It was a huge weekend in the Ulster Bank All-Ireland Junior Cup as reigning champions Enniscorthy were dethroned by Bangor and Dundalk emerged as the only non-Ulster club to reach the last-four.
Enniscorthy’s hopes of retaining the title were extinguished by Bangor in a tight quarter-final contest at Upritchard Park on Saturday. A late in the corner from Mark Widdowson sealed a 14-10 win for the hosts.
Both sides produced some cracking rugby throughout and the entertainment value was very high, with Jamie Clegg opening the scoring for the Ulstermen with a fifth minute try from a lineout maul. Widdowson converted impressively from a difficult angle.
Enniscorthy were twice thwarted in their attempts to respond as a last-ditch tackle knocked the ball from Ross Barbour’s grasp near the try-line and Paul Bolger also dropped a pass from Ivan Jacob close to the whitewash.
But that likely try came when pressure from Tomas Stamp led to a blocked Bangor kick and Stamp’s second row colleague Declan O’Brien scooped up the ball to run in an unconverted try from 10 metres out.
A second unconverted Enniscorthy try followed soon after as the pacy Jacob cut inside the Bangor defence to score from a free-flowing back-line move. That gave them a 10-7 lead to take into the second half.
What followed was a tense final 40 minutes with Bangor eventually managing to end Enniscorthy’s reign as champions. The home side tightened up in defence to frustrate ‘Scorthy time and again, and they conjured up a brilliant match-winning try three minutes from the end.
With Jacob in the sin-bin for hands in the ruck, Bangor used their numerical advantage to set up an opportunity for Widdowson on the left and he dashed away to score the decisive touchdown. He added an excellent conversion to leave ‘Scorthy needing a try but there was no way back for the title holders.
Enniscorthy team manager David Wrafter said afterwards: “Although the missed kicks definitely hurt us, I think our failure in the backs to score when they had some great opportunities cost us in the end. This is a great competition and hopefully we’ll be back next year for another crack at the title.”
Roger Corbett, Bangor’s director of rugby, dubbed it ‘a hard game against a very strong side’, as the club celebrated reaching the semi-finals of the All-Ireland Junior Cup for the very first time.
Their Kiwi player-coach Jason Morgan told the Belfast Telegraph: “We were on the back foot for a while but it was good character from the boys not to concede. The league may not be going as we planned but that was the result of three or four years of hard work.
“We made hard work of it but we got there in the end. I thought we were dominant at times. The scrum was good but the lineout was a bit shaky. Fair play to Enniscorthy but I think we came away as deserved winners.
“We came into the competition saying we would take it one game at a time, treat each one as a final, and see how far we can go. That’s what we did.”
Clogher Valley, last year’s runners-up, joined Bangor in the last-four thanks to a comprehensive 43-10 triumph over Connemara at the Cran.
Valley’s biggest home crowd of the season watched them fall behind to an early Shane Sweeney penalty, but the home forwards went on to dominate proceedings and that was reflected on the scoreboard by the finish.
Number 8 Ryan Wilson barged past a couple of defenders off the back of a 16th minute scrum for the game’s opening try which Philip Holme converted.
Valley were in a match-winning position by half-time, leading 24-3 thanks to a David Sharkey try, following a succession of mauls, and scrum pressure also yielded a penalty try. Out-half Holme kicked a penalty and both conversions.
The Connemara backs looked sharp whenever they got ball in hand and some neat interplay preceded a try, early in the second period, from full-back Jack Vaughan, who dotted down from a well-judged kick through. Sweeney converted to reduce the arrears to 14 points.
The concession of that score seemed to inspire an immediate improvement in Valley’s play and they hit back with another strengthen-sapping maul after which winger Andy Breen was freed up to score an unconverted effort in the 45th minute.
The scrum provided the platform for Wilson to complete his brace and make it 36-10, before Valley used a quick turnover in the 74th minute to launch themselves downfield. Winger Jack Stott broke to the right of the posts to feed full-back Paul Armstrong who evaded the cover to grab try number six.
The other games saw Dundalk and CIYMS both come through as first-time semi-finalists. James Kelly’s late try was only a consolation score for Newcastle West as their cup run was ended by a 24-10 defeat to Dundalk at Cullinagh.
The visitors, who are led by player-coach Ene Fa’atau, owed much of their victory to their excellent work in defence while winger Stephen Murphy and scrum half Thomas Campbell ran in their two tries, one in each half. Dundalk’s remaining 14 points were kicked by reliable out-half Ultan Murphy.
Dublin club Coolmine were edged out by CIYMS of Belfast in a hard-fought quarter-final at Ashbrook, with the visitors coming from 10-0 down to win 18-13 in the end.
There was delight all round for the Ulster outfit who showed great character and sheer will to win – 15 of their points came in a tense second half. Key back rower Mark McConkey and out-half Sam Baker scored tries for CI, with Baker also kicking two penalties and a conversion.
ULSTER BANK ALL-IRELAND JUNIOR CUP QUARTER-FINALS: Saturday, November 22
Newcastle West 10 Dundalk 24, Cullinagh
Bangor 14 Enniscorthy 10, Upritchard Park
Clogher Valley 43 Connemara 10, the Cran
Coolmine 13 CIYMS 18, Ashbrook