Lansdowne avoided a potential banana skin of a fixture in the semi-final of the Bateman Cup at picturesque Hamilton Park, Strandhill, on Saturday last.
Bereft of several regulars due to various commitments, the players brought in to replace the more seasoned warriors stood up to the task and did themselves and their club proud.
Sligo, the Connacht Senior Cup winners for the first time since 1914 and for only the second time in their history, are the leaders of Division 2C of the AIL. While there is a considerable gap between the leaders of Division 1 and Division 2C, nonetheless the Connacht representatives gave a good account of themselves, and were well served in several areas where they matched their more illustrious opponents for long periods.
The home side appeared in an unfamiliar white jersey due to a clash of colours, to the shock of several of the large crowd that turned out to witness this novel pairing. The fact that many of them cheered Lansdowne out onto the pitch thinking they were the home side only added to the occasion – more about this later.
The match was preceded by a minute’s silence in honour of the late Peter Sutherland.
Aided by the significant breeze, the big home pack came out firing, and won a scrum penalty after three minutes, which was ably converted by full back Jack Keegan to send the Sligo supporters into a tizzy.
Lansdowne won the first of several first half penalties and out half Scott Deasy put the ball deep into the Sligo ’22. The line out was lost, but the pressure continued on the Connacht men’s line. From a subsequent five metre scrum, the referee awarded a penalty try (7 points) to the visitors.
Lansdowne survived a scare when key man Scott Deasy shipped a heavy tackle and went off temporarily, to be replaced by Conor Murphy.
Lansdowne continued to press, aided by ill-discipline on the part of the Sligo forwards, with a penalty count of 7-2 against them in the first half. The home side showed their mettle in the 36th minute, however, when a Lansdowne kick deep into the Sligo half was returned on the counter by Keegan, who linked with centre Mike Wells (Sligo’s best back), who in turn set up fellow centre Mark Rooney for an excellent try.
Keegan was unable to convert, but his side was ahead 8-7. Their lead was short-lived, however, as former Connacht hooker Jack Dineen finished off a strong line-out maul off another penalty to restore Lansdowne’s lead. Scott Deasy converted for a 14-8 half time advantage to the visitors.
Lansdowne eased their supporters’ slightly frayed nerves as early as the 43rd minute, following good work down the left by centre Mark O’Keeffe which resulted in a poor clearance kick under pressure from the Sligo defence. The loose ball was taken at pace by centre Harry Brennan, who showed both pace and agility in picking apart the home defence to dot down beside the posts.
Scott Deasy again added the extras for 21-8. No sooner had some daylight appeared between the sides than the Westerners struck back – this time against the run of play when they took advantage of some hesitation in the visitors’ backfield to avail of a kind bounce and regain possession. Hooker Shane O’Hehir who, along with loose head Kuba Wojtkowicz were Sligo’s best forwards, set up left winger Philip Carter for a soft try.
Keegan slotted the conversion, and Lansdowne were an uneasy 21 points to 15 ahead. It was a tribute to Sligo’s competitiveness and Lansdowne’s growing respect that Deasy chose to kick a penalty at goal on the hour from 33 metres out to restore his side’s two score lead.
Once again, however, Sligo’s ill-discipline came back to haunt them (the second half penalty count was even worse, at 10-1 against them), and they lost tw o players to yellow cards for the same offence – taking the player out in the air on the restart. This numerical advantage, coupled with Lansdowne’s greater fitness, saw the visitors assume control as the match entered the final quarter.
Dineen, second row Jack O’Sullivan and the back row of Charlie Butterworth, Aaron Conneely and No. 8 Willie Earle, who once again had an outstanding match, saw the battle won up front. Sub prop Adam Boland took full advantage of this forward superiority with a strong surge for a try on 67 minutes, and he and the other replacement front rows, hooker JJ Earle and loose head Ntinga Mpiko, were winning penalties at will in the scrums.
Lansdowne were still making too many handling errors for coach Mike Ruddock to be entirely happy, but his Lansdowne charges were still up for a final score as winger Daniel McEvoy took advantage of a breakdown in the Sligo backs to canter over for a fifth try. Replacement out half Peter Hastie was unfortunate that the ball toppled over as he approached it; his quickly-taken drop goal conversion attempt was wide.
So, Lansdowne prevailed, and advance to meet Cork Constitution in the final in April. The sides met in the first ever Bateman Cup final in 1922, Lansdowne prevailing by six points to five. Since its re-introduction in 2011, Con have won the trophy a remarkable five times in a row. It would be nice to “square the present circle” so to speak, with a Lansdowne win in this season’s competition.
And the reason why the two clubs, Lansdowne and Sligo share the same colours? A Lansdowne man, Steve Donovan, went to work in Sligo in the 1960’s, where the local players were much taken with his Lansdowne jersey in training.
Some weeks later, Donovan appeared in the club with a full set of Lansdowne playing kit, courtesy of the Headquarters Club. The rest, as they say, is history….
Match Report: Michael Daly
SLIGO 15 LANSDOWNE 34
Venue: Hamilton Park
Scorers: Sligo: Tries: Mark Rooney, Philip Carter; Cons: Jack Keegan; Pen: Jack Keegan
Lansdowne: Tries: Penalty try, Jack Dinneen, Harry Brennan, Charlie Butterworth, Daniel McEvoy; Cons: Pen try con, Scott Deasy 2; Pen: Scott Deasy
HT: Sligo 8 Lansdowne 14
SLIGO: Jack Keegan; Calum Goddard, Mark Rooney, Mike Wells, Philip Carter; Mark Butler, Gary O’Hehir; Kuba Wojtkowicz, Shane O’Hehir, Conor Mitchell, Ciaran Cassidy, James Wilson, Shane Boyle (capt), Matt Davey, Matthew Cosgrove.
Replacements: Ross O’Boyle, Mark Keegan, Shane McGuinness, David Cawley, David Heath, Christian Neilsen, Niall Gray, Enda Gavin.
LANSDOWNE: Willie Walsh; Daniel McEvoy, Harry Brennan, Mark O’Keefe, Tom Roche; Scott Deasy, Alan Bennie; Greg McGrath, Jack Dinneen, Ian Prendiville (capt), Jack O’Sullivan, Conall O’Brien, Willie Earle, Aaron Conneely, Charlie Butterworth.
Replacements: JJ Earle, Adam Boland, Ntinga Mpiko, Collie Joyce-Ahearne, Gareth Molloy, Conor Murphy, Peter Hastie.