Galwegians secured automatic promotion to the Ulster Bank League’s top flight when they won the Division 1B title in a pulsating final round showdown with nearest rivals Garryowen in Glenina.
In what was a winner-takes-all contest, Galwegians kept their nerve and deservedly held on to pip the Limerick men by four points and spark jubilant scenes at a packed Crowley Park.
'Wegians won the toss and opted to give their opponents the benefit of a stiff first half breeze. Garryowen did not take long to benefit and they took the lead courtesy of a fifth minute penalty from out-half Jamie Gavin.
In what was a nervy opening period, 'Wegians, playing in their dark green away jerseys, were missing too many first-up tackles, while the visitors were struggling to make the most of some early opportunities. Full-back Alex Wootton was causing trouble as was number 8 Josh Hrstich, but they were unable to make the final pass stick.
Gavin missed a second kickable penalty on 10 minutes, but the early pressure was taking its toll on the home side, and on 16 minutes referee David Wilkinson lost patience and sin-binned prop Doron McHugh for their fifth penalty concession.
'Wegians were seriously under the cosh in their own 22. Three minutes later, things went from bad to worse for the hosts when replacement prop Conor Kyne was also binned for a seventh penalty concession. The Dooradoyle outfit opted to kick the straightforward penalty, and this time Gavin made no mistake in front of the posts to double their lead.
However, 13-man Galwegians soon got into their stride and settled into their game and patterns. They began to gain a foothold in opposition territory, and boosted their morale by shutting out the visitors until they restored parity in numbers.
In truth, Matt Brown's men looked much the better side in the second quarter, battling against the elements, and crucially they stopped coughing up penalties.
Although the Galwegians lineout was misfiring somewhat, their scrum was very dominant, and things looked a lot better when they opened their account on 33 minutes, young out-half Aidan Moynihan drilling over an excellent penalty into the teeth of the breeze to halve the deficit (6-3).
Garryowen went in search of a score before half-time, and it nearly came when flanker and captain and David Sherry robbed loose ball off the base of a 'Wegians scrum near halfway and went charging down the line, only for winger John Cleary to come to the rescue and bundle him into touch.
Although the breeze died down somewhat, it was still favouring the home side on the restart. It was always going to take a moment of magic to make the difference in a game this tight, and that moment arrived on 43 minutes.
With 'Wegians attacking down the left just inside the opposition half, there seemed to be nothing on when the ball arrived to Cleary. But the veteran back placed a deft little dink over the cover defence, and when Garryowen's usually reliable full-back Wootton misjudged the awkward bounce, Cleary latched on to it in a flash and scampered home down the left, evading a last-ditch covering tackle to make vital yardage nearer to the posts. Moynihan then stepped up and slotted a perfect conversion for 10-6.
This was the final scoreline in the earlier fixture between these sides last December, but it was never likely to remain this way with 35 minutes remaining. Garryowen showed their mettle by taking the game to their hosts right from the restart.
There followed an intense period of pressure involving over twenty phases in the 'Wegians 22, but some trademark and resolute home defence kept them at bay. When the ball was finally turned over, scrum half Barry Lee put in a monster relieving kick to bring play back to halfway.
'Wegians went on to dominate the remainder of the third quarter, and looked poised to add to their score on a couple of occasions, only to cough up ball at vital times and meet an equally determined visiting defence.
The turning point came in the 66th minute. When Garryowen took play up to halfway with a penalty, Hrstich made a telling line break to pierce the 'Wegians defence. And with support arriving in numbers, a few phases later centre Andrew O'Byrne finished near the right corner for an excellent try. Gavin then stepped up to perfectly judge the conversion into the wind, curling it just inside the near post for what appeared a vital three-point lead.
The significance of this was that a draw would have sufficed for leaders Garryowen, but once more the pendulum swung in this enthralling contest as 'Wegians went in search of the winner.
Cleary seemed to be through again only for referee Wilkinson to call him back for a forward pass. But from the resulting penalty advantage, Moynihan launched another perfect kick to the corner to set up an attacking lineout. With the visiting defence creaking, the Blues were awarded another penalty near the corner which they opted to scrum.
A few resets and another penalty later, just when Garryowen seemed to have thwarted the attacking threat, Galwegians replacement scrum half Caolin Blade picked from the base and moved blindside, sucked in the covering defence and released that man Cleary again with a perfectly time pass. The Wellpark flyer cruised over, replicating his earlier effort where he broke an attempted covering tackle to make more vital yardage and dot down in the same spot.
Moynihan again held his nerve to judge the wind and land the tricky conversion, restoring a vital four-point cushion with 78 minutes on the clock.
Wilkinson then immediately penalised Garryowen lock Aaron McCloskey for foul play in the aftermath of the try when he took his frustration out on Cleary, sparking something of a melee. And it proved costly for the visitors, as it allowed Moynihan to drill the penalty straight back into the opposition corner with the game now entering stoppage time.
It looked like a trademark 'Wegians lineout maul would put the game beyond doubt, but some gritty Garryowen defence kept them at bay.
Almost inevitably this game seemed destined to come down to the last play, and so it transpired. Conan Doyle's charges had one last reprieve when they broke out of their own half to put their hosts under pressure. And with time virtually up, they won a succession of penalties inside the 'Wegians half, leading to a final sin-binning for Galwegians stalwart Brian Murphy.
However, try as they might, the visitors simply could not find a way through the 'Wegians defence. And when the ball was finally spilled forward in the 88th minute of play, it allowed 'Wegians kick it dead, drawing huge cheers from the large home support as their side clinched top spot and automatic promotion to Division 1A.
Referee: David Wilkinson (IRFU)