Final Score 0-17
It was with much anticipation that the U13 boys and coaches boarded an early morning bus to Armagh for the first game in 7 weeks. Thankfully, the never ending rain, snow and ice that had so disrupted our fixture list had decided to give ERGS rugby a break for the past few days and we arrived in Armagh to a bright, cold and fresh morning, perfect for a game of fast paced rugby.
With a pretty short pre-match warm up, captain Joel Nelson led his team onto the pitch against an Armagh team that we had beaten earlier in the season in a close fought contest, 17-12. Armagh are never a team to be underestimated and the ERGS lads knew that they had to come out of the blocks with all guns blazing to quieten what was a fairly vocal local support.
With the game plan firmly embedded it was clear from the first few contacts of the game that the ERGS pack meant some serious business. The ferocity shown in the first 20mins was simply incredible and to a man ERGS dominated and physically imposed themselves on their opposite numbers, with what can only be described as the best opening to any game this season.
Armagh, try as they might just had no answer for the aggression shown by the ERGS pack, led by that talisman Smyton, who made tackles that literally shook the ground. He was ably supported by his back row teammates of Graham and captain Nelson who in that opening period covered every blade of grass and nailed everything that moved. The second row of the hugely improving Seaman, who is realising his potential, and Aiken who simply played out of his skin all match, kept the pressure on in the loose winning vital ball for scrum half Hamill. This incredible effort was combined with an awesome front row performance from ‘the engine’ Hetherington, the towering and powerful Monaghan and the mini cannon that is Clarke.
With Armagh struggling to cope with a runaway ERGS pack, Hamill and Love became the dominant and controlling force throughout the first half. Their kicking game was to be commended and it was a pleasure to see the pair willing and brave enough to keep the pressure on Armagh with some sensible and targeted kicks behind as well as very strong defensive performances from both boys. From the solid base produced by the pack, Hamill was able to release constant and precise ball to Love, who looked very comfortable at 10 all day and certainly showed his class on a number of occasions.
The first score of the game came from some ferocious play by the pack who cleverly were committing only the numbers needed to each ruck to secure the ball. After several short phases of play, the ball was recycled to Hamill who provided a simple pop pass to a marauding Monaghan at full speed, quite a sight. He pumped those powerful legs and with the grit and fire we have seen in training, he charged like a bull for 20 meters to smash his way over the line, out wide. Hamill slotted a lovely conversion to give the ERGS boys a nice steady start.
Immediately from the kick-off, ERGS were back in the ascendency through well organised, fast and targeted defence, causing numerous Armagh mistakes and panic. Some quick ball delivered through a training ground move allowed ERGS to move the ball into the centre of the park where a crash ball from Courtney was brilliantly supported by the hard working back-row. Hamill swept the ball left to Love who distributed through to the ever solid Bothwell who then fed the powerful Carrothers. Carrothers was hauled to the ground at the 22 but presented nicely to the looping ERGS pack and with the mini cannon Clarke and Aiken hitting the ruck with intent, Hamill was able to feed the charging Smyton, who used his power and speed to beat several tackles to score out wide on the left. Hamill missed the difficult conversion.
It has to be said at this point that Armagh were working very hard and playing well. They tried hard to attack, with ball in hand, but credit has to go to the ERGS boys for what was a superb defensive performance, where they constantly turned defence into attack and squeezed a dangerous Armagh side out of the game.
With a decent 12-0 lead and a pretty dominant performance it was pleasing to see that the boys were soon back in the Armagh 22 after ‘more of the same’. Controlled ball from the pack was again worked through the hands and both wingers, Harte and Carrothers were able to have a few runs. They were well marshalled by a fighting Armagh side but ground was being made. In similar chain of events to the second try, the ball was worked to the left side within the Armagh 22 once again. With another training ground move, Love called blind and on receipt of the pass from Hamill, spotted the gap and sneaked in for a nice individual try out wide. Hamill narrowly missed the conversion.
The remainder of the half was a much more even affair with ERGS having to defend against some good tactical kicking from Armagh and some tiring legs. Harte and Carrothers on the wings had some defence of their own to do on several occasions as Armagh became more adventurous, but they both looked reasonably comfortable. Centres Courtney and Bothwell also looked solid with nothing being allowed to escape through and some solid and hard hits were going in. Burns at full back marshalled some very difficult kicks well and countered on 3 occasions with the evasive sidestep we see in training.
Going in at 17-0 at half-time was just rewards for what had been an entertaining and dominant ERGS performance.
The second half got underway after a few minutes and quite quickly it was clear that ERGS were not going to allow Armagh an easy morning. They charged their way into the Armagh 22 where a few forays at the line by Monaghan, Aiken and Smyton were scuppered by some resolute Armagh defence and a few handling errors by ERGS. Determined to get more points on the board, ERGS were awarded a penalty just to the left of the posts inside the 22. The decision was made to go for goal when perhaps going for a try would have been more sensible. However, Hamill stepped up and unfortunately pulled his kick uncharacteristically wide. This let Armagh off the hook after what had been a period of sustained pressure. From this point, the game became slightly less controlled and although ERGS still dominated the loose and contact they just failed to get the phase play established which had allowed them to get the points on the board in the first half. The half, played mostly on the Armagh side of the pitch, became a little more tense and stoppages played a greater part with ERGS repeatedly penalised by the referee who seemed determined to slow the flow of play. This did add a level of frustration but it was so pleasing to see the ERGS boys deal with this with maturity and not for a minute did they take their foot of the pedal or look like leaking a score. Their defence remained organised and aggressive and their line speed continued to frustrate an Armagh side who just refused to lie down. Armagh’s spirit was typified by a strong break from their own 22 where some strong running left only 1 man in the ERGS defence to stop what was a certain try. That man was Burns at fullback who didn’t shy from his responsibility and scythed down the flying Armagh player with a brave and courageous tackle. Well done Jack!!
Substitutions were made with Kerr coming on for Clarke at hooker, McHugh coming on for Seaman in the engine room, Elliott for Harte on the wing, and Magee for Hamill at 9. It was also great to see Duncan, making his debut for this team come on for Monaghan in the front row.
The final 10-12 minutes was pretty much more of the same with Armagh trying hard to break down the ERGS defence. In the closing minutes Captain Nelson was lost with a shoulder injury (a shoulder that got plenty of action!!) with Seaman delighted to return to the pitch for a few last tackles and Clarke returned for his open-side debut for the exhausted Graham who had simply run himself ragged. Magee slotted in well at 9 and kept the distribution channel to Love maintained and McHugh and Elliott looked comfortable.
All subs played their part in those last 10 minutes and the clean sheet was a testament to the fact that the ERGS line held firm right to the end.
Overall, it was a great return to winning rugby for this talented team. It was very pleasing for the coaches to see the hard work done over the past 3 weeks transfer to the pitch and for this the boys should be incredibly proud of themselves. Each and every boy stepped up their efforts and left nothing on the pitch and the clean sheet is something to be very pleased about. They bust a gut to win this game and hopefully showed themselves what belief and effort can produce. The defensive pattern established in training was executed to perfection throughout the game and this was personified by the efforts of Aiken. It is hard to pick any one player out in a game where there were so many brilliant performances, however Aiken simply led by example for the entire game. He galvanised those around him with his aggression, grit and utter determination to defend the gain line and for this he was commended by his peers at the end of the game.
Well done boys, it was the performance of the season!!
On behalf of the U13 Squad I would also like to extend our huge admiration for the Medallion squad who bravely fought against Ballymena today. As the junior team in the school, it is important to have role models and the Medallion squad have been an inspiration to us all season. Their dedication, talent and efforts have been a pleasure to hear about, watch and experience this year. All members of the squad should hold their heads up with immense pride at your achievements, you are all winners in our eyes.