Kukri Qualifying 2: Donaghadee 7 CIYMS 27

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Friday 12th March. Harry Allen reports.

Last Friday brought a novelty to Donaldson Park rugby ground. At 7.30pm Donaghadee’s First XV played their first-ever floodlit game. Their opponents were near-neighbours CIYMS. Donaghadee, as is their wont, having won the toss for this crucial League game, opted to play against the elements in the first half, i.e. up the slope and into the wind. All players and spectators knew that the real significance of the game was not the artificial light, but that the two teams were in contention for Qualifying League honours and possible promotion, and that all present well remembered the drubbing Donaghadee had given CI at Belmont a month earlier.

But, to mis-quote Harold Wilson “A month is a long time in sport.” As the teams ran out the local cognoscenti could tell that the Dee team had had seven personnel changes in that short period, one positional – rather a lot.

The first ten minutes allowed both sides to show some of their talents and skills, but without troubling the scorekeeper. What was crystal clear was that if it was Donaghadee who had dominated the forward exchanges at Belmont, it was now CI’s turn to out-push and out-gun their hosts. It was no real surprise when CI eventually got everything right, and their infantry produced the quick accurate ball that their cavalry wanted. After the ball passed through a number of hands it was CI’s Cuppitt who crossed to give McCombe an easy conversion and their team a deserved 7-0 lead. For the Donaghadee supporters it was a mixed experience to watch a superb text-book attack that cut the home team’s defence to pieces and to accept that this game was going to be much harder than its predecessor.

There followed a short passage of play where an excellent CI attack was amazingly unsuccessful, followed almost immediately by a seemingly innocuous attack that was rewarded with seven points. With their adrenaline flowing, CI threw themselves into the first of these, largely mounted by their hard-running backs. The mid-field part of the assault was won when the ball found the CI outside-centre with little left to do. He then side-stepped inside, and looked to have the Donaghadee line at his mercy. His mistake was to try the one-handed touch-down that looks so majestic, but may curse himself each time he remembers letting it fall from his fingers, crucially before it reached the grass.

Any feeling of relief felt by Donaghadee was short-lived. Minutes later CIYMS gathered themselves for another assault. They first fluffed it with a careless knock-on, but then turned over the Dee scrum. They continued mounting serious pressure, and although Donaghadee’s eight were struggling, it still came as something of a surprise when without obvious warning the referee awarded a penalty try to CI, and the subsequent conversion took the score to a daunting 14-0.

Knowing that their defence had still only cracked the once, the Donaghadee backs tried to do what they usually do, and they ran hard and well. In the thirtieth minute their full-back Billy Allen gave the home side some hope when he gathered a kick in his own half, looked up, saw some open field and rejected any notion of a clearance kick. As always, winger Rory Garnham was in support and was able to get into the CI “22” before he was forced into touch. At around this time McReynolds, the CIYMS second row, had to concede that the knee injury that had been troubling him for some time was too severe to continue, and left the field.

According to Six Nations commentators, a man down almost automatically means that his team loses points. CI now showed that there is nothing automatic about it when McCombe kicked a good penalty to take his team to a daunting 17 – 0 lead.

As thoughts of half-time began to intrude, Donaghadee showed that they were not going to capitulate. A Paul Blewitt kick to touch in the CI “22” was superbly won in the line-out by the high-flying Richard Martindale. Prop Noel Angus was in support in an instant, driving through the would-be tacklers. His forward colleagues ensured that the ball was then quickly presented to scrum-half Alistair Lockhart. This sharp pivot took no time at all to shoot the ball to Blewitt; he relayed the ball to a hard-running Gavin Gordon in the centre. There was little chance that he would get through a rushing CI defence, but he found Richard Millar coming up at pace and the latter went untouched under the CI posts. His conversion made the score a little more respectable at 17-7. As the interval approached there was to be one more flurry

Blewitt got the chance to once again kick ball into the CIYMS twenty two. There Martindale soared to secure the lineout ball for his forwards to drive towards the CIYMS line. This attack ended with a scrum that enabled CIYMS to take play up to the halfway line. When they gained good possession from a lineout the visitors moved the ball crisply through their half-backs to centre-three-quarter Andy McCord. A big high-stepping centre with half a field of space has dozens of choices. McCord showed his class by running at Donaghadee’s only visible defender, full-back Allen. At precisely the right moment McCord leaned right and then skated left round Allen and hared for the line with no one to beat; well, except for the fast covering Garnham. Just as the try seemed inevitable, even to the ball carrier, Garnham’s pace from the far wing got him to his target in time to flatten the charging McCord just short of the line.

The new period commenced with the elements supposedly now in Donaghadee’s favour, even if the scoreline was seriously against them. But the CIYMS team, well motivated by their surprise defeat in the previous game, had no intention of easing up. For a period the play oscillated from end to end without any real opportunity for either team to score. Then, from a Donaghadee maul near half-way, scrum-half Lockhart glimpsed a tiny gap on the blind-side. He ran as far as he could before beating the first intended tackle with a shrewd kick. Although checked, he looked to be winning the chase for the CI line. He and the two chasing defenders displayed some synchronised diving, but the chasing referee decided that a defender had just won this race.

Despite some purposeful runs by Martin Coulter and Chris Hamilton, the visitors’ determined defence held fast. However, their hooker Ferguson was adjudged to have held fast just a tad too long and found himself spectating for the next ten minutes.  With CIYMS now down to 13 players, and of course with the two teams having to adjust to uncontested scrums, it seemed that Donaghadee were almost certain to be able to find gaps to exploit. It was not the imbalance of numbers that undid Donaghadee in this period, but over-anxiety and the pressure of having to score. A number of attack opportunities were lost, not through CI tackling, but squandered in the centre of the field from passes not going to hand.

At this point CI broke out of defence and engineered an opportunity for their full back Andy McIIroy to score near the corner. The extra points, and the new total of 24-7 to CI was not the end of the game, but it was the finish for Donaghadee. Not only that, but it was another illustration that the temporary loss of a player often encourages his remaining team-mates to greater effort.

Donaghadee did continue to play, but they were not to gain anything further from this game. A late penalty kick to CI extended their lead to 27-7, and moments later the referee ended the game. Arithmetically the result was almost an exact reversal of the scoreline a month earlier. This was appropriate because in the four-week interval the CI team had improved in pace, determination, cohesion and nous. Donaghadee must admit that in the same period they had not.

This defeat now makes it unlikely that Donaghadee can finish top of Section Two, but with seven league matches still to be played before the end of April it is not quite out of the question to think about a possible promotion. Having been forced to play their long season of cup and league games using as many as 40 different players, and still having the success they have enjoyed is a tribute to the players and coaches. Continuing applied effort on pitch and training field can still bring its reward. All heads must be carried high into the game at Carrick this Saturday. This Donaghadee squad is too good to let a successful season peter out.

The Donaghadee team was: Billy Allen, Tommy Slane, Richard Millar, Gavin Gordon, Rory Garnham, Paul Blewitt, Alistair Lockhart: Noel Angus, Paul Hamilton, Garth Bennett, Kyle Morrow, David Thompson, Richard Martindale, Chris Hamilton and Martin Coulter.

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