Captain Hugh Hogan turned in a man-of-the-match performance to inspire St. Mary’s College to a narrow win over Clontarf at Castle Avenue, with the result putting them in pole position to become Ulster Bank League champions.
Darren Hudson's second half brace of tries and a terrific defensive display, particularly after they had Mark Sexton sin-binned late on, ensured the victory for St. Mary's who hold a two-point lead heading into the final round of matches.
Peter Smyth's men now know that a win at home to Young Munster next Saturday will secure the club's first top flight title since 2000.
Clontarf were left to rue their failure to turn possession into points at Castle Avenue, but they are still in the hunt to lift the trophy hoping that they can beat Lansdowne in the final round and that St. Mary's slip up against Munsters.
Gavin Dunne’s 19th-minute penalty nudged St. Mary’s ahead this afternoon, but Clontarf hit back with an inspirational individual try from Killian Lett.
He exposed some poor defending to cross in the 23rd minute and the successful conversion from Richie Lane opened up a four-point lead.
However, St. Mary’s enjoyed a crucial purple patch on the stroke of half-time, with Conor Hogan’s clever chip and chase effort earning him a try in the left corner.
Armed with an 8-7 interval lead, the visitors motored on with two tries in a five-minute spell from the dangerous Hudson.
The Leinster prospect thrilled his club’s supporters with two cracking finishes in the right corner, the second coming from Damian Hall’s delightful short pass.
Clontarf responded with a Niall Treston five-pointer from a close range drive, closing the gap to 18-12 and setting up an exciting final 20 minutes.
But Andy Wood's home side were unable to breach the St. Mary's defence again as Hugh Hogan and his team-mates dug deep to hold onto their lead and put themselves within 80 minutes of league glory.
Early charges from Mick McGrath and Aaron Dundon set the tone for a fired-up Clontarf side, but Lane missed a difficult opening penalty in the third minute.
The stiff wind certainly had an influence on proceedings as did some sterling defence from the St. Mary’s forwards, led by fit-again captain Hogan and Rob Sweeney.
‘Tarf dominated possession in the first quarter but the visitors closed down the space time and again, making for precious few scoring opportunities.
St. Mary’s countered in terrific fashion as their skipper Hogan dummied his way over halfway and linked with the supporting Conor Hogan, however a fumble at the breakdown led to a turnover.
Yet Smyth's well-drilled outfit maintained their presence in the ‘Tarf half and forced a central penalty which full-back Dunne converted for the opening points.
Half-breaks from Timmy McCoy and the industrious Ben Reilly got ‘Tarf quickly firing again though.
They stormed into the St. Mary’s 22 before Noel Reid’s long pass found Lett, who shrugged off Hudson’s initial challenge and used his considerable strength to muscle over from eight metres out.
Lane judged the wind expertly to add the conversion and he was narrowly wide, five minutes before the break, with a tricky left-sided penalty.
St. Mary’s ended the first half on the offensive with Stephen Grissing showing well on a midfield run, and Hudson applying good pressure when chasing his own kick.
Clontarf paid the price for Reid failing to find touch late on. St. Mary’s countered near halfway and Dunne’s lovely looping pass unleashed Hogan on the left – he dinked a kick over the covering Reid, won the race to the bouncing ball and crashed over for a brilliant solo try.
Dunne was off target with the conversion attempt, but St. Mary’s had an extra pep in their step now and it showed when the second half got underway.
After the wind pushed an early Dunne penalty wide, set up by Gareth Austin's hard work at the breakdown, Smyth’s charges struck for their second try to go 13-7 in front.
Hudson sent up a loose kick, but Reilly failed to gather the high ball and the winger regained possession to sprint through, step away from Lane and hand off Sam Cronin on the way to the line.
Dunne’s conversion kick went to the right and wide and he also failed to convert Hudson’s 50th-minute try, which saw him touch down under pressure from Lane and Cronin again.
‘Tarf upped their collective efforts on the restart with Frank Cogan barrelling through midfield. Five minutes later, big prop Treston lunged over for his try after a concerted spell of pressure near the visitors’ whitewash.
Although the conversion was drilled wide by Lane, the north Dubliners clearly had the bit between their teeth and their forwards were beginning to dictate.
Some committed, disciplined defence from Philip Brophy and Ciaran Ruddock won a relieving penalty for St. Mary’s, as they protected their hard-earned advantage with just over ten minutes left.
Despite plenty of endeavour from 'Tarf, they lacked the cutting edge to break through St. Mary's spirited defence. The visitors drew confidence from a Stephen Bradshaw lineout steal and a Hogan turnover on the deck.
Amid a late barrage from 'Tarf, St. Mary's lost replacement Sexton to a yellow card for killing the ball close to his posts. The 14 men battled on and deservedly triumphed at the end of a hugely entertaining encounter.
Referee: Leo Colgan (IRFU)