Rumour had it that Armagh Royal had two goals this season, to get to the Ulster Schools Cup Semi-Finals, and to beat Enniskillen Royal for the first time in four seasons. Considering that Armagh were finalists in the Schools Cup only 6 months ago you begin to appreciate the level of competition between these two Royal Schools that dominate rugby in the south of the Province.
Although ERGS have made a good start to the season, with two clean sheets, the 1stXV squad has already lost seven players to injury, three for the season and four to return shortly. The result is that nine of the Enniskillen players on the park on Saturday were from Year 12, i.e. under 16 years of age! The fact that they went on to beat last years Cup finalists gives you an idea of the rising strength in depth of rugby at the school.
The two sides spent the first five minutes testing each other’s defence and it was Armagh who slowly emerged the stronger. ERGS were obliged to defend their line for the next fifteen minutes with Armagh moving the ball from side to side, from forwards to backs, reaching fourteen phases at one stage. Captain, Alexander Parke, led the defence by example. His technique, timing and footwork in the tackle would grace any IRFU training video. The siege was broken when Stuart Brown on the right wing made best use of a sliver of space to bring play back towards the halfway. This was followed by a break from Parke with the ball being taken forward by lock, David Stinson. A high tackle on Stinson led to a penalty kick that went into the corner and ERGS were suddenly on Armagh’s try line. They set up a rolling maul from the line out and number 8, Callum Smyton, took the ball from the back and crashed over for the first score of the match. Eddie Keys’ conversion, which missed by a fraction, brought the first half to an end, ERGS 5, Armagh 0.
Early in the second half a long pass from out-half, Keys, put Brown into space. He made good ground before off-loading to the ubiquitous Parke.
Parke was well tackled short of the Armagh try line by the full back but, unfortunately for the visitors, their scrum-half grabbed the ERGS captain by the neck as he fell. The referee awarded a penalty to the home side for a high tackle plus a yellow card to the scrum-half. Keys, in his usual calm style, slotted the ball between the posts for an 8-0 lead.
With Armagh a man short, ERGS went in for the “coup de grace”. They drove up the pitch through forward and back plays before Parke was stopped a metre short of the visitor’s try line, as was Smyton a few minutes later. When lock, Neil Rutledge, stretched out his long arm to touch the ball down from the next play, ERGS believed they had secured the vital score. The referee didn’t agree and called it short. Despite this Enniskillen kept the pressure on and were rewarded with another penalty for off side at the ruck and Keys brought the score to 11-0.
This score line and their dominance in play should have allowed ERGS a comfortable finish to the match but the young side have yet to learn about the need for the clinical, Munster type finishing required to close out such a tight match. They failed to make touch with two simple penalties and two clearance kicks and in doing so gave Armagh opportunities to get back into the game. When the visitor’s right wing forced his way over to score and his scrum half converted to bring the score to 11-7, ERGS were left to defend that four point lead for the last three agonising minutes of the match.
Oscar may well be right about “statistics”, but they do suggest that with only one try against them in three competitive matches, ERGS has a well organised defence and this was confirmed during those last three minutes. There was as much relief as there was celebration when Smyton picked the ball from the back of the scrum in the final play of the match and smashed the ball over the touch line heading for Portora Castle.
Much was expected of last season’s EGRS team with that tremendous back row of Rutledge, Armstrong and the indefatigable Barrett and the loss to Ballymena in the Cup quarterfinal was a great disappointment. It’s fair to say that slightly less was expected of this year’s squad but they seem determined to write their own history. These are, of course, very early days, a great deal of hard work, good fortune and a high level of coaching is still required but when you consider that 24 of the payers originally selected to play for the 1st and 2nd XVs on Saturday will still be eligible in two years time, you might forgive the odd Old Portoran looking back to our last Schools Cup Final in 1942 with a small stirring of interest.
ERGS Try scorer:- Callum Smyton
Penalty:- Eddie Keys (2)