During last season, Armagh Royal enjoyed comprehensive wins over both Enniskillen Royal’s 1st and 2nd XVs and with their Medallion Shield winning side moving up to senior rugby, the Fermanagh teams travelled east to Armagh with some justifiable apprehension, despite being unbeaten themselves this year.
That apprehension translated into some very jittery defending at the start of the second XV match and Armagh took full advantage. Playing with great confidence and composure they soon turned that advantage into points by scoring two unconverted tries within the first 10 minutes via a backline that passed and offloaded with great accuracy. Despite a third Armagh try the visitors began to settle down as the match progressed and it soon became apparent that the pendulum was moving very slowly in their favour. Enniskillen had seen enough to suggest that this game might just be retrieved. In particular, James Balfour as captain and John Allan as pack leader seemed to view this 17 point deficit as just a minor setback with their team mates quickly adopting a similar frame of mind.
The Enniskillen front row of Josiah Johnston, John Fitzpatrick and the powerful David Patton began to dominate the scrums and provide the slick halfback pairing of Matthew McConkey and the talented Robbie Mills with plenty of good clean ball. Mills, at out-half, varied the attack between line breaks, accurate kicks and feeding the strong centre pairing of James Balfour and Adam Boles. The two centres had already provided a solid defence, along with wings Jack Deane and Conor Goodall, against a strong Armagh backline and now they began to sparkle in attack. The number of line breaks and deft offloads between the two quickly rose into double figures.
Enniskillen ran multiple phases, pushing Armagh back to their own line and leading to the visitors first score when McConkey sniped inside his opposite number for a well taken try. From the re-start they pressed the home side once again with strong carries from Allan, Patton and Andrew Humphries who was playing out of position in the second row. Humphries had his best game of the season and may well find himself “locked” into that position for a few games to come. The Fermanagh players were just about to notch up their second try of the day with a two man overlap when a zipping pass from Mills to Balfour was somehow intercepted by the Armagh wing who bravely played a “do or die” card and raced the length of the field to score Armagh’s fourth try.
Seemingly unperturbed Enniskillen once again forced their way back down the pitch from the re-start only for a popped pass from his scrum-half to bounce off the Enniskillen No.8’s chest as he dived over the line. Fortunately, Allan made amends a minute later when he powered his way across the whitewash having taken another well-timed pass from McConkey. Craig Johnston slotted the conversion to bring the score at halftime to 24-12 in favour of Armagh.
The second half started in similar fashion to the first, only this time it was Enniskillen who scored quickly. The Balfour-Boles combination was continuing to work well, Balfour off-loaded to Boles who returned the compliment. With some help from right wing, Conor Goodall, who, like his opposite wing, Jack Deane, had very little ball during the match, Balfour was given enough space to power his way under the posts. Full back, Johnston, slotted the conversion.
The visitors, buoyed by their opening strike, rarely let Armagh out of their own half. There were further forward carries with flanker Dylan Johnston and the seemingly indefatigable Harry Dane to the fore. An Enniskillen scrum in front of the Armagh posts led to a ruck from which McConkey, ever on the alert, nipped over the line to bring the scores level at 24 apiece. Johnston’s conversion put Enniskillen Royal in the lead for the first time in the game.
The home side, who must have been tempted to consider the game won after the first 20 minutes, showed great character by rallying themselves for the final minutes of the match. Enniskillen, having come so far, were determined not to let the game slip, and almost sealed the match when Allan jumped to intercept an Armagh pass and was driven over the line by a very active Michael Rooney only for the Spanish referee to decide the ball was held up.
Enniskillen had raised their game, both physically and emotionally, to come from a long way behind and to eventually dominate their hosts, but at a cost. In the end it was a slight lapse in concentration and tired legs that failed to prevent Armagh scoring the match winning try in the last moments of the game. A series of accurate passes and excellent offloads saw the hosts travel the length of the field to clinch the contest 31 points to 26. Two gallant sides had combined to put on an exciting and skilful match that was a pleasure to watch.