Tonight’s Energia Men’s All-Ireland League opener burst into life during the closing stages, as Billy O’Hora’s 77th-minute try steered Old Belvedere to a hard-fought 16-13 win over Naas.
ENERGIA MEN’S ALL-IRELAND LEAGUE: DIVISION 1B: Friday, October 1
OLD BELVEDERE 16 NAAS 13, Ollie Campbell Park
Scorers: Old Belvedere: Try: Billy O’Hora; Con: Justin Leonard; Pens: Justin Leonard 3
Naas: Try: Donal Conroy; Con: Peter Osborne; Pen: Peter Osborne; Drop: Fionn Higgins
HT: Old Belvedere 6 Naas 3
Despite losing captain Connor Owende to a worrying injury, Old Belvedere showed plenty of steel to fight back and snatch the victory in front of a delighted home crowd.
Justin Leonard bookended the first half with penalties, giving Belvedere a 6-3 half-time lead. Naas captain Peter Osborne split the posts in the 35th minute.
However, Owende’s cruel luck with injuries struck again when the Belvedere skipper damaged his knee, soon after the restart, and had to be replaced.
The game looked like it would be decided by kicks when Fionn Higgins fired over a stunning drop goal for the Kildare men – only for a swift response from Leonard with his third penalty.
Naas did seize the lead for the first time, Donal Conroy touching down with eight minutes remaining. Yet, fellow winger O’Hora turned a purposeful late attack into the match-winning points.
The hosts exerted the early pressure at Ollie Campbell Park, their Leinster Academy hooker John McKee prominent as a ball carrier before out-half Leonard slotted over a fifth-minute penalty.
Leonard’s half-back partner Peter O’Beirne was a real livewire, threatening from a show-and-go and a kick through but Naas survived.
Former captain Paulie Tolofua skittled over three defenders on a barnstorming run for Naas, and while both teams coughed up turnovers, neither could create a try-scoring opportunity.
A fascinating scrum battle was developing, Belvedere holding the edge with 2011 league winner Stewart Maguire making his presence felt at tighthead.
Naas roared back downfield, inspired by a momentum-shifting tackle by Matt Stapleton on James McKeown. Their attack soon clicked into gear, with danger man Higgins getting more ball.
A fine break by flanker Ryan Casey sparked the best attacking rugby so far from the Cobras, who were rewarded with the levelling three points from the boot of Osborne.
However, ‘Belvo replied just three minutes before the break, youngster Leonard lobbing over a lovely left-footed strike to restore the three-point buffer for Ray Monaghan’s men.
Injuries and steals on the ground made for a stop-start third quarter, with Naas looking the more likely to break through. Tolofua punched some holes in the defence and their backs offered more of a threat.
Although Higgins restarted the scoring with his monster drop goal, fired home from just inside the ‘Belvo half, Leonard cancelled out that kick with a surefooted 68th-minute penalty.
The try deadlock was finally broken just a few minutes later, Naas exposing some space out wide with good work from Bryan Croke and Stapleton springing Conroy over. Osborne converted for a sudden four-point lead.
Nonetheless, ‘Belvo made sure they had the final say. McKee and Joe Horan led the charge, breaking the gain-line and replacement Tommy Whittle’s well-timed pass sent O’Hora driving over past a couple of defenders.
Leonard coolly converted to complete his own 11-point haul, with ‘Belvo doing just enough to give Monaghan a winning league debut as head coach.
OLD BELVEDERE: Colm Hogan; James McKeown, David Butler, Robbie Deegan, Billy O’Hora; Justin Leonard, Peter O’Beirne; Jerry Cahir, John McKee, Stewart Maguire, Connor Owende (capt), Dean Moore, Patrick Dowling, Ethan Baxter, Colin Mallon.
Replacements: Joe Horan, Adam Howard, Ryan McMahon, Oran O’Brien, Briain Leonard, Tommy Whittle.
NAAS: Peter Osborne (capt); Donal Conroy, Gary Kavanagh, Matt Stapleton, Fionn Higgins; Bryan Croke, Tim Murphy; Adam Coyle, John Sutton, Peter King, Paul Monahan, David Benn, Ryan Casey, Will O’Brien, Paulie Tolofua.
Replacements: Connor Johnson, Stephen Lackey, John Waters, Cillian Dempsey, Sam Cahill, Connor Halpenny.