Gavin Kennedy’s 75th-minute penalty steered Ashbourne to their first ever Ulster Bank All-Ireland Junior Cup title as they overcame defending champions Enniscorthy 22-20 in a pulsating final at Donnybrook today.
Ashbourne's scrum half and captain Gavin Kennedy landed four penalty goals in all, adding to tries in each half from tireless back rowers James Rooney and Jake Wall, in what was a tremendous advertisement for Leinster and Irish junior club rugby.
Peter O'Donnell's men learned their lessons from two previous league defeats to Enniscorthy this season, expertly winding down the clock late on while 'Scorthy flanker Greg Jacob was in the sin-bin.
The Co. Wexford club, gunning for their third Junior Cup crown in four years, more than played their part with three tries in this hugely memorable decider which saw precision, pace and passion aplenty on the 4G pitch.
Despite losing player-coach Ross Barbour to injury before kick-off and falling behind to two early Kennedy penalties, Enniscorthy nipped into a 12-11 lead just before half-time thanks to a neatly-taken try from pacy centre Hugh O'Neill.
Ashbourne got off to a very encouraging start, working their way into their provincial rivals' 22 off a strong scrum and after 'Scorthy prop Paddy Waters was sin-binned for a cynical infringement, Kennedy swept over the opening points from a right-sided penalty.
The string-pulling scrum half added a second three-pointer from further out just five minutes later, but Enniscorthy ended the first quarter with a narrow lead, profiting from a Mitchell O'Meara handling error.
The Ashbourne winger fumbled a difficult kick and coughed up a close range lineout. 'Scorthy attacked off the back through Tomas Stamp and then went through the phases closer to the posts before powerful loosehead Angelo Todisco bulldozed through the middle of an 18th minute ruck and over for a nerve-settling converted try.
‘Scorthy were gaining more possession and territory now, with veteran second row Jeff Mahon – still a great competitor and presence on the field at the age of 46 – leading Ashbourne's resistance.
Strong running by wingers O'Meara and Casey Dunne suddenly opened up a try-scoring opportunity for the Meath men, Dunne making an excellent break and offloading for supporting openside Rooney who showed impressive strength to ride a tackle and reach over for a try near the left corner flag.
Kennedy could not convert and neither could Ivan Poole following O'Neill's breakaway score approaching the interval. Out-half Poole inspired the move with a quick tap and with Ashbourne caught for numbers on the left, crisp passing from heavily-involved forwards Nick Doyle and Stamp released O'Neill to run in from 30 metres out.
The searing pace of the game continued on the resumption, ‘Scorthy threatening first with Ashbourne centre Jack O'Brien having to make two try-saving tackles – one after the other. However, the Wexford outfit retained possession and a bouncing pass wide on the left was recovered by top try-scoring winger Ivan Jacob who had the gas to beat the cover and make it 17-11.
Yet, an inspired quick-fire eight-point blitz, including number 8 Wall's opportunist try from a close-in ruck, edged Ashbourne back in front with 26 minutes remaining. It could have been 14 points but winger Dunne missed two long penalty attempts, including one which hit the woodwork.
Kennedy was also denied by a post when trying to convert Wall's 51st-minute score. The back rower had barnstorming carry up to the line and then popped up a couple of phases later to gobble up a loose ball and dive over from a metre out. Kennedy did follow up with a successful penalty with the scoreboard showing 19-17
The mile-a-minute play continued and the vocal crowd were really loving it, a Wall ruck infringement in the 64th minute allowing Enniscorthy's Poole to split the posts for a 20-19 lead.
Back came Ashbourne, their forwards getting over the gain-line, aided by the impact of a patched-up Simon 'Dippy' Deevy off the bench. However, they failed to score from a Kennedy half-break and O'Brien also had to react smartly in defence to win a foot race with 'Scorthy's Evan Lett following a dangerous kick through by Poole.
Ashbourne's reinforced scrum became a key factor, clawing back lost territory and then forcing the 30-metre penalty which Kennedy turned into the match-winning score. In between, 'Scorthy had lost Jacob to the bin for successive offences at the breakdown.
The nerves were obvious as the usually cool Kennedy soon kicked out on the full, but Rooney drew lusty roars from the Ashbourne supporters by subsequently nabbing a loose 'Scorthy lineout.
With play concentrated in and around the halfway line, Ashbourne wore their 14-man opponents into submission in the dying minutes with a series of pick and goes before Kennedy gleefully kicked the ball dead, sparking joyous celebrations for the Leinster Junior League club in just their second year playing in this national competition.
Referee: Robert O'Sullivan (IRFU)