Carrick-on-Suir 14; Saint Mary’s 18
Mud-clad, energy sapped, many beyond consolation, the players of Carrick-on-Suir were visibly stunned at the end of Monday’s Division Three promotion semi-final.
Just a few yards away, an overjoyed Saint Mary’s outfit, some in tears, were singing buoyantly to hail a last gasp victory.
It’s fair to say that the disbelief, albeit at different ends of the emotional scale, was mutual when Stephen Curtin sounded his whistle for the last time.
Mary’s, with All-Black conquering and Triple Crown winning Ginger McLoughlin present to cheer them on, were in a place somewhere beyond delirium, their promotion dream still intact.
Having led from the 58th minute until the ninth minute of additional time, the hosts were shell-shocked; a season of great endeavour and hard work without the perfect bookend.
Their captain Willie Stokes addressed the huddle and struck a defiant note, his words providing a chink of light in a moment otherwise shrouded by the darkness of disappointment.
“We’ll hold our heads up, lads,” he said. “We’ve got to take this on the chin and move on from here. And we’ll learn from this. We’ll come back next year and we’ll get the job done and get out of this division. That’s what we have to do.”
Those words were admirable given Stokes’ own disappointment. Throughout the season, the hooker has led by example and proven a great ambassador for his club.
He deserved some reward for his constant cajoling of team mates all season long, to go that extra mile, to make that extra tackle, to chase that extra kick. But sport being sport, you don’t always get what you deserve.
Saint Mary’s full-back Barry Gibbons had looked an unlikely saviour for his team. In the warm-up, Gibbons planted a series of kicks from a variety of angles between the posts; his right foot looking like a potential match-winner.
But when the pressure was on, in a game when every point counted, Gibbons’ accuracy deserted him, missing four penalties which could have put some daylight between the sides.
However, Gibbons, who had converted Sean Lyons’s early try, regained his composure to kick Mary’s ahead in the 54th minute.
This was a match that was largely played between both 10-metre lines, as both packs pummelled each other through phase after phase.
At the death, with Carrick having failed to keep the ball inside the Mary’s 22 on two occasions, the Limerick side went for broke.
Surging up the left flank, with the Carrick pack picking itself up on the opposite side of the field, Mary’s faced the ‘now or never’ scenario. Taking a look to his left, centre Brian Nieland kicked the ball towards the corner. The chase was on. Breaths were held.
Carrick winger Peter Steele had surged crossfield in an attempt to bundle the ball into touch, but Gibbons, ripping across the muddy surface, had a critical head start. He kicked the ball across the try-line and dived forward to make the touchdown. Game over.
Scorewise, there was little to choose between the sides over the course of the 80 minutes, as evidenced by the one-point lead (11-10) which Carrick held at the break.
Having recovered from the early concession of a try, the Division Three Group B winners made several dangerous attacking forays and looked the likelier winners for much of the game.
The lightning fast Eddie O’Donnell was bundled into touch by centre Ger McEnery as Carrick began to move the ball well from the base of the ruck.
Minutes later, a clever kick from outside flanker Mick Carroll again set O’Donnell away down the right but he was again sent to touch by some good Mary’s cover.
Carrick fly half Ross Clery was convinced he’d touched down for a try in the 21st minute after an excellent Carrick maul, but Stephen Curtin, to Clery’s disbelief, adjudged him guilty of a knock-on. Two minutes later, Clery got Carrick off the mark via a penalty.
By the half-hour, Carrick led, and deservedly so, their greater invention with the ball in hand finally reaping a reward.
Full-back JP Wallace, who had already produced several superb jinking upfield runs, surged 30 metres crossfield, as Mary’s defensive line failed to make the requisite lateral shift. His pass found winger Peter Steele who powered across the whitewash.
Two minutes before half-time, James Wallace brilliantly blocked an attempted Gibbons clearance only to knock the ball forward just yards from the try line.
That Carrick failed to make their greater possession count on the scoreboard was something they’d rue by full-time.
The second half was top heavy on attritional rugby, with Dean Landy producing a colossal display on the blindside for Carrick.
In the scrum, Mary’s enjoyed the better of affairs until the home side produced a massive effort to wheel them in the 68th minute.
It looked like proving a pivotal moment, but Mary’s replied in kind at the next put-in; neither side willing to concede an inch to the other. It was gripping stuff, with Mary’s scrum-half Tommy Meehan proving as brave as they come at the base.
Carrick were hit with two yellow cards when defending their slender lead. Both Mick Carroll and Dylan Davies were sent to the bin – the latter decision appearing quite harsh on the Kiwi, who was adjudged to have stamped on a Mary’s player lying on the wrong side.
Mary’s fly-half Sean Lyons scuffed a drop goal attempt as the visitors sought a late reprieve.
That they eventually and dramatically got it amongst some confusion over how much time was to be added on by the referee poured salt into Carrick wounds.
Considering their greater threat with ball in hand and the try scoring opportunities that came their way, Carrick could still have won even if Barry Gibbons had kicked all his penalties.
That they’ll stew on this result throughout the summer goes without saying. They’ll attempt to work off their frustration in their O’Sullivan Cup clash with Scarrif this Sunday.
But there’s no denying the fact that this was, for all Saint Mary’s commitment, one that Carrick left behind them.
* See next week’s edition for a special feature on Waterpark RFC’s academy.
Carrick: JP Wallace; Eddie O’Donnell, Adam O’Loughlin, James Wallace, Peter Steele; Ross Clery, Jamie Steele; John Phelan, Willie Stokes (c), Alan Murray; John O’Keeffe, Brian Phelan; Dean Landy, Mick Carroll, Dylan Davies.
Replacements: Brian Slattery, Eddie Barry, Sean Fitzpatrick, Michael Cronin, Jamie Walsh.
St Mary’s: Barry Gibbons; Dave O’Connor, Brian Nieland, Ger McEnery, Niall Ryan; Sean Lyons, Tommy Meehan; Keith Hehir, Richard Wallace, Kieran Griffin; John Barrett, John Barry; Mark Gibbons, Matt Ryan (c), Jeff Collins.
Replacements: Dave Hogan, Matt Hickey, James Quinn, Leon Charnley, Kevin Maloney.
Referee: Stephen Curtin (Cork)