A stunning final quarter comeback made all the difference in this Friday Night Lights encounter at Belfield as UCD kicked off the new Ulster Bank League season with a hard-earned 23-20 victory over St. Mary’s College.
After finishing third in their first season back in the top flight, UCD are seeking to mount a serious title challenge in 2014/15.
With Jordan Coghlan and Josh van der Flier having featured in the successful British & Irish Cup campaigns for Leinster 'A' in recent times, there was a formidable look to the students' starting line-up.
Yet, it was their Templeville Road opponents who enjoyed the majority of possession during the early stages of this game which was streamed live on the IRFU website.
Although UCD's well-organised defence soaked up much of the pressure, they were forced into conceding a series of penalties during the opening quarter.
Rather than opt for the posts, however, Mary's out-half Cathal Marsh instead kicked for touch on four separate occasions, and even though these moves initially provided promise, UCD eventually turned over possession.
Three points from any of these passages might well have given Mary's the kind of platform they desired, but when their first kick at goal finally arrived 21 minutes in, Gavin Dunne's tricky effort from 40 metres drifted past the left hand upright.
This was something of let-off for UCD, but thanks to a powerful run from deep by scrum half Bobby Holland, they discovered an avenue into enemy territory. Mary's managed to halt Holland's lung-bursting gallop but following an infringement inside the 22, his half-back partner Ross Byrne (pictured below) broke the deadlock with a 24th minute penalty.
With the UCD attack now making significant inroads, he doubled his side's advantage from a similar distance four minutes later.
As the interval approached, a swift response was required from Mary's and they eventually opened their account courtesy of 35th minute penalty from full-back Dunne.
Byrne's third successful penalty cancelled out this score – following the sin-binning of Mary's centre Ryan O'Loughlin – but just when UCD looked set to take a 9-3 advantage into the second period, they suffered a morale-sapping blow in injury-time.
Referee Andy Brace adjudged that Byrne had pulled back Marcus O'Driscoll as the Mary's winger was poised to score from his own chip kick towards the left corner. A penalty try was awarded to Peter Smyth's side.
In a game where try-scoring opportunities were at a premium, this was a potentially decisive moment. Dunne converted and Mary's held a slender 10-9 cushion at the break.
UCD now found themselves in a position where they were chasing the game for the very first time, but in a similar vein to the opening 40 minutes, Bobby Byrne's youngsters were able to force Mary's into the concession of a brace of penalties.
The in-form Byrne tried his luck from distance in the 49th and 52nd minutes respectively but despite getting plenty of purchase off his strikes, he missed the target on both occasions.
With just one point separating the teams on the hour mark, it was difficult to predict how the tie would pan out, but with Sean McCarthy, Tom O'Reilly and Keelan McKenna all providing fresh legs in their pack and Mark Fallon returning from a sin-binning, Mary's set about putting some daylight between the sides.
Indeed, it was McKenna who proved to be the go-to man for their second try on 63 minutes. He burst over powerfully on the right, finishing off good approach work from a scrum by captain Kevin Sheahan and Jamie Glynn.
Dunne's conversion was once again accurate and he also landed a penalty to reward the Mary's scrum 12 minutes from the end, leaving UCD 20-9 adrift.
Tighthead prop Liam Hyland had other ideas, however, and when his well-taken 71st minute try from a close range rumble was supplemented by two points from Byrne, the gap was down to four.
With their tails now up, the students' athletic pack once again developed a 76th minute maul on the left flank and Mary's had to have a couple of bites at collapsing it as it advanced. They fell short of the try-line but referee Brace decided that the successive infringements amounted to a penalty try – converted with ease by Byrne – and UCD's comeback win was dramatically secured.
Referee: Andy Brace (IRFU)