Kukri Qualifying 2: Donaghadee 31 Academy 20

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Saturday 27th March. Report by Harry Allen.

Way back on 10 October 2009 the Donaghadee first team was narrowly beaten at Roughfort in a game where many felt the better team lost. Since that autumnal day the stories that have been filtering back to Donaghadee from south Antrim have been of a noticeable improvement in the Academy team, and much more importantly, that they have been unbeaten all season in the League.

Anyone who reads this probably knows that in spite of injuries Donaghadee is also an improved team. Perhaps more importantly they now have a more-than-capable squad of up to twenty-five players who can step into a Saturday team without weakening it.

At 9.00am last Saturday the thoughts of Donaghadee’s pitch warden John Blewitt and his colleague Ken Ross were on other matters. Too much of Friday’s heavy rain was still on the pitch surface for any complacency about the day’s game being played. However they worked their magic, the game was called on, and at 2.30pm on a beautiful March day the visiting referee from Westport, Paul Jennings, blew his whistle for Paul Blewitt to kick down the slope to Academy.

The pressure for the opening minutes was all Donaghadee’s. Richard Millar gave the visitors a let-off with a missed penalty, but almost immediately Donaghadee mounted a serious and co-ordinated attack at their opponents’ line, first to their left, then right and culminating in a despairing push into touch on the Academy five-metre line. Although Academy dealt well with this first threat, it was immediately followed by another. When Donaghadee mounted a quick attack through their menacing three-quarters, their full-back Billy Allen galloped into the line to take and give to Gavin Gordon. So sure was everyone that this was the scenario that Gordon reached for the ball and the covering defenders reached for him. Allen then promptly pierced through the created gap himself and the crowd began to roar. It was probably too far to get to the goal-line, but one of the Academy tacklers, Andrew Eggleton, when he did bring Allen down, seemed to hold him on the ground and the referee had no hesitation in putting the guilty party on the naughty step for ten minutes.

This was a seriously dangerous time for a team to go one short, and both teams knew it. At the next line-out Millar took possession and came out of the melée with serious intent. Instantly he found his backs in full support as he and they went left. Martindale made his own thrust and found a galloping Harpur at his side to crash over for Donaghadee’s first try close in and Millar took no time in adding the extra to put Donaghadee 7-0 in front. Two minutes later, with the Academy centre still under house arrest, Alistair Lockhart fired a long fast ball to Paul Blewitt. He relayed it to player-coach Ian Martindale who spotted his full-back coming through again at pace, and gave him a perfect pass. Whether the latter was dwelling on the disappointment when no try had resulted from the earlier run, he certainly ran an action replay – once again piercing the defence when coming into the line, and once again shaping to pass to Gordon, but not doing so. This time however Allen kept Gordon in his sights and then gave him the ball at pace. Gordon knows exactly what to do and stopped for nothing and no one until he went in to the right of the sticks for a great score. Although Millar missed the kick, Donaghadee were buoyed up to be 12-0 in front of the League-leaders.

Academy came back hard at Donaghadee, but their only really worrying attack broke down when they overdid it and gave away a penalty for Blewitt to take the action once again to the Academy end of the field of play. When they tried to run the ball out of their own half an Academy player scored the nearest thing in rugby football to an own-goal. Caught in possession in the “22” line mid-field by Martindale he allowed the tackler simply to take the ball, and Donaghadee’s big centre only had to jog in the remaining twenty metres to score Donaghadee’s third try, and Millar’s conversion gained an emphatic 19-0 scoreline.

Touchline experts were saying this one-way traffic could not simply continue, and moments later the Academy outside-half proved them right. From just inside his own half he found a secret path through the red and green defensive cover until Donaghadee finally stopped him, but only by conceding a simple penalty. The score now 19-3, Academy tried to build on their small success, but their efforts were well contained by some excellent Donaghadee defence. The best form of defence is attack they say, and Blewitt certainly tried this in the 35th minute.

From inside his own half, and out on Donaghadee’s right he could see no clear pass “on” and so started running. From far out on his right he ducked and dived, twisted and turned, in a diagonal path that showed he had the Academy right corner in his sights. However only metres before his twisting run reached his goal the referee whistled for “crossing”. This puzzled many who could see no Dee player ahead of Blewitt who might have blocked an attempted tackle. However, Donaghadee’s 16-point cushion made the point academic, and Blewitt simply had another go down the blind side that promised well, but eventually the attack petered out.

Seconds later scrum-half Lockhart tried a wee run through broken field defence. He was quickly collared, i.e. caught by the shirt collar, by a defender who was determined not to let go. After repeated efforts to persuade his captor to release his grip Lockhart was penalised and then yellow-carded for the vigour of his efforts. It was now Donaghadee’s turn to try playing with a man short. Bobby Harpur went to scrum-half and the Dee team made their adjustments. This is always a difficult time for a team, as Academy had found earlier. When Academy fly-half Andrew Kilpatrick got the ball inside Donaghadee’s “22” just on half-time he demonstrated the proof of this by ghosting through a slightly confused Donaghadee defence for a fine individual try, and a more important extra seven points 19-10 at the break.

When the first Academy attack of the second half broke down, Ian Martindale burst out of defence and then fed the supporting Allen. He pinned his ears back and screamed round a couple of despairing tackles taking the play well into Academy territory. As the ball went loose it was an Academy hand that knocked the ball on so Donaghadee still had the tactical advantage. What followed was Donaghadee’s worst sequence of the game with missed tackles, perverse bounces confusion and the play moving seemingly inexorably towards the Dee line. Mercifully this lapse was short, and also came to nothing, but Donaghadee realised that they just had to retain their concentration, especially since they were still a man down. The gods of sport now played their own joke when after the Dee’s bad moment or two, Academy scored a vital try when Donaghadee’s defence did nothing seriously wrong. The visitors simply ran an orthodox attack; completed their passes and ran well enough to create a small gap that allowed in the try. For Donaghadee the wake-up call was that the scoreboard, in plain sight, was telling everyone that Donaghadee’s once impressive lead was now a very shaky 19-17.

Lockhart’s return to the fray was an encouragement to his team-mates. This contest was too intense for a team to be a man down. It was clear by now that the wind towards the town was now much stronger than earlier and Academy were trying to use its power to keep the territorial advantage. The danger of playing the game rather too close to the Dee line was demonstrated when the referee spotted a Donaghadee offence not too far from the Donaghadee posts and Chris Cooper slotted the ball over to take Academy in front for the first time in the game.

When Kilpatrick made a perfect kick from inside his own half to touch on the Dee line the spectators were holding their breath. This was the key point in the entire game – a try to Academy would probably seal it for them.

Donaghadee’s two redwoods, Richard Martindale and Kyle Morrow, each took a turn at soaring above everyone to steal successive Academy put-ins and take the play away from Donaghadee’s danger zone. The Academy players were disappointed, but a team does not go unbeaten for seven months and then collapse. At their next opportunity a phalanx of six or seven maroon-shirted players ran together to their right with only Andrew Findlater and Billy Allen in front of them. All rugby theory and mathematics dictated that a try was inevitable, but for some reason, probably the one that says you can never take anything for granted in sport, the attackers blew their offensive, even before they reached the potential tacklers.

Perhaps it was simply the two great chances to take the game that had been blown that did it, or maybe it was the superb attitude of the fifteen Donaghadee men who looked like they would never give in, but the dynamic of the game now moved once more from Academy to the home side. From Chris Schofield in the front row to Chris Hamilton in the back row the Donaghadee forwards never let up. Gareth Gordon, Paul Hamilton and Craig McCoy made crushing tackles within seconds of each other. Some spectators commented that they had not seen as stirring a game in some time. Suddenly everyone thought Donaghadee had scored, but the referee was on the spot and said that one of the passes was forward. The resultant kick out by Academy only took play about fifteen metres from their line. Once again the Dee jumpers were up to the task, securing the ball quickly. Millar, who had been doing a sterling job of hard-yard ball carrying throughout the game took the responsibility on his own shoulders and simply bull-dozed through some heavy traffic to cross the Academy line for a hugely valuable score. He then followed this up with a fine kick to ratchet the scoreboard up to 26-20 for Donaghadee.

Academy came back again at Donaghadee and managed to get just into their red zone before their momentum was halted. The stoppage highlighted that there had been a collision involving Donaghadee’s full back Billy Allen and the Academy number eight Keith Dobbin. For a minute or two this looked worrying, but after treatment both players eventually shook their heads and went to their positions.

When the game restarted with little time to play catch-up Academy found the wrong corner of the playing field. Chris Hamilton had been playing a less flamboyant role than usual, doing his attack-destroying work in close and sometimes in the dark, but on this occasion he slammed his target with a great crash tackle in open field. Ian Martindale was on hand to emphasise this, and the ball was quickly rucked back to Lockhart. Reading the play well, the scrum-half rejected the pass option and was gone like a hungry ferret. The try was not converted, but with three minutes remaining, Donaghadee’s tails up and Academy wondering what had happened to their league-leading script this hardly mattered. Academy’s restart kick only went about five or six metres, but Gareth Gordon intelligently chose to accept it. He made his catch and his forwards formed an immovable maul until Paul Hamilton was able to burst out of it with his pack behind him.

The Academy defenders finally managed to win possession close to their own line, but the Donaghadee chasers prevented the clearance kick that the defenders wanted and needed. For the home supporters it was stirring the way every Donaghadee man played a sterling part in the closing action. By continuing to strive for yet another try, they were denying Academy any field position of worth. The action continued to be fierce, although in truth it appeared that if any team was to gain points in the concluding seconds it would be Donaghadee, but the referee decided that time was up.

This game of rugby was an example of how the game should be played, in a season that at all levels right up to Six Nations has had more than its share of commitment and disappointment. The pre-game and post-game relations with the players and alickadoos of both clubs was friendly and warm. Naturally the Academy men were disappointed to lose, but were honest and decent enough to give their opponents the credit they deserved. Both clubs were not exactly displeased to discover that other league challengers such as CIYMS had lost to Carrick, so ensuring seriously competitive rugby football in the busy month of April.

The Donaghadee team was: Billy Allen, Gavin Gordon, Bobby Harpur, Ian Martindale, Andrew Findlater, Paul Blewitt, Alistair Lockhart, Chris Schofield, Paul Hamilton, Gareth Gordon, Kyle Morrow, Richard Martindale, Craig McCoy, Chris Hamilton and Richard Millar.

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