- Result: Galwegians Firsts 29 - Belfast Harlequins 8
- Venue: Crowley Park on Sat Oct 14th 2006
- Competition: AIL Division 1
Galwegians got their AIB All-Ireland League campaign off to the perfect start with an emphatic and thoroughly deserved 29-8 win at home to the much-vaunted Belfast Harlequins at Crowley Park on Saturday. What made it all the sweeter for the Blues was the fact that they had conceded 149 points to 'Quins in their previous three League meetings.
Centre Nick Wakley helped create two tries - one for lively interpro winger Conor McPhillips and another barnstormer for prop Ross Davies - and he also saw his midfield partner Anthony Barrett steal a loose ball from 'Quins out-half Niall O'Connor for a third.
'Quins did bite back early in the second half when winger Gavin McLoughlin scored and O'Connor notched a 47th-minute penalty, but McPhillips' second try deep in injury time was the icing on the cake, and which sent the Blues into second place in the League table in a five-way tie at the top of Division One on the opening day.
Wegians started the day as favourites for relegation in the eyes of most of the so-called experts, but on this evidence Paul Young's men might well be involved in another end-of-season battle, only this time it could be at the top of the table. However it is still very early days and while one swallow does not make a summer, coach Young could hardly have asked for more from his new-look side who made a near-perfect start to their League campaign.
For the first time in many seasons, Wegians appear to have strength all over the park, and they made full capital of the opportunities which came their way, while their superb defence denied the visitors on several occasions as they sought desperately to get back into game. Indeed 'Quins appeared to seriously underestimate their opponents, and it did not help that their Ireland Under-19 international fly-half O'Connor and Maori import Joe Reihana had a particularly bad day at the office.
After an impressive start, centre Nick Wakley opened the scoring with a beautifully-judged eighth-minute penalty. And after Quins no. 10 O’Connor fluffed a penalty kick to the corner and then moments later missed a shot at goal in front of the posts from 30 metres, the Welsh centre was instrumental in the move which led to the first try of the game on 18 minutes. When Wegians out-half Paddy O’Toole, who had a superb game, used the wind advantage to launch a deep 22 drop-out, a knock-on by centre Reihana set up an attacking scrum 30 metres out. Then some swift ball and superb handling sent right-wing Kieran Hickman clear, and McPhillips came off his opposite wing to take the scoring pass for an excellent try, with O’Toole adding the points.
Things went from bad to worse for the visitors when just seconds after the restart, the luckless O'Connor was intercepted in midfield by the outside centre Anthony Barrett who raced home under the posts for a most opportunist second try, with O’Toole tagging on the easy conversion for a 17-0 lead. Quins nearly scored minutes later when a blind-side break from scrum-half Paul Marshall caught the home defence momentarily napping, but his captain and no. 8 Chris McCarey knocked on with the line at his mercy, thanks in no small part to the attentions of his scrambling opposite number, ‘Wegians captain Conboy.
However this served as a wake-up call to Wegians, and before the half-hour mark they scored a third great try, when Wakley dismissed the attentions of his marker and then found prop Ross Davies on his left shoulder who gratefully accepted the pass before diving under the posts in spectacular fashion, giving O’Toole another easy two-pointer for a 24-0 lead. However the visitors could and should have reduced arrears before the break, only for some stout Galwegians defence to crucially repell two 5 metre line-out mauls in stoppage time.
However 'Quins did up the tempo early in the second half, and they finally opened their account when winger McLaughlin was sent clear in the 43rd minute for a near-replica of McPhillips opening score for Wegians. And although out-half O'Connor missed the conversion, he was successful with a penalty four minutes later to cut the margin to 16 points. However this was as good as it got for Quins, who despite dominating the third quarter could find no way past the gritty Wegians defence, who on two occasions held up forward drives over their own line. The 'Wegians back row unit of captain Ambrose Conboy, Connacht's Brendan O'Connor and young open-side Aaron McGettigan were simply superb all day, defending gamely and forcing several vital turnovers.
Then as the game entered its final quarter, it was the home side who looked the more likely to score. And just when it seemed time had run out, in the second minute of stoppage time an excellent turn-over by the livewire McGettigan set up a counter attack, and a super break from centre Barrett set up McPhillips for his second try and the all-important bonus point score.
It was no more than the Blues deserved. It would be churlish to find fault with this performance on the first day of the All-Ireland League, but Wegians coach Paul Young will be looking for some improvement in the line-outs and his team’s discipline, as the only victory which the visitors had on the day was in the penalty count which was 11-3 in their favour.
Next Saturday Wegians travel to Dublin 6 West to face St. Mary’s, who were beaten at Lansdowne in their opening League fixture, and the Blues will hope to reverse last January’s defeat at Crowley Park to the former All-Ireland champions. In a fortnight (Sat. Oct. 28) Wegians play host at Crowley Park to the defending and eight-time AIL champions Shannon.