The first match of the new year slotted in nicely with the first break in the recent spell of poor weather. Despite the heavy and almost continual rain the pitch was in good condition, a testament to the work that has gone into two of the three pitches over the last two summers.
ERGS opened their account within a minute of the start when team captain, Jack Rutledge, went blind from the first scrum of the match. He drew the opposition and set full back, Alex Parke, loose to dash in at the corner. Reece Smyton kicking from the touch line, missed the conversion by a whisker.
However, the next 15 minutes of play confirmed that BRA, despite some absentees, were not going to be a walkover. Enniskillen didn’t help their own cause with inaccurate passes, dropped balls and problems in the line out. The visitors retained most of the possession and kept the pressure on the home side for a considerable period. A well organised ERGS defence, based on a formidable back row of Rutledge, Reece Barrett and Alex Armstrong combined with exceptionally strong centres Smyton and Angus Keys, remained solid throughout and took the team into the first of two breaks in this three part match with a 5 point to nil lead.
Although this match is as important as any played so far this season, the coaches for both sides need to sort out their final adjustments ahead of the forthcoming Schools Cup matches. In Enniskillen’s case they have been blessed with an exceptionally strong 2ndXV who were narrowly beaten by Armagh in the Schools 2ndXV Cup. Many of those players are now in contention for places in the 1stXV Cup squad of 23. In the second period of this game they were given a chance to put their names forward and they did just that, leaving head coach, Rhys Botha, with plenty to ponder. James Balfour and Adam Boles came on and immediately showed why they have been such a successful centre pairing.
Enniskillen stepped up a gear in the second period and, through a series of kicks and carries, worked their way up to the BRA try line where James Balfour off loaded to Armstrong for the second try of the match. Shortly afterwards hooker, William Dowson made a break down the centre field where his pass to Matthew McConkey, hit the scrum half’s knee. The ball was knocked over the line and McConkey dived on it to claim a try. Unfortunately, he was denied when the referee awarded a knock-on but his team mate, Andrew Humphries, made good the error when he picked up a loose ball, side stepped the opposition and charged in from 25 metres.
Enniskillen’s next try was a gem and must have given their coaches a great deal of satisfaction. From a scrum in the middle of the park Rutledge picked up, drew the opposition scrum half, and off loaded to McConkey who whipped a long pass to Keys. Keys made sure he committed the BRA wing before giving a crisp pass to Johnny Irvine on the wing. With the opposing inside centre and full back bearing down on him Irvine put in a perfectly judged chip to take both players out of contention and to allow him to run through to score.
Enniskillen were playing with a good deal of confidence and belief. From the restart locks, Chris Balfour and Neil Rutledge, carried strongly before setting the backs away once again. Full back, Josh Kennedy, broke a tackle before passing to Boles who managed to hand off two players and slap the ball down over the try line. The home side went into the second break 25 points up.
The third period started with further team changes. The mercurial Ewan Haire came back on at scrum half, Jack O’Hare took the full back position, Conor Goodall slotted in on the right wing and there was a well-deserved debut for Ryan Daly in the second row. The final period was a series of Enniskillen attacks which, although a little scrappy at times had moments to remember. Alex Holder took a spectacular catch from a BRA kick, soaring above the heads of three opposition players; O’Hare retrieved what could have been a try scoring opportunity for BRA and returned with a jinking run that would have put James Balfour over for a score but for the referee deciding there had been “crossing”.
Further scores were inevitable and when Rutledge gave Boles a neatly timed pass in space, the centre made the most of his opportunity to dance through for his second try of the game. Holder and O’Hare were both unfortunate when their two excellent breaks failed to end in tries, so it was left to Jack Rutledge to complete the scoring with an individual try and cap an excellent captain’s game.
There were other strong performances that may have gone undetected. David Patton, William Dowson and Andrew Dane dominated their opposite numbers in the front row while Robbie Mills directed operations quietly and efficiently at out half. Although BRA may not have been just at full strength this was a considerable victory. Aside from the final points total of 37 to nil, the performance of the subs bench was extremely encouraging and with a couple of players still to return from injury it would appear that ERGS 1stXV are in good shape running up to the Cup season.