When Donaghadee Rugby Club's 1st XV visited Blaris last Saturday, the day was mild and by this winter’s standards fairly dry and the pitch looked quite green. The day continued much the same, but the pitch gradually took on a browner colour and a top surface that discouraged any fancy running. Donaghadee did mount a couple of dangerous runs early on featuring Gavin Gordon, Richard Millar and Rory Garnham. These were snuffed out by the Lisburn defence, although on three of the occasions only by conceding penalties. Millar was unsuccessful with the first attempt, but gave Donaghadee early points with his next two.
Their morale boosted by the 6-0 scoreline, Donaghadee soon mounted their best attack so far. When the Lisburn outside-half kicked a little too far into Donaghadee’s “22” Paul Blewitt made the fair catch, took the free kick quickly and brought the charging Gordon and Millar into another threatening play. Their roles executed when they had made a serious incursion into Lisburn territory, the latter sent a long ball out to debutant right winger Chris Woods. He showed no signs of stage-fright as he tore off down his touchline. He almost got to the Lisburn goal line, but their desperation defence just managed to force him into touch.
When the defenders finally got possession they chose the running option over the kicking game they had been favouring, but Donaghadee’s organised and determined defence was more than up to the threat. After the ball was forced into touch Chris Hamilton made a marvellous catch at the tail of the line-out and took off on route one. However, his pinching of what had seemed a certain Lisburn ball and his quick exploitation of possession surprised his team-mates for a crucial second or two and Lisburn were able to shut down the threat.
The home side’s reward for a determined spell was a penalty kick from near the half-way line. This looked to have made the distance for a second, but fell short. Both teams must have realised that this was now the crisis of the game, because desperation in the rucks and mauls was irritating the referee and bringing too many penalties in their wake. When a Lisburn centre-threequarter and their player-coach playing at No. 10 were seen receiving warnings for dissent by the ref it came as little surprise a few minutes later when their hooker came to be the one to go to the naughty step for ten minutes. His offence of coming in from the side at a ruck was not the worst, but the referee had been very clear that the dissent must stop.
Shortly afterwards, still in the power-play period, Richard Martindale made a tremendous catch that was quickly manufactured into an impressive rolling maul. As powerful prop Chris Schofield forced his way through he was followed by a unified wedge of Dee forwards that ate up about 30 yards of territory. Unfortunately when Lisburn’s forwards were able to bring the maul to ground it was a Donaghadee hand that was spotted working the ball back. The Lisburn clearance took play to half-way where again the referee spotted a Donaghadee hand – this time knocking the ball on. Yet again the referee was strict about unnecessary comments and changed his call to a penalty to the Dee. The kick could not be taken immediately due to a sore-looking injury to Paul Blewitt’s rib cage, but the Dee No. 10 was restored quickly and almost immediately he took quick ball from scrum-half Alistair Lockhart to set Gordon on his way again.
When the ball broke to Lisburn’s out-half he brought out his biggest cannon and sent the ball way down into Donaghadee territory. Donaghadee’s full-back Marshall made a clean catch, but followed this with an error of judgement he will learn from. Instead of sticking the ball safely into touch he decided to run. Unfortunately there was no close support, so that when caught by some Lisburn tacklers he was forced to concede a penalty. The successful conversion brought Lisburn seriously back into the game at 6-3 as the ref sounded half-time.
The second period began much like the first with most of the running attacks coming from Donaghadee, but with some determined tackling by Lisburn to snuff them out one after another. The Donaghadee defence was never put under the same pressure by running three-quarters because Lisburn almost invariably chose the kicking option. This was not a silly tactic, because it has to be said that Donaghadee’s execution of catching the ball and putting it safely away was as bad as it has been this season. By this stage the pitch was getting more slippery, but the simple standing catch and kick to touch was still a fairly easy option, although too often badly executed. The touchline experts, including probably this writer, could not help making comparisons with the spectacularly good play the previous week. Yes, the week’s heavy rain had done the Blaris pitch no favours, but it was still playable if only players stuck to the realistic options.
Half-way through the half, Donaghadee’s full-back Marshall was spotted making a lateish tackle and sent to the sin-bin for the requisite 10 minutes, and Lisburn duly kicked the penalty. Donaghadee knew that, now facing a Lisburn superiority in numbers, they would be up against it, and 6-6 was a dangerous position to be in.
The visitors’ response could not have been bettered, even if one or two parts of their next attack were a little surprising. First the soaring Martindale took another perfect line-out ball and got it out to Lockhart and then Blewitt. The next recipient was Schofield, clearly anxious to demonstrate his skills as a piano-player after showing how good he is as a piano-shifter. He menaced the Lisburn defence just enough to draw potential tacklers to him before giving his winger Woods a fine pass. This young man knows what a winger does in such circumstances. First he simply headed for the Lisburn corner, and then when the defence swarmed his way, he spun and shimmied to such effect that he found the hole that allowed him to touch down for a try that neither he nor any of his team-mates will ever forget. The kick was missed, but the welcome 11-6 scoreline and the fact that it had been achieved when they had only 14 men was enough of as morale-booster to Donaghadee that the remaining minutes were a bit of an anti-climax.
The last few minutes actually provided a small cameo of the game’s only try when Donaghadee mounted a very similar attack to their right. It was Millar on this occasion who made the big ground before passing to Woods, only this time Lisburn’s defence was up to it and the winger was forced out. Lisburn were soon glad to get into their opponents’ half and then assemble a ruck. However the impetuous foot of their out-half kicking the ball out of the hands of Donaghadee’s Lockhart that provoked yet another yellow card. Shortly afterwards the referee blew the final whistle that most were happy enough to hear.
No team plays well every week. Lisburn well know that they have improved greatly since the beginning of the season, and Donaghadee equally well know that they have been better on occasion. By Thursday’s newspaper-delivery time the following will be history, but Donaghadee also left Blaris knowing that they had to lift their game for yet another League match four days later when Ballyclare are/were due to visit Donaghadee for a 7.30 start under Donaldson Park floodlights.
The Donaghadee team against Lisburn was: (15-9) Stephen Marshall, Chris Woods, Gavin Gordon, Richard Millar, Rory Garnham, Paul Blewitt, Alistair Lockhart; (1-8) Chris Schofield, Paul Hamilton, Gareth Gordon, Kyle Morrow, Stuart Hutchinson, Craig McCoy, Chris Hamilton and Richard Martindale.
Gavin Gordon leaves a few would-be tacklers in his wake.
Kyle Morrow, try-scoring debutant Chris Woods, Gareth Gordon and Alistair Lockhart leave the field following a hard-fought victory.