Many will recall that last Saturday morning saw the rain 'tipping it' down in Donaghadee; in fact Belfast was still getting it for the Ulster Rugby's Leinster visit later in the day. Saturday afternoon in Donaghadee was its usual benevolent self, with very little rain or sun. The pitches were in fine order for visitors Lisburn and Inishowen (see the seperate match report - Donaghadee 2nd XV - for news of the County Donegal men).
Donaghadee Firsts were coming off the back of a well-contested victory over a very talented Coleraine University side. With the confidence this hard-fought result had instilled, they were straight into full attacking mode as Paul Blewitt kicked off to the Lisburn men. Pre-game reports had suggested that the Lisburn team was having a few worries, but coaches and players alike know that such things are better learned on the field of play.
The Donaghadee pack threw out the challenge to their opposite numbers in scrums, rucks and mauls, giving Jonny Phillips a few opportunities to release his backs. The early Dee attacks looked sharp and cohesive, but the Lisburn defence kept their goal-line intact, even though their despairing efforts to hold the line gave Richard Millar two difficult chances to kick penalty goals – both of which he executed from well out, to force Lisburn into having a rethink about being too cute at slowing down the game.
Six points was small reward however for their efforts, and the Dee pack came to a consensus that they would take the direct route and see if they could outmuscle their opponents, without bothering their own backs. They took two determined charges at the Lisburn line; and while the referee was not convinced about the first dive over, he had no hesitation a few seconds later when Martin Coulter was the man who grounded a superb 'forward's try'. Millar narrowly missed with the conversion, but almost immediately made amends when Rory Garnham was upended about thirty metres out. Lisburn not only went down to a 14-0 scoreline from this kick, but must also have been disappointed to lose the presence of their over-eager tackler for the obligatory 10 minutes in the sin-bin.
A minute or so later Garnham showed that he had suffered no ill effects when he came sharply in off his left wing to support his rampaging forwards. One of the more intelligent of the Dee's forwards fed him the ball, and Rory’s pace and running angles did the rest. With all due respect to the visitors, most of them probably never saw him as he ghosted right through, to give Millar his easiest kick so far. The conversion took the score to 21-0 (although Millar did grandstand a bit by cannoning his goal-shot off the right upright).
Donaghadee were really cooking now, and it was only seconds before Lisburn were under serious pressure again. An over-hasty clearance kick went straight to Gavin Gordon, who of course went directly at the Lisburn line. Realising that he wasn't getting there because of the Lisburn cover defence, he looked for support and found Millar exactly where he was needed out on the right wing. A soft pass and an easy run-in allowed the try scorer to show what he could do with his cultured left boot from the right-hand touchline. No heroics, but an excellent strike saw Donaghadee to a formidable 28-0 lead.
A change of tactics from the running and passing Paul Blewitt saw a speculative kick going across the Lisburn line, but seemingly with little hope of any gain to Donaghadee. Sometimes however the rugby gods seem to have their fun with the players, and as the anxious Lisburn defenders raced back to rescue the situation the ball took something of a life of its own - frivolously changing direction and speed as it skittered away from the defenders’ despairing hands. Bobby Harper had little else to do but gain the few yards he needed and simply fall on the ball as it suddenly behaved itself. The missed kick meant that Donaghadee now had 33 points in exactly as many minutes, and from No.1 to No. 15 they looked like they wanted more.
Their next attack was probably to be a straightforward three-quarter line run to their left, but when the ref spotted an unsporting pull on outside-half Blewitt’s arm he immediately screeched on his whistle and administered a stern lecture to the culprit for his lack of manners. Donaghadee rejected the easy goal-front kick and took the scrum. Almost for the first time the forwards and backs missed what was really an easy chance for another seven points and had to watch Lisburn clear their lines to touch.
Anger at the lack of dominance at the previous scrum created a total unity among the red and green forwards, that simply made for an inexorable driving maul. So ferocious was it, that it could well have been taken to the perimeter hedge, however they smartly touched down and took their applause. Millar’s conversion raised the score to an amazing 40 points in 35 minutes - with a nil reply.
When the half-time whistle sounded both teams had something to think about. Lisburn are a proud club, and were desperate to stop any further rot, and to show the crowd that they can play better than they had been doing. The Donaghadee men had to decide how they could make best use of the ball in the second half of a game that they could scarcely lose - especially as they now were to have the elements in their favour. This is not a no-brainer as all rugby players will know; to mix metaphors, it is all too easy for a team to take the collective foot off the pedal or for individuals to try something that is just too risky.
Well, Donaghadee did not obviously do either, but their full-on commitment of the first half was not as obvious as the game went on. They did complete some very sharp work however, so high now was their confidence level, but the edge had dulled a little. This is often seen as inevitable in a one-sided game, but a huge win announced in the media would send a message round all clubs in the Qualifying League. For their part Lisburn must have been demanding of each other in their huddle that greater effort was needed if they were to leave with their respectability intact.
As the second period commenced it seemed that the visitor's defence had indeed tightened up, even though the Donaghadee attacks still looked just as threatening. For the home supporters there was time and opportunity to assess the relative values of their own players. The Donaghadee forwards were all performing as well as they have done in months, and it would be invidious to make comparisons between them. Behind them it was becoming more and more obvious which of the Donaghadee backs were the generals, which were the greyhounds, and which were the attack dogs. This writer has his own candidates for each, but undoubtedly so does every one of those at Donaldson Park last Saturday. Possibly the best opportunity to make such simplistic comparisons came early in the new half when Donaghadee ran the ball right, left and right again in a relentless manner until, with some inevitability, it fell to Harper to cross the line for his second try, and immediately after, Donaghadee’s 47th point. Minutes later another great penalty goal from Millar put Donaghadee on the half ton.
The Dee players were all keen to increase this total, and in quick succession Martin Coulter, Chris Hamilton and Gavin Gordon produced some majestic mid-field running, without ultimate success. They did, however, force a touch on the Lisburn '22'. Gareth Gordon produced another of his inch-perfect dart throws, that found Chris Schofield eager to pounce. From behind it appeared that he simply decided “this one is for me” as he bull-dozed for the Lisburn line. None of the blue-shirted defenders shirked their tackles, but on this occasion Schofield was simply an unstoppable force. 55-0.
Millar by now was tired of being perceived as basically the team’s kicker. Annoyed at missing the kick from the touchline, he latched on to a Chris Hamilton pass in midfield. The armchair coaches were willing him to send Gordon on his way, but the big centre simply looked at Gav long enough to send all would-be tacklers in his direction, before storming over the line himself. 60-0.
Did Donaghadee lose concentration a little at this one-sided scoreline? Certainly Lisburn suddenly were on a very rare attack. An interception by their scrum-half, and quick transfer to his support players, heralded a compensatory score for the visitors. It seemed easier to score than not, but the Donaghadee players had not kept their line uncrossed for 75 minutes only to see it pierced because of a minor error. Their wholesale retreat to shore up the line was amazing to see. The tackles went in, the ruck was formed quickly, possession was regained and Blewitt was satisfied to put the ball safely into touch.
Donaghadee’s front eight had played skilfully and well all afternoon. Line-out possession was safe and sometimes astounding, rucking and especially mauling were uncompromising. The backs ran with purpose all day and when they were obliged to tackle they did it instantly and mercilessly. However, the most satisfying aspect of their approach was the support play throughout the team. All, both backs and forwards, showed complete willingness, determination and fitness to be where they were most needed and at the right time in both attack and defence. This and the other fine things shown on Saturday must have been very satisfactory for the club coach Ian Martindale and his maturing assistant Jimmy McCoy, rewarding all concerned for the time and effort on the training field. Donaghadee have narrowly lost two away league games to date this season, games that could so easily have gone their way; and they have an unfortunately long injury list. But, make no mistake about it, they are by no means out of the running in Qualifying Two. As the accompanying 2nd XV report (vs. Inishowen) suggests, the club now has a squad of players who can, and sometimes do, step up to the first team with every confidence that they can make a positive contribution.
The Donaghadee team was: Bobby Harper, Gavin Gordon, Andrew Findlater, Richard Millar, Rory Garnham, Paul Blewitt, Jonny Phillips; Chris Good (c), Gareth Gordon, Chris Schofield, Kyle Morrow, Andrew Dunn, Stuart Hutchinson, Chris Hamilton and Martin Coulter.