score in the right corner. The conversion went narrowly wide to bring the score to 3-8.
Shortly after the re-start, Sligo charged down a clearance kick and scored at the Armagh posts. The conversion brought the score to 10-8. Now the visitors had a real challenge on their hands. After a farther ten minutes play Sligo were penalized for another rucking offence. The successful kick put Armagh back in front wit the score at 10-11. This was only to last for five minutes as the visitors strayed off-side and Sligo found themselves back with a narrow 13-11 lead. Sligo continued to show their strength by repeatedly breeching the Armagh defences but yet again the Armagh grit came good when Luneau kicked ahead and full-back, Steenson, touched down in the right corner. Steenson also converted to bring the score to 13-18. The first half ended with Sligo kicking a penalty to put the score at 16-18 over half time.
The second half saw Armagh playing up-hill and into the now freshening breeze. Indeed, the home team was showing intense resolution with their supporters offering lots of vocal encouragement. Thirteen minutes into the half saw the home team score in their right corner to put them 21-18 ahead. The Armagh problems began to escalate when their place kicker, Johnny Steenson, was side-lined with an ankle injury. He was replaced with Andrew Willis himself returning to the side after a nasty leg injury. More troubles resulted in Armagh being penalized for ‘breaking the bind in a scrum’. The kick was successful to put the score at 24-18.
Andrew Willis showed his speed with a fine break up the centre but was stopped just short of scoring. Armagh put another three points on the board when Adam Gowing kicked a penalty to put the score at 24-21. Shortly after this kick Gowing also was forced to leave the field and was replaced by Freddie Cuttle. Armagh seemed to find a new resolution and continued to press Sligo. In the dying moments of the game Armagh were awarded a penalty right in front of the Sligo posts but having lost both their kickers due to injuries the captain, James Morton had to decide what option to go for. In the en he went for a ‘tap and go’ The Armagh forwards then rucked the ball over the Sligo line for a touch down but the referee disallowing an Armagh try judging that a Sligo hand was under the ball. Ironically, as the final whistle blew the snow started to fall telling everyone present that it was time to go home!
The final score 24-21 shows just how close this game ended. If the Armagh kickers had not sustained their injuries, the game would have in all probability ended in a draw. But alas there were no floodlights so what would have been the outcome? Already the light was fading so a replay would appear to be on the cards. We will never know! It has to be said that the Armagh team showed real courage against a much bigger side. Indeed, it must be questioned how a club such as Sligo can manage to field a side with such a proportion of foreign players.
Armagh entertains Dromore at the Palace Grounds next Saturday. This will be another tight affair. The nail-biting away fixture at Barban Hill is still fresh in the Armagh memories. To run in three tries in the dying minutes of a game and turn a defeat into a bonus point winner is not easily forgotten.

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