A great game of rugby was played between the U14 teams of perennial School’s Cup champions Methodist College Belfast and Enniskillen Royal Grammar School on Saturday. Both teams unbeaten in their age group in the Ulster province, both teams eyeing the prize of the Medallion cup next year. The Methody team one of the favourites – this goes without saying. The Enniskillen team seeking recognition in the capital for a style of play that is bringing smiles to the faces of the aficionados who are watching their potential realised on a weekly basis.
Enniskillen pressurised right from the start with Stephen Balfour and Justin White both breaking the Methody line with their team rucking in hard behind them. However basic handling errors in the back line led to an early Methody penalty. They kicked, found touch around the 5 m line and the Enniskillen pack found themselves in the unusual position of facing a two man line out – a tactic Methody employed for the entire game. Methody took the line out and fed an onrushing pack which Enniskillen repelled through the resolute tackling of Henry Keys, Matthew Beatty and Zak Havers. Methody recycled and went once again through the forwards before distributing the ball wide to their back line. With too many players sucked into earlier phases Enniskillen found themselves stretched and conceded the first try.
Undaunted, Enniskillen, through Henry Keys, reclaimed their own restart and the quick ball mantra of coach Stephen Bothwell soon found the Methody defence wanting. Methody gave away a penalty on their 5 m and the Enniskillen supporters thought an equalising try had been scored by Adam Sanderson in a move that saw the ball move from touchline to touchline but a scrum on the five metre line was given. Matthew Bothwell distributed well from the back of the scrum and Eddie Keys ensured the ball made the hands of Taine Haire who ripped through the Methody defence with Sam Balfour in support. Ryan Phair and Matthew Graham were quickly up to clean out the ruck and after 3 further phases of Enniskillen possession Justin White put Enniskillen’s first points up on the board to a loud cheer from the travelling supporters.
A feature of the match that will need to be considered when the dust settles will be the speed at which Enniskillen frequently conceded after scoring themselves. The first of two such tries came from the back of a scrum that Enniskillen had won against the head but then lost the ball through an almost illegally quick tackle by the Methody scrum half. Methody then rucked to reclaim, gained 20 metres territory in doing so and practically walked past a scrambling Enniskillen defence with simple back line passing to make the score 12 – 7.
Eddie Keys put 3 points on to make the score 12 – 10 in Methody’s favour quickly after the restart with a penalty kick the referee was heard to commend and soon after that the Enniskillen passing game hit top gear with David Stinson and the forwards demonstrating the power good handling brings to their game. A try looked to be brewing but a knock on in the tackle unfortunately seemed to bring that phase of play to a halt. However the forwards won the scrum against the head and Sam Balfour soon found he was headed for the try line. Methody’s defence held firm though and they tackled into touch to claim a line out. However Enniskillen’s Callum Smyton turned it over to the delight of most watching and fast hands got the ball out to the fast feet of Rory Gamble who evaded onrushing tacklers to ground the ball and reclaim the lead for Enniskillen. Methody 12 – Enniskillen 15.
The next phase of play saw Methody get the measure of Enniskillen. Penetrative kicking, without reply, saw them gain large amounts of territory through a series of penalties and lineouts. Sam Milligan at full back played commendably and caught or reclaimed every ball that was sent down the field, but a tactical kicking game is an area the Enniskillen backs as a whole should perhaps look to develop in the light of the try that they eventually saw scored against them in this way. The conversion gave Methody a lead of 19 – 15.
This time Enniskillen took a leaf out of Methody’s playbook and gave immediate response. Eddie Keys found touch from a penalty given for illegal play at the ruck and the accurate throwing of Ryan Phair allowed the forwards to drive play towards the line and a try that gave them back the lead. The conversion made the score 19 – 22 in Enniskillen’s favour.
Only minutes remained on the referee’s wrist watch, Enniskillen Royal looked to have made good on the hopes of families and friends watching from the side lines, Methody were talking of the shame of losing at home, at fortress Pirrie Park, the Methody coach was strolling on and off the pitch like a 16th man and it was here that the game should perhaps of ended as both home and away supporters felt that the next phase of play was the moment in the match that became the talking point for all the wrong reasons.
The referee dragged the moment out for so long that it was hard for anyone on or off the pitch to follow precisely what was going on. A line out on the Enniskillen 5m line became a Methody scrum which soon became a Methody undisputed scrum for supposed Enniskillen infringements. The play then proceeded quickly and the powerful Methody number 8 was soon running, ball in hand, towards the Enniskillen try line. Momentum carried him over to score and his team to win 24 – 22 but it is stating the obvious to say that controversy was final winner.
There was clear respect between the players as they applauded each other off the pitch, just as there was respect from the Methody coaches for the style of play Enniskillen Royal brought with them up the M1. Enniskillen can be sure there will be a response by the Methody coaching staff to the nature of the narrow victory just as sure as they can be that there exists the desire in the Enniskillen Royal U14 team to take the win in the next meeting between the two teams.