At Donaldson Park on the evening of Tuesday 5 April Donaghadee unprecedently played a league game with three USRFR officials on the field. The game was a re-arranged League game, but an important one. All present knew that the winner in all likelihood would win Section Two of Ulster’s Qualifying League. There was no actual significance to having the trio of recognised referees except that it emphasised the importance of the game.
Although Donaghadee kicked off, it was something of a surprise when they went in front so quickly. From fairly innocuous-looking possession Chris McGivern and then Chris Beattie made ground and a shrewd Andy Monson boot downfield presented a fine chase by a number of players. The defenders looked favourites for the touch-down, but Richard Millar’s pace saw him reach the ball first as it crossed the CI line.
So, first blood to the hosts, but it was not long before CI were awarded a penalty and the score now stood at 7-3 in Donaghadee’s favour. The visitors’ forwards have seen their united strength improve this season, and they clearly decided to put their opponents to the test at the next scrum. As a tight unit they drove the Dee eight emphatically backwards quite suddenly near the touchline. If the Dee forwards were to keep their composure they had to respond. Moments later they turned line-out possession into a maul, and instantly started its forward momentum. Within seconds the CI eight were going backwards at a fine rate of knots and then unceremoniously into touch. Donaghadee were now in command, and CI desperation showed in a series of penalties against them for indiscipline. Although a couple of these narrowly missed, Monson and Millar’s efforts were successful enough for the score to be 16-3 to Donaghadee at the end of the first quarter. Could the Dee perhaps manage a few more points before the turn-round gave the wind advantage to the visitors?
What was slowly becoming apparent was that Donaghadee’s tight-head and tower of strength Chris Schofield had done something nasty to himself at one of the bruising encounters earlier because, although he was able to continue, it was obvious that he was now carrying a very discomfiting injury and this was reducing Donaghadee’s power at the set pieces.
On the half-hour CI’s No. 8 took a great catch and took the ball through a number of attempted tackles right to the goal line for a try and conversion that made it 16-10. The closing of the margin was bad enough, but what very quickly became apparent was the inspirational effect that this had on the CI spirit. Having started a bit diffidently, what the large crowd now saw was combined attack from CI, backs and forwards, at every opportunity. What made life harder for the home side was that the couple of inaccurate tackles that had led to CI’s first try now spread further afield. Regular readers will know that disciplined defence has been a hallmark of Donaghadee’s game for a couple of seasons, but the long break and the stuttering nature of the more recent fixtures seemed to have loosened the usually tight defence. CI were unable to cross the goal-line for the remainder of the half, but they were putting such serious pressure on their opponents that they gained two more successful penalties that saw the teams turn round honours even at 16-16.
Ominously two penalties were given in quick succession against Donaghadee early in the second half, the first putting CI into the lead for the first time in the game and the second demonstrating that Donaghadee’s defence was now getting a little more ragged. If the threat was now becoming a little clearer, it suddenly became seriously real. CI gained possession in their own half and ran the ball with great purpose with determination and composure. The Dee men who were in a position to make the necessary tackles certainly did so, but modern rugby football has outgrown those long draggy tackles that allow the ball to continue to go forward as it takes ten metres to pull the ball carrier down and also to allows him to recycle it. It seemed that every CI runner was brought down, but the ball was never killed. The try was an excellent piece of determined running for the visitors to give them a daunting lead of 29-16, but also posed a serious question for the Donaghadee defence.
Seconds later Dee flanker Chris Hamilton was judged too cynical at a breakdown and yellow-carded for it, leaving only fourteen of his team-mates to face the inevitable onslaught from the now fired-up CI fifteen. It was no surprise to anyone when a copy of the previous try was constructed by CI and Donaghadee’s tiring players were facing 36-16 and almost inevitable defeat.
Well, the game was lost, but the league not yet so. Encouragingly, in view of the difficult end-of-season run of fixtures for Donaghadee players, the fourteen red and green men mounted a fine combined attack that rapidly gained ground into the CI half before a ball found Billy Allen in close support. His pace and change of angles took him in from the “22” and under the posts for an easy kick and 36-23. With players visibly tiring, gaps appeared in both defences, and the game ended with another try apiece, leaving the final score 41-28.
CI must now be fairly clear favourites for this League, and from the way they played this game they deserve to be. But Donaghadee is also a good team. This hard encounter will have done a lot for any ring-rustiness they may have had. They go to Omagh on Saturday 9 April for a difficult away game, with fixtures still to be fulfilled against Lisburn and Ballyclare. Promotion is now a difficult target, but one that Donaghadee should surely hit before the month is out.
Donaghadee team: Billy Allen, Nigel Barker, Bobby Harpur, Chris Beattie, Chris McGivern, Paul Blewitt, Andy Monson: Chris Good (c), Gareth Gordon, Chris Schofield, David Thompson, Richard Martindale, Stuart Hutchinson, Chris Hamilton and Richard Millar.