DONAGHADEE BEATEN 22-20 ON FINAL WHISTLE IN TOWNS CUP
All those people interested in the oval ball game will surely be in little doubt about mauls and rucks after a weekend of about 5 hours of live International rugby football on TV last weekend. They may have seen hundreds of these mauls and rucks. For the puzzled, a maul is formed when one rugby team has a ball-carrier and a team-mate on their feet in contest for manual possession with one or more opposition players for the football. Such a vigorous contest is often a delight to fans, and when the team in possession can get forward momentum the “rolling maul” will stir the blood of any spectator. It delights them to see great co-ordination being exerted by the big strong ball-carrying players driving their opponents inexorably backwards. Rather beautifully, mauls are also pretty easy to referee, because almost any illegal activity is all too visible and is duly punished.
But what about the ruck? The I.R.B. definition of a ruck is where at least one player from each team, on their feet, contest for possession of the ball, using their feet to win possession of the ball that self-evidently is on the ground. The italics above are this writer’s, and are to emphasise that strictly speaking no one (including any tackled player and the tackler or tacklers on the ground) in the ruck may use their hands and no one should be off their feet any longer than necessary.
Of course this is a Brigadoon scenario. When and where do you ever see it? For those who like their rugby football rough and tough, mauls are a joy, but although some are exciting, for many people rucks are often a mess. They have become an area where even referees cannot see everything that goes on in the dark recesses that can sometimes include five, six or seven almost-comatose bodies beneath the players who are still on their feet.
So, clearly only the stronger packs of forwards can truly benefit from mauls. This is not necessarily the case in rucks. Even referees working in threes in top level games cannot police every misdemeanour in a ruck, and a referee on his tod has no chance. Of course each will blow his whistle for any offence he or she sees, but what about the hidden misdemeanours that are not seen?
Last Saturday at Ballymoney examples of both forward contests were in evidence when the hosts played Donaghadee in the first round of the Provincial Towns’ Cup. The former club has a famously strong pack in Qualifying League, Section 1, and the latter has arguable the strongest pack in Section 2, so the game was always going to be decided between these two packs, and much of it was bound to be in mauls and rucks.
The pitch was in fine order and the promised rain never came for the duration of the contest. Right from the kick-off it was Donaghadee who did all the attacking, with Ballymoney scarcely able to get into the Dee half of the field. Donaghadee chose to make repeated efforts to cross their opponents’ goal-line with runs from backs and forwards. What impressed spectators was the controlled mauling of the Donaghadee eight – each man taking turns as ball carrier as the maul rolled upfield with little effective resistance. Then when the ball was released, one of Donaghadee’s marauding back three forwards, Chris Hamilton, Paul Hamilton or Richard Millar made penetrating runs quickly supported by the rest of the pack.
What was clear to all was that whilst it was Donaghadee who were making most of the attacks, the Ballymoney defence was strong, well-organised and their tackling was accurate and definite. Another excellent Donaghadee maul turned into a looser drive with David Thompson, Kyle Morrow and Gareth Gordon prominent in testing Ballymoney’s defenders yet again, but they were well up to it. The home side took a surprisingly long time to get into the Donaghadee half. Some extra pressure from them eventually managed to get them to about 35 metres out to the right, but this seemed sufficient when they were awarded a penalty that their captain James Cleland converted for 3-0. In case the spectators missed it, this was followed by a virtual mirror image – Ballymoney managed to get to 35 metres out, but this time to the left, and Cleland again converted for 6-0.
Donaghadee did not take long to get back in the game they had thought they were dominating. Good territorial gain, followed by quick ball from a scrum gave the scrum-half Alistair Lockhart a half chance. Never shy about taking these, the Number 9 was off at speed. He broke a couple of tackles, and then, realising that he had run away from any support, he carefully kicked along the touchline and chased. Were the defenders slow or unlucky? Certainly Lockhart hunted after the ball and dived under the Ballymoney full-back to get in for a fine try, albeit right on the touchline. The kick missed, but for Donaghadee the score was now a less-worrying 6-5 down.
Around the half-hour mark Andrew Findlater crashed his way through the frontline Ballymoney troops, but was eventually stopped, and then Rory Garnham caught the opposing full-back on his own line and forced him out. But Ballymoney were strong enough to get their lines cleared yet again.
The rucks at this stage, around 3 o’clock, were getting somewhat ragged, and the referee now felt it necessary to warn the Ballymoney team about their discipline, and to reinforce the point suggested with a yellow card that one of their forwards spend a period behind the posts. Sadly for Donaghadee the resulting penalty was almost on the touchline and Monson’s kick was just short. Almost immediately it looked for a moment that Chris Schofield was in for a try, but, sadly for him and his team, the pass was adjudged to be forward. The game still hadn’t settled down enough for the referee and he was forced to have another word with the Ballymoney captain about discipline. Yet again, possibly thanks to the numerical advantage, Donaghadee were almost over with Garnham and Chris Hamilton going close just as the half petered out.
As the second period progressed one had to admire the quality of the tackling from both sides; Ballymoney’s was probably better in its aggression, but Donaghadee’s was maybe just a bit more accurate. Time after time potential runs were nipped in the bud before they really got started.
In a challenge for a high ball Donaghadee were again penalised 35 metres out, this time for an early tackle, and Cleland yet again bisected the uprights for Ballymoney to go 9-5 up. Donaghadee tried many of the moves in their play-book, but Ballymoney’s defence remained up for it and kept their line safe. As Donaghadee must have been wondering if they would ever get a penalty in a kickable position, a loose ball inside the ‘Money half got a boot to it and suddenly a headlong chase was on. Each time a Dee man went down to save the ranch, the ball slipped loose; each of these times the first boot to it was on a Ballymoney stocking; and inexorably the skittering ball rolled tantalisingly over the Dee line where the first man to it was from Ballymoney. With the easy conversion being successful the score was now 16-5, and there was little point in observing that the team in front had yet to actually handle the ball between their opponents’ 22-metre line and the goal-line.
This late in a game to suddenly go 16-5 down after pressing for an hour can knock the morale of many teams even at the highest level. But the underlying confidence that this Dee team has after such a long unbeaten league run for over a year is ever-present.
Had Ballymoney been a wee bit better organised they might have weathered the storm that Donaghadee was trying to create, but when a desperate defender dived over a ruck in front of his own posts he created immense damage. The penalty which Monson sent over for 16-8 was bad enough, but the second yellow card and another lecture was not what Ballymoney needed, and everything Donaghadee wanted. However, almost inevitably when Ballymoney managed to get to their Maginot Line 35-metres from Donaghadee’s goal-line, they were awarded yet another penalty which Cleland gratefully converted for 19-8.
Quickly following the restart Donaghadee were away again, this time through their backs. Coming into the line their full-back Billy Allen made a penetrating run with Garnham outside him. Allen decided that the early pass would put the left wing into the covering defence and side-stepped inside. This had brief success, but he lost sight of his winger and the play was killed. By now, since all present were well aware that this was a cup game, every possible Donaghadee attack brought desperate Ballymoney defence. Time after time the referee penalised the early charge, but unfortunately for Donaghadee, never in a very kickable position.
Well, the last sentence is not quite true. Donaghadee’s pack fought their way right to the Ballymoney line. At the scrum their opponents were penalised once, twice, thrice. On the fourth the Dee forwards forced the ball over the goal-line, only for the referee to rule “held up” amid discussions about the possibility of penalty tries etc.
Donaghadee were not to be denied. From the five-metre scrum the entire Dee pack threw everything at their opponents with Bobby Harpur going close before the indomitable Davy Thompson claimed the five points and the 19-13 scoreline his team had earned.
If Ballymoney thought that this Donaghadee try was a parting shot from a beaten team, they were much mistaken. Right from the restart Donaghadee came right back at Ballymoney. When they formed a maul about thirty metres out, it looked impressive, but not too menacing. And yet, through their experience, strength, determination and good communication the ball moved sweetly from hand to hand under perfect control until with an air of inexorability the Donaghadee machine ground out the yards and over the Ballymoney line. One of the warriors involved knows that he got the touch, but this writer is giving his credit to the entire pack.
With time running out, and Donaghadee trailing 18-19, it seemed like it might be just too late, but when Monson’s conversion sent the football high over the Ballymoney crossbar for a 20-19 lead for Donaghadee things looked different.
Ballymoney used the restart kick to reach their 35-metre barrier, still not having crossed it with ball in hand. However, when Cleland was given the chance to convert another penalty from this distance, he missed for the first and only time on the day. Shortly after Donaghadee restarted with a “22” drop-out it looked like their pack was yet again in command, but the dreaded whistle was to sound one more time. Was it a penalty for or against? If for Donaghadee, the game was over. If against Donaghadee then it was a tight kick at goal from 45 metres for James Cleland. Against it was, and when the stunned Dee forwards were a bit slow to retreat, the referee marched them ten metres, and then ten more. The delighted kicker quickly set his tee and kicked the goal. As the ball came to earth the referee’s whistle sounded simultaneously for the winning goal and for full time. Broken hearts do not sound, but they could be seen all over the ground. Even the home players, coaches and many spectators were gracious enough to go to the nearest Dee players, coaches and spectators to admit that on the day the better team had lost.
But such is cup-tie football. Was Ballymoney lucky? Was Donaghadee unlucky? Did missed opportunities make the difference? The probably correct answer is the old line “All of the above.” If the favourites always won such games, no one would ever get excited about them.
Writing this on Monday, having watched some periods of boring International rugby football recorded over Friday and Saturday from the TV, it seems to have been a better choice to watch a live Towns’ Cup game with all the ups and downs that these can bring. For Donaghadee this week will not be about the Ballymoney game. All thought and effort will be about this Saturday’s Qualifying League game against Grosvenor HSFP at Donaldson Park, Donaghadee.
Club coaches Jimmy McCoy, Andy Monson and the players will be working hard on training evenings, but this morning, Monday, they remembered to say that they wished to convey to all the Dee supporters their sincere thanks for their superb support on Saturday at Ballymoney, and that they will take strength from that for the rest of this productive season in their push for promotion.
Donaghadee team: Billy Allen, Chris Beattie, Bobby Harpur, Andrew Findlater, Rory Garnham, Andy Monson, Alistair Lockhart: Chris Good (c), Gareth Gordon, Chris Schofield, Kyle Morrow, Davis Thompson, Chris Hamilton, Paul Hamilton and Richard Millar. Subs: Phil Collins and Chris McGivern.