Dublin University gained their long-awaited promotion to Ulster Bank League Division 1A after a deserved 18-9 play-off victory over Ballynahinch.
Dublin University were just a win short of topping the Division 1B table both last year and this season, but things finally clicked in the extended divisional play-offs as they saw off Ulster duo Ballymena and Ballynahinch.
‘Hinch, so long at the bottom of the top flight this term, were hoping to pull off their own version of the ‘great escape’, but they fell away in the second half of this afternoon’s deciding game at Ballymacarn Park.
Two yellow cards hampered the Co. Down side in both halves, although winger Chris Quinn’s reliable boot had them leading 9-7 at half-time.
The students’ first try was scored by number 8 Tom Ryan close to the posts, following a well-executed lineout maul and further pressure from their eager back-line.
One of Trinity’s most threatening runners, Max McFarland, helped them fly out of the blocks on the restart, the winger blasting clear to score after a quick tap penalty from deep.
His unconverted try, adding to an earlier Jack McDermott penalty from 30 metres, moved Tony Smeeth’s youngsters into a 15-9 lead, with Quinn missing a kickable effort at the other end.
With the wind increasing at his back, out-half McDermott landed a 64th minute penalty to put nine points between the sides, and ‘Hinch had no answer as Brian du Toit’s breakdown skills and Paddy Lavelle’s midfield runs steered the students to their most important triumph of the campaign.
Meanwhile, UCC completed a memorable day for the university clubs as they were promoted to Division 1B on the back of a thrilling 30-28 play-off success against Blackrock College at Stradbrook.
After fighting back from a 27-14 deficit during the closing stages, Blackrock scrum half Jack O’Carroll had a chance to win the game and keep his side up with a 35-metre penalty. However, much to the relief of the visitors, his kick rebounded off the post before being cleared to safety.
UCC led early on thanks to an opening penalty from winger Kevin O’Keeffe, but converted tries from prop Mikey Russell and flanker Sam Cooke – in the 16th and 37th minutes respectively – had the Dubliners in a strong position.
Yet, UCC finished the first half in fine style, and owing to excellent five-pointers from centres Paul Kiernan and Kevin Slater (both of which were converted by O’Keeffe), they turned around with a 17-14 advantage.
Indeed, the Cork club’s chances of gaining promotion from Division 2A received a massive boost three minutes after the restart, as flanker Conor Barry crossed the whitewash at the end of a magnificent run from deep.
O’Keeffe comfortably converted and his successful 50th minute penalty left ‘Rock with a mountain climb. Out-half Tim Clifford’s sin-binning 11 minutes from time was a setback for UCC, though, and when David Rowan dotted down in the left corner three minutes later, the hosts were back in contention.
Another three-pointer by O’Keeffe eased the UCC nerves before Cooke’s second touchdown set up a nerve-wracking finale. It looked like ‘Rock were going to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat in injury-time, but the woodwork came to UCC’s rescue.
All-Ireland Junior Cup champions Enniscorthy were denied promotion right at the death in Strandhill, with a late converted try – Jamie Bowes scored it and Jack Keegan added the crucial extras – guiding Sligo to a nail-biting 24-22 victory and ensuring they retain their place in Division 2C for next season. Ross Mannion’s fired-up charges ended the campaign with four straight wins.