Final score: 7-10
The first game after half term, against Coleraine, had been marked in red as somewhat of a D-Day for the ERGS U14 squad, as it represented stage 2 of their season and what was expected to be a step up in terms of opposition quality. As the boys made their way on the long bus journey to face, arguably, the strongest U14 team in the province, the mood was of quiet confidence and determination to reverse the defeat of 39-5 last season.
Coleraine, like ERGS, this season have had a storming start, unbeaten, with some solid victories against the traditionally strong squads of Campbell, RBAI and Ballymena. So there was no doubt that on a beautiful bright sunny morning on the banks of the Bann, that a close battle was to be witnessed by the assembled family supporters.
With Coleraine kicking off into the bright morning sun, the ball was well fielded and secured by the ERGS pack on what was a pretty slippy, but well manicured surface. The first few exchanges very quickly established that the the bus journey had not affected the ERGS’ boys, who looked totally ready and up for the game. This side has started strongly in every game this season, and that habit clearly was not going to broken as they almost immediately let their opponents know they were going to be in for a tough morning, with incredible physicality, line speed and organisation. Coleraine showed in the early exchanges that they were also an organised group, who were skilful in ball retention, in the tackle, and throughout their back-line, with large, strong runners in every position. After a few phases on halfway, where things were totally ‘toe to toe’, Coleraine got their first opportunity to spread the ball wide to their impressive left winger. Breaking the first tackle, he made some good ground. However, he hadn’t counted for the bravery and talent of Burns at fullback, who totally scythed the big runner down with the first of several quite brilliant tackles. Such was the ferocity of the tackle, the ball was spilled forward and ERGS had their first scrum of the game, just outside their own 22. The first scrum is always an opportunity for the 2 packs to ‘test’ each other out, and it was wonderful to see the ERGS boys rise to the challenge and dominate not only this scrum, but every other scrum in the game. This solid base was a key element for ERGS for the rest of the game, and they took full advantage of the work which has been going in at training. At this point it was clear that Coleraine were somewhat surprised to find themselves up against an ERGS’ team visibly hungry to meet ‘fire with fire’, and with the organisation and skill set to cause the home side significant problems in front of their large support.
The game flowed a little at this stage along the half way line, with Coleraine trying hard to break down the well organised and aggressive ERGS’ defence, led by a superb display from Hetherington, Seaman, ‘Captain Courageous’ Bothwell, Aiken and Graham, all who made thunderous and repeated hits during this phase of play. Coleraine simply started to run out of options as the ERGS boys seemed to be crawling over every inch of grass, and causing disruption and upset within the Coleraine ranks.
This pressure, and the ferocity of the tackle, eventually paid dividends for ERGS, as for the next 15 mins the game was played almost exclusively in the Coleraine half, with ERGS looking the more dangerous with ball in hand, and the more organised of the 2 teams. With the territorial advantage gained through clever kicking by Hamill at 9 and Love at 10, the pressure continued to mount on the Coleraine boys, and soon ERGS were camped out in their opponent’s 22. Looking dangerous at every phase of play, opportunities started to appear. Hamill and Love were gelling well, and Love was really starting to control and marshall the ERGS troops. Powerful running by Aiken, Hetherington, Monaghan, Carrothers and Clarke started to cause Coleraine problems, however it has to be said that their defence was superb at times, leaving ERGS having to use their brains and improving game craft to maintain momentum. Unfortunately the last pass and the small details were just letting the boys down, and the breakthrough that they needed just refused to come at this stage. Coleraine had not built their reputation for nothing, and they managed at times to steal ball, take advantage of the ERGS’ mistakes, and to fight their way out of danger. Clearly they wanted to move the ball wide, but the centre partnership of Bothwell and Courtney were having a blinder in defence and they repeatedly smashed hard into their larger opposite numbers and this, coupled with brilliant back row support from Graham, Seaman and Billy Elliott (Smyton), continued to frustrate and force mistakes from Coleraine.
It was following 2 huge hits in a row by Bothwell who, at 12 and as Captain, had an inspired game, and Seaman, who continues to improve with every game, that ERGS at last got their well deserved breakthrough. With turnover ball and with their tails up, Hamill was able to release Aiken at pace. Using his powerful frame he was driven by his hungry teammates to within inches of the line. Recycled ball was fed by Hamill to Love, who again was held up on the line. Swinging play back in the opposite direction, Hamill released Clarke, who was high tackled and a penalty was awarded 5m from the bravely defended Coleraine line. With a training ground move made, the ball was flashed wide to Harte, who rounded his opposite number and dragged the last tackler over the line to score a great winger’s try in the corner. Hamill struck the ball well but it fell just to the right of the posts.
At 5-0 up, and with both sides pretty evenly matched, the gathered on-lookers knew that they were going to be in for a keratin biting time.
My notes for the remainder of the half just say ‘defence’!!!, and that word helps sum up the closing 5 minutes of what was a thrilling half of rugby. In fact, that word underestimates the significance of those closing minutes and the supreme effort that every single player in an ERGS jersey put in. As so often happens when a team concedes a score, Coleraine came out with the boxing gloves off. Putting their best phases of play together they simply battered, stretched and pummelled the ERGS defence all over the park. Phase after phase they came at ERGS, showing just why they are such a quality team. Using close and wide runners they inched their way towards the ERGS line; however, they were repeatedly refused entry by a collective, organised and committed ERGS defence. Monaghan, Aiken, Smyton and Seaman just seemed to be in their element, holding, driving and crunching the Coleraine runners time and time again. Love and his back-line were doing a fabulous job of stopping a talented Coleraine backline; however, with 2 minutes to go, they were deemed to have crept off side and an ominous penalty was awarded to a rampant Coleraine. But, the ERGS boys were not going to lie down, and for the final 2 minutes of the half they demonstrated just why they have been unbeaten this year. They put their hearts on their sleeves and, with supreme leadership by Bothwell and Smyton, ERGS collectively ruined every Coleraine attack, smashing them back one tackle at a time right back into their own half. With the fire in the bellies well and truly lit, the ERGS boys had repelled their talented opposition through sheer teamwork and commitment. This was the defining moment of the game and one which had Coleraine in all sorts of disarray as the half-time whistle went.
The second half started with Love getting things under way and ERGS continuing where they had left off. Disrupting things within the Coleraine 22 the ERGS boys soon had their opposition under pressure, with continued great line speed and aggressive tackling. Coleraine were struggling a little to get their lines cleared, and it was only due to ERGS making some mistakes when they should have been in control of things that allowed the pressure to be released. With the ball in hand ERGS continued to look dangerous, and early on in the second half Carrothers and Harte, out on the wings, both looked sure to score, but for wonderful covering tackles by the Coleraine defence. The forward dominance continued for ERGS with Kerr, Clarke and Hetherington all having storming games in the rough and tumble of the front row battle, and the bulk of Aiken, Smyton and Monaghan starting to wear their opposite numbers down. Like in the first half, it was just that last pass, a silly knock on, a lost lineout, that halted ERGS in their tracks, causing opportunities to slip away from them when they really should have been putting the game to bed. Unfortunately the referee was also starting to have an impact with some bizarre decisions which disrupted the ERGS’ momentum on several occasions.
However, the boys kept at it and, showing remarkable maturity, patience and self control they gradually eaked out another opportunity and this time they got their just rewards. With simple and direct running the ball was set up by some beautiful pirouetting by our Billy Elliott Smyton making good ground from another dominant scrum. 2 phases of great forward play later allowed Hamill to release Love, who with the move already called, pinged the ball out the line. As planned, it ended up in the mitts of the ever dangerous Carrothers, who this time needed no second invitation to fill the injectors and dance his way around the last 2 defenders to score a wonderful team try of some class. Hamill again struck the ball well into the wind, however it fell just short, leaving the score at 10-0.
From then on for the rest of the final 10 mins, ERGS simply looked the most dominant both up front and in the back-line, and they continued to work extremely hard against a tiring but resistant Coleraine side. Monaghan, Billy Elliott, Carrothers and Harte, who had a great game in both defence and attack today, all came close to adding more points but for what can only be described as heroic Coleraine defence. With the play all in the Coleraine half, apart from a few kicks to provide relief, ERGS looked like they would get another well deserved score at anytime. They were moving with intent, and continued to demonstrate patience and control, something that has been worked hard on in training. At this stage Elliott was called to the Medallions, Nelson came on for the impressive Seaman, and Duncan came on for the ‘quiet man’ Kerr in the from row. Magee was unfortunately sidelined due to a dead leg.
It was great to see both Duncan and Nelson make instant impacts, and they both had impressive displays. Duncan, who is improving with every week, showed his strength with 2 storming and damaging runs, and Nelson showed his huge ability in the tackle with 2 tooth rattlers on his Coleraine targets.
With 2 minutes to go and the game looking settled at 10-0, Coleraine seized their opportunity and showed just what a dangerous side they can be. With a great chip and chase from the half way, their out half scored a lovely individual try which was successfully converted. This typified the fact that this Coleraine side never gave up, and underlined why they are held in such high esteem.
With the final score 10-7 the ERGS boys can be extremely proud of this wonderful win against the top of what the province can offer. Despite the close score, ERGS really were the dominant team from the kick-off in terms of physicality, organisation and structure. They should take a huge amount from this game, which was won with passion, heart, and that deep down will to win that will stand to these boys as they progress through the rest of the season. It’s very difficult to pick out individual players when the whole squad has played so well and put their bodies on the line for their team in the pursuit of victory. However, in such tight games, leadership is vital, and I know that all the boys will be happy that their ‘Captain Courageous’ Bothwell and pack leader ‘Billy Elliott’ Smyton be highlighted for the work they did today. These 2 young men grow in stature every week and they should both be very proud of the job they are doing.
The talent and skill is there with this squad, and with this win they also continue to cement that all important self belief and mental strength that is so vital when playing at a higher level at any age. Well done all!
So the ERGS boys charge on with their unbeaten run intact, and a home game next week against Kilicommaine.