Right from the first scrum, just after Donaghadee kicked off, it was clear to all that the re-jigged Dee eight were going to be under serious pressure all of the spring-like day. Many of the big Enniskillen forwards are young players, but they are strong and eager. They were able to exert so much power in the scrums that the Dee men were aware that they could be on the back foot all day. When Enniskillen were able to provide frequent quick ball to their backs the latter showed that they could run. But Donaghadee’s backs showed that they had a well-organised defensive system and that they all could tackle, so there was a sort of panicky stalemate for ten or fifteen minutes. By then the Dee forwards were showing their opponents that although they may have been pushed around in the scrums by the heavier Enniskillen pack, they were still full of vigour, and most crucially, were more street-wise in every other facet of forward play. As always, the Donaghadee line-outs and mauls were impressive. Possession at the former was secure and the mauls were controlled and intelligent, with a few impressive surges upfield. Those two seasoned craftsmen David Thompson and captain Chris Good showed by example and wise advice that the Skins’ pack were only going to dominate at the set scrums, and that even this could be spoiled. All eight Dee forwards were sterling all day. Each of them, regardless of danger and seemingly unaffected by fatigue, were determined and fierce in their defence and attack.
This great team spirit had its just reward when some great team play seemed almost to bewilder the Enniskillen defence. With roughly 20 minutes gone the Dee forwards stretched the home defence and the hard-running Richard Millar took his half-chance and went over half-way out on the Dee left. Andy Monson had no hesitation in adding the extra points for a 7-0 lead for Donaghadee. This seemed to surprise Enniskillen who had been thinking for a while that they were on top. Their dismay was dealt another blow a few minutes later when Monson stuck over another penalty kick to make the discrepancy a more daunting 10-0.
To their great credit Enniskillen came back immediately at Donaghadee. They tried making more and better use of their backs, with their big full-back looking their most dangerous runner every time he came into the attack line. But Donaghadee’s defence held time and time again. The immense pressure did eventually tell, and the gap opened with Donaghadee’s defenders finally over-stretched. The conversion of this try must have given the home side great heart as it took the match score to a more manageable 10-7 in Donaghadee’s favour.
It was no surprise to anyone that Enniskillen threw everything they had at their opponents in an effort to draw level or even better to go in front for the break. Yet again, and again, stalwart tackling by Donaghadee’s forwards and backs and huge clearance kicks by Monson and full-back Billy Allen kept their opponents at arm’s length until the referee gave himself and the thirty players a welcome rest after this lively half.
One or two penalties came Donaghadee’s way early in the new half, usually because Enniskillen’s impatience to destroy their opponents’ forward surges led them into indiscretions, but fortunately for them these were just too far out for goal kick attempts. Donaghadee were still under pressure from the hard-driving Enniskillen eight at the scrums, but when offered an opportunity they were able enough and skilful enough to cause some panic in the Enniskillen defence. When they rumbled their way into the Enniskillen red zone things did look ominous for the hosts. Then, when Donaghadee’s forwards won the ball quickly it caused a rush of blood to a defender’s head causing him to dive spectacularly, but very obviously, right over the ruck almost in front of his own posts. Monson took little time to convert the kick and Donaghadee were heartened by their slightly better advantage of 13-7. It appeared that this boost stimulated the visitors into widening the scope of their attacks, while still employing the forwards. Millar and Chris Hamilton each made impressive yardage, and Enniskillen were forced to find something if they were to snatch a victory. There followed the longest unbroken spell of play as the home side ran, kicked and drove at Donaghadee. Left they went; then right. Tackles went in again and again, but to their great credit Enniskillen kept their heads and switched the direction of attack to cover almost every square metre of Donaghadee’s half. When the ball eventually went dead the spectators were able to take the time to observe Dee players Thompson, Millar, Gareth Gordon and Stuart Hutchinson on the ground at widely separated locations across the field. It is a tribute to the Donaghadee physio team led by Niall Moraghan that these injured warriors were all able to resume in a few minutes, but it also showed the absolute level of commitment of all the Dee men. Taking up position again is one thing, but perhaps not all the valiant Dee men were totally restored, because when Enniskillen mounted their next relentless attack they eventually found a chink in the Donaghadee defence just big enough for their outside-half to squeeze through for a fine score. When the conversion kick slid outside the uprights one could almost see the slumping of the Enniskillen shoulders, and Donaghadee were still in front 13-12.
It was not long before the men in maroon were back again hammering at the Donaghadee door for any kind of a winning score. Yet again they were denied by the visitors’ comprehensive defence. But camping for long minutes close to the opposition goal-line often, even usually, provokes indiscipline in the defence and a penalty opportunity. When Chris McGivern put up a long clearance kick, the referee penalised a Donaghadee player for not running backwards until the chasing McGivern had passed him, and awarded Enniskillen a very kickable opportunity. Although some players called for a kick at goal they were over-ruled, and a scrum back was the result. This was a fatal mistake close to full time, because Donaghadee dug in and the unspoken cry was “They shall not pass.”
The Skins did win the initial scrum to set up the attack that might win them the game; Ian Martindale came off his line like a Chieftain tank and knocked the Enniskillen attack backwards; the plan was re-jigged and away Enniskillen went again. The new decision had clearly been to try the running attack and they passed the ball out quickly to their right. Donaghadee were chasing like their very lives depended upon it, especially when they spotted the big full-back storming into the line with two men outside him and only two men left to halt what was effectively a four-man charge.
The entire Donaghadee touchline contingent were on their tip-toes to help as much as they could, but to a man and woman their feet entirely left the ground as full-back Allen lined up his opposite number and knocked him right up and backwards on to his posterior where he spilled the ball. The first Enniskillen man to the breakdown dived over the tackle and was rightly punished for it and Donaghadee gratefully kicked the penalty out of play.
There were a few minutes left, but effectively Donaghadee had weathered the Enniskillen storm. At a scrum near the half-way line Ally Lockhart, knowing that time was up, took the ball as it emerged on his side and kicked it about a hundred metres over the adjacent pitch in celebration of a welcome but extremely hard-fought victory.
Every one of the Donaghadee players must be proud of their performances in a very tough match, but most players and spectators would probably agree that the man of the match was the greatly-improving Chris Hamilton. This young man has played many great games for Donaghadee, but last week he was truly amazing as he appeared again and again either with ball in hand at great pace, or demolishing dangerous Enniskillen runs. This is not in any way to diminish or criticise any of the Donaghadee bravehearts. So heroic had been their efforts that many came off as walking wounded. Rugby football has always been a tough and uncompromising game, but a broken nose, a twisted shoulder and numerous other bruises and cuts was a big price to pay. It even transpired that there had been so many doubts about players’ health that morning that they had deemed it advisable to bring a possible substitute player with them in case anyone was unable to pass the pre-game fitness tests.
Club Coach Jimmy McCoy wished to express his thanks to the large contingent of Donaghadee supporters who had made the journey to Enniskillen. Their loyal support had played no small part in the day’s success for Donaghadee. In addition the coach and players wished to express their thanks to utility back Mark Vance who had been good enough to travel to Fermanagh, only to be denied a game.
None of the Dee players seemed to care too much about their game injuries, some even pooh-poohing any concern. One or two even took the line that with no big game this coming Saturday, it gave them plenty of time for restoration to full health, and they hoped to be available for the next League game at Lisburn on the 5th of March.
Donaghadee team: Billy Allen, Chris McGivern, Chris Beattie, Ian Martindale, Rory Garnham, Andy Monson, Alistair Lockhart: Chris Good (c), Paul Hamilton, Gareth Gordon, Kyle Morrow, David Thompson, Stuart Hutchinson, Chris Hamilton, and Richard Millar.