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Saturday saw the possible onset of summer as Holywood entertained Newry in a league match at Kerr Park. The sun shone on a good crowd and with both sides intent on playing open rugby the stage was set for an entertaining afternoon. Although Holywood would eventually come out on the wrong side of a 15 – 35 score line the score did not reflect neither how close the game actually was nor hard Newry had to work to take the points. A win would have been nice but it was probably more important that the team produced as good a performance as they could possibly do.

The spectators were certainly not disappointed in what they watched on the pitch. Newry kicked off into a fair breeze and were to hold on possession for a full five minutes. In side that time Newry managed to score an unconverted try and take a 0 – 5 lead without a Holywood hand ever touching the ball! This was a sign of how difficult Holywood’s afternoon was to become. From the kick off Newry succeeded in turning over possession despite being pinned close to their own line. This time however Holywood were able to check their progress in the middle of the field and with Graham King leading the charge back a clever box kick from skipper Stephen Glover drew a knock-on from Newry’s full back giving Holywood a scrum 5 metres from the opposition line. Despite repeated attacks on the Newry line and clever recycling of their possession, a dropped pass allowed Newry to not only clear their lines but within a minute they had broken through Holywood’s defences and scored another unconverted try wide out. Holywood refused to let their heads drop and although there were 15 minutes on the clock and they were trailing 0 – 10 they began to settle into the game by stringing a number of phases of play together and play to their own game plan. The lineout was already functioning well and when Cormac Smyth found the leap of Matthew Mullan the pack were able to drive the maul a full 20 metres up the pitch. The penalty count started to mount in Holywood’s favour as Newry fought to hold back the tide. With barely 15 minutes gone Robert Cooper, who had been a literal last minute replacement, stepped up to slot home a long range penalty and give Holywood a foothold in the game at 3 – 10. The score seemed to give Holywood the injection of steel that was required because it was another ten minutes before Newry were back inside the home side’s half of the pitch. In that period however out half Stephen Leyland had been accidentally poked in the eye and had had to swap places with inside centre Gareth Hillen to aid his recovery time. Newry are a side that is very adept at turning possession and position into points as they took advantage of a quick tap penalty to crash over for their third unconverted try and a 3 – 15 lead. Again Holywood showed their metal whenever they went straight back on the attack from the kick off and drove play down towards the Newry line. A kickable penalty was pushed into the corner to allow the Holywood pack the opportunity to attack from their lineout and even when the ball was knocked on Holywood’s forwards were able to win a scrum against the head at a vital moment to ensure the momentum was kept up. Having pressed for quite a while Holywood eventually got their just desserts after 34 minutes whenever a series of penalties were taken short as the forwards tried to batter their opposite numbers into submission. It was only a matter of time before the ball was released out across the backs and with Gareth Hillen finding a bit of space he was able to draw in Newry’s defence allowing Stephen Leyland to cut the line with a well timed run, take the pass and go in for the try. Gareth Hillen converted and suddenly Holywood’s tails were up at 10 – 15. The euphoria was short lived because even though Holywood went straight back to press Newry a missed tackle close into the scrum allowed the opposition to run the length of the pitch for their third breakaway try of the afternoon. The successful conversion gave Newry a halftime 10 – 22 lead but Holywood still felt that the game was there for the taking if they could cut out the missed tackles. The second half started with Newry clearly showing their hand in how they intended to play the next 40 minutes. The first ball the visiting out half received was booted long and hard down the pitch forcing the Holywood full back Jamie White to catch and run the ball back which he quickly showed he was more than capable of doing. However, with the half barely 3 minutes old, the ref penalised Holywood for an infringement at the set scrum which was bewildering to all concerned. Nevertheless Newry were not about to turn down an easy 3 point penalty and its completion left Holywood trailing 10 – 25. Holywood then lost right wing Gareth Leyland with an injury and if things were difficult then playing into the wind with 14 players left them with a mountain to climb. Newry tried to make their man advantage pay as they continued to play the ball wide and then kick into space but Holywood’s defences, despite being stretched, were not found wanting. Johnny Elliot, Sean Hunter and Stevie Gilliland were willing workhorses in defence and Keith Griffin’s tackle count for the afternoon was racking up at a rapid rate as Newry piled on the pressure. Holywood were not without their own chances during that period either with Joe Wood to the fore in running at the Newry defence ably supported by the other backs that were certainly not afraid to mix it in the rucks and mauls. On 26 minutes the scoreboard ticked over as another set scrum infringement, this time for a misplaced hand, gave a gift of 3 points to Newry that they really didn’t deserve and a bigger lead of 10 – 28. If anyone watching thought that Holywood would then simply give up they were sadly mistaken as the home side took the game right back to the Newry line and when they were awarded a penalty the pack tried to rumble the ball over the line via a series of rucks and mauls. Newry were steadfast in their defence but Stephen Glover eventually saw a chink in their armour and sniped in close to the ruck for a try. Gareth Hillen’s conversion from wide out drifted across the face of the posts but Holywood were back at 15 – 28 and had given the crowd something to cheer about. With the last play of the game Holywood leaked a converted try and as the ref blew up for no side the final score was 15 – 35. Although there were standout performances throughout the team Gareth Hillen won Man of the Match for his cool and calculated display at out-half having had to take over the position for the majority of the game. There can be no doubt that Newry were the better team on the day and deservedly won the game. Had Holywood been able to field 14 players for the whole game and not had their pre-match preparations upset at the eleventh hour it could well have been a different story. There were a load of positives to come out of the game not least of which was that Holywood never once let their heads drop and they certainly gave 100% to the game. There are three league games left and if the team can take the same level of commitment into them they should fear no side. It was also encouraging seeing players reacting in a totally positive manner to all that was happening around them and keeping their performance levels up for the full eighty minutes. Training and playing together regularly can only but improve the team and with a number of quality players having to sit out the games through long term injuries there is already a level of expectation for next season building up amongst the players and backroom staff. Next Saturday sees the team travel to Larne for what will be a difficult game considering the ever lengthening list of players who are unavailable through injury but one player’s misfortune is another player’s chance to show what he can do and give the selection committee something to think about.

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