Darragh Fitzpatrick was the late hero for the Ireland Club side as his injury-time drop goal steered the hosts to a hard-earned 21-18 win over their Scottish counterparts at Donnybrook.
AIB CLUB INTERNATIONAL: Friday, March 19
IRELAND CLUB XV 21 SCOTLAND CLUB XV 18, Donnybrook
Ireland’s AIB League aces scored their first victory under new coach David O’Mahony as they played right to the final whistle in Friday’s entertaining AIB Club International match at Donnybrook.
Replacement centre Darragh Fitzpatrick took on the role of match winner when, having missed a penalty just minutes earlier, he held his nerve to drive a drop goal over from a central position after the forwards had gone through a series of pick and drives.
It was just reward for the huge amount of work O’Mahony’s charges got through in defence and attack over the 80 minutes.
It was also a slice of revenge for the five surviving players from the 31-18 loss to Scotland at Watsonians RFC twelve months ago – the five being Hugh Hogan, Fitzpatrick, Barry Keeshan, Sam Cronin and Killian Lett.
The Irish players also had an extra special thrill before tonight’s encounter as Irish senior head coach Declan Kidney presented their jerseys to them prior to kick-off and passed on some words of inspiration.
Suitably pumped up, they got off to a tremendous start, scoring 13 points in the opening twelve minutes.
In a frenzied opening, winger Stephen Kelly launched a chip and chase and a good first-up tackle from number 8 Frank Cogan won a scrum for the hosts inside the Scottish 22.
A superb run from centre Eric Moloney kept Ireland going forward and a couple of phases later, Cogan picked off the base and with support from his back row colleague Hugh Hogan, he wrestled his way over for a fourth minute try.
Daragh O’Shea took on the place-kicking duties and missed his opening shot at the posts, and Ireland continued to do the basics well as they settled into their stride.
Second row Fergal Walsh did well to pinch a Scottish lineout, but Scotland’s own locks – Damien Kelly, the eventual man-of-the-match, and Rory McKay – quickly showed their quality as ball carriers.
The visitors carved out their first attacking opportunity when flanker Mark Cairns went through a midfield gap, and a solid hit was needed by full-back O’Shea to prevent a score.
O’Shea found a brilliant touch, five metres out, after Ireland won a penalty off a lineout, and a well-controlled 13th minute maul split the Scottish defence and allowed hooker Mike Essex to dot down from close range.
O’Shea’s sweetly-struck conversion off his right boot made it 12-0 and Ireland looked to have banished memories of their nightmare start against England Counties last time out.
However, Scotland replied straight away as the hosts infringed at a ruck and out-half Scott Wight converted a penalty kick from the left.
Wight was eager to run when given the chance, taking on his opposite number Barry Keeshan, and he kept his side on the front foot as the Scots looked to close the gap further.
Cogan relieved the pressure on Ireland by tapping a quick penalty and setting off on a tremendous 50-metre burst, yet he failed to find his support, which included club international debutant Zack Farivarz, and Scotland had a let-off.
It was end to end stuff as Wight missed a penalty after Ireland had wheeled a scrum and Irish winger Matt Healy brought through on the right, only to be called back for a forward pass from Cogan.
Referee Luke Pearce was playing a penalty advantage to the Irish when Healy jinked his way through, but the resulting right-sided kick was missed by O’Shea.
Scotland had the better of the remainder of the first half and scored two tries to draw level by the half-time whistle, at 15-15.
Ireland initially moved 15-3 ahead when Gordon Reid was whistled up for a binding offence and Fitzpatrick, who came on for the injured Moloney, knocked over a peach of a strike.
But, five minutes before the break and with the Irish defence stretched out wide, a flat pass from Malcolm Clapperton put full-back Fraser Harkness over a try.
Television replays showed that Harkness had actually lost the ball forward as he tried to dot down under pressure from two defenders, but referee Pearce awarded the try and Wight failed to add the extras.
Scotland built some pressure on the cusp of half-time and their adventure was rewarded when Clapperton was sent in behind the posts – but once again there was a question mark over the score as the replay showed that the try-scoring pass was a yard or two forward.
The try stood, nonetheless, and Wight tapped over the conversion to square it up for half-time.
The momentum was clearly now with the Scots, who lost 30-13 and 20-15 on their previous two visits to Dublin.
Winger James Fleming went close to grabbing an early try after the resumption. He claimed a high kick and it took a well-timed tackle from the retreating Killian Lett to save Ireland’s bacon.
The visitors maintained a territorial advantage until a powerful break out of the Irish half from Cogan, who was set free by a lovely delayed pass from the impressive Essex.
The attack produced a kickable penalty but Fitzpatrick’s 48th-minute strike was a poor one and a stalemate ensued over the following 20 minutes.
Stephen Kelly threatened again when Keeshan landed a crossfield kick out to the left and Kelly hacked it through on the bounce, only for the ball to beat the Shannon speedster over the end-line.
Scotland looked the sharper and more likely to score a try coming up to the hour mark. Yet Ireland hung in there and defended well.
They rallied in attack too, with a flurry of pick and drives setting up a try-scoring opportunity. The Scots were camped on their try-line but the chance was wasted when Hogan unfortunately knocked on close to the posts.
Team captain Sam Cronin led by example with a typically energetic display, and Cogan and powerful prop Simon Shawe were both involved before Keeshan sent a drop goal attempt wide of the target.
The game was right there for the taking and Ireland were beginning to turn the screw. Fleming put in a last-ditch tackle to prevent Healy from going over in the right corner.
Ireland kept play cramped in that very corner and Scotland infringed off a subsequent lineout, allowing Fitzpatrick to coolly kick his side back in front – 18-15 – with a penalty from just outside the 22.
But Ireland were clearly tiring and Wight scored with a similar effort to Fitzpatrick’s, in the 72nd minute. Scotland were countering well from deep, and Harkness was heavily involved in a swift right wing attack which almost saw replacement Cameron Ferguson crossing for a try.
It was real blow for blow stuff as Stephen Kelly showed his pace with a nippy run down the left channel, Scotland were called offside at the ensuing ruck and Ireland had a priceless kick with time running out.
Fitzpatrick’s connection with the ball was poor though, and he let that 79th minute chance slip wide of the uprights.
But Ireland, with the likes of replacements Ger Slattery, Christy Condon and Simon Crawford adding some grunt up front, kept plugging away and they worked a final opportunity off a lineout.
Ger Slattery’s throw was gathered and the forwards took it on, making the hard yards under the direction of replacement scrum half Cathal Sheridan.
There were 84 minutes on the clock when Sheridan spun the ball back to Fitzpatrick and the Blackrock College clubman showed great poise, under pressure from the advancing Scots, to fire the ball straight through the posts at the Wesley end and spark wild celebrations for the victorious men in green.
Referee: Luke Pearce (England)