Armagh started this match in the knowledge that as the table stood they were 5 points clear of nearest rivals Derry, who had a game in hand. Middle of the table Cooke have always proved to be stiff competition and tonight was to be no exception, although the final scoreline didn’t reflect the fight that the Belfast side put up.
Armagh started on the front foot and attacked early on, but some poor passing and handling let them down. Cooke pushed back hard and for a time both teams were evenly matched with only handling errors separating them. A stumble at the back of the ruck allowed Armagh to gather and easy their way up the field to the Cooke 10m. After an impressively won lineout Armagh easily passed the ball across the field and with numbers over Matthew “Eddie” Irwin crossed the line. Adam Gowing took his position and kicked for the goal, but the posts were to deny him and the score was 5-0.
The restart saw Armagh immediately pushed down to their own 10m by Cooke, but the tenacious Matthew Wright claimed the ball and made his way to the Cooke 22 before being halted in his tracks. Cooke’s kicker easily cleared the ball, but it wasn’t long before mistakes had been made and Armagh cleared the ball through a penalty. This pattern continued back and forth only interrupted by an injury to Andrew Willis’ head.. After a short break play continued at the same fractured pace but a blatant challenge on Gowing stopped the game for a second time. Thankfully Gowing returned to the game and played on through obvious pain.
Another erratic period of play followed in which neither team could capitalise on the mistakes made by the other and at the end of which Gowing was replaced by Leigh Manu. This break in play allowed both sets of teams to take a breather but it was in Armagh’s favour and with some superb passing and simple rugby the home team found themselves back up to the Cooke line. A well formed and worked ruck saw a pushover try from the pack with Timmy Clarke being hailed as the try scorer. With Gowing no longer on the field, kicking duties returned to Johnny Steenson and he didn’t disappoint with another 2 points to take the score to 12 nil.
But the first half finished with a flare of the dramatic, with a surprising 40 yard break from Cooke after an interception on the Armagh 22. After an excellent tackle, Armagh somewhat spoiled it by putting hands in the ruck. When the referee raised his arm, it met with some verbal resistance and he walked Armagh back another 10m. But, Armagh rallied themselves, regained the ball and their composure and ended the half going forward.
As with the Dromore match, Armagh had saved their best performance for the second half. There were still some handling errors and loose passes, but these were secondary to the overall performance.
The team as a whole fought for every ball and proceeded to work their way down the field after the restart. Cooke had caught onto the style of Eddie Irwin with his favoured chip and chase, but it worked up the near touch line. The Cooke defence stood firm and ripped the ball away from the attacking side just over the line and cleared well up the field.
Undeterred by this, Armagh rallied themselves and went in for another charge. At just over the halfway line however the Cooke number 8 found himself faced with a yellow card after repeat offences.
Armagh used this man advantage and made their way to 2m out. With a well formed rolling maul they pushed over for the third try of the night. With the score credited to Andy Hughes, Steenson stepped up again to make the score line 19-0.
Armagh went on the attack again and had made their way down to the Cooke 22 but the referee had to stop play to hand out another yellow card to another Cooke pack member. Now they were down to 13 and Armagh began to attack in earnest.
Cooke’s defence held fast longer than most of the supporters thought and they challenged Armagh. It was only a matter of time before Armagh again used the numbers to their advantage and began to push over for a fourth and potential bonus point try. But once more the Cooke defence held firm and the ball was passed out to Eddie on the wing who touched it down. With the bonus point secured it was Steenson’s turn to add more points but unfortunately the angle was too deep and the score remained 24-0.
Now with maximum points from this encounter, Armagh seemed to relax and with it came free flowing rugby. Excellent passing and handling skills triumphed as Andy Hughes was handed the ball and run over for his 2nd of the night. This time Steenson easily slotted over the conversion and the final score read a healthy 31-0 to the home side.