Header2014 IRFC

1st XV lose 24-25 at Sligo in AIL DIV 2B


On Saturday 2 March 2024 Instonians travelled to Strandhill to play Sligo looking to maintain their 12-point lead over Wanderers at the top of the table with just 4 games to go. Excellent Sligo President Rory Rafferty and his able assistant Niall gave a very warm welcome to the travelling Instonian party at a very enjoyable pre match lunch where the Sligo Junior Cup winning teams from 1954, 1969, 1069, 1999 and 2011 were represented including a video link up with a 100-year-old member of the 1954 team.

Sligo’s excellent home form had them in pole position for the play-offs in 4th place behind the top 3 of Instonians, Wanderers and Galway Corinthians and a win today would secure their place in those play-offs. Their only 2 defeats at Strandhill being narrow ones to Wanderers and Galway Corinthians so this was always going to be a very tight encounter.

There had been a lot of snow on the Friday before the match but the forecast was for it to have melted by Saturday in time for the match. This proved to be the case with the pitch perfectly playable but very heavy in places.

The sun had come out in time for kick off and Instonians were to play into a very strong swirling wind in the first half no doubt hoping to minimise the Sligo lead at the half time break.

14:32 Sligo 0 – Instonians 0

Sligo used the wind advantage to kick deep into the Instonians 22 and force them to play from near their own line.

14:36 Sligo 3 – Instonians 0

Instonians kept ball in hand and put together a very good passage of controlled possession into the wind but Sligo’s defence was good and eventually out half Richie McMaster kicked towards the left hand touchline on the Instonian 10 metre line. It was now Sligo’s turn to run the ball back at Instonians using strong runners off the 9.

Instonians defence was good too but when they knocked the ball forward in the tackle, Sligo had the put in to the scrum on the Instonian 22 on Sligo’s left. Sligo moved the ball quickly from the scrum along the backline and caught Instonians offside in front of their own posts giving them an easy penalty kick in front of the posts which they had no hesitation in taking.

14:42 Sligo 3 – Instonians 0

The opening 10 minutes of the game saw Instonians show very good hands despite the heavy pitch conditions and the greasy ball but Sligo tackled well and were good at the breakdown getting one important jackal in there as Instonians threatened to take play into the Sligo half.

With scrum half Rhys O’Donnell being rested to help with a slight niggle before his trip to Portugal to play Portugal A next week with the Irish Clubs side, it meant there was a new half back partnership with Ruari O’Farrell into 9 to partner Richie McMaster at 10. As can happen in a new partnership there was a stray pass which had to be recovered in the back field but after that the distribution was good at source and right across the backline.

14:52 Sligo 3 – Instonians 7

Instonians continued to keep ball in hand into the wind and the handling and control in possession was 1st class as they moved the ball back and forth across the pitch and had the Sligo defence stretched and having to make a lot of tackles. Ruari O’Farrell at 9 was also using the blindside very well where cousins Matthew and Mark Keane were making good ground and threatening to break clear. When Ruari himself was up in support at the Sligo 22 he kicked ahead to just short of the Sligo try line but the strength of the wind, which was blowing down the pitch towards the right hand corner, was evident as the Sligo full back almost got a 50-22 with just an easy stroke of his left foot.

Undeterred however, Instonians won their line out and again the handling of the backs was excellent as they moved the ball swiftly from left to right and back again across the pitch. When the forwards joined in and took play up towards the Sligo 22 again, David Whitten ran a great line to take the ball on the burst and was only brought to ground close to the Sligo line under their posts. Instonians arrived in numbers at the breakdown and after a couple of pick and goes it was Bevan Prinsloo who used his considerate strength and power to crash over near the posts. Richie McMaster added the easy extras and Instonians will have been delighted with the 1st quarter of the match as they now led playing into this very strong wind.

14:59 Sligo 8 – Instonians 7

At this stage Schalk Van Der Merwe came on for Alan Whitten at prop and got straight into the game with some big tackles.

Sligo were definitely winning the battle at the breakdown however, and the penalties that ensued for their jackals allowed them to use the wind to get good field positions for their line out which was functioning very well. From one such line out inside the Instonian 22 on the Sligo right they had a good driving maul and when it was stopped, they moved the ball slickly across the backline to squeeze over in the far-left hand corner. The conversion from the touchline just missed but Sligo were back in front.

15:11 Sligo 13 – Instonians 7

For the next 10 minutes Instonians handling into the wind was exemplary and they moved up the pitch towards the Sligo half but Sligo continued to win the breakdown when Instonians players got isolated and the home side jackaled in to get the penalties.

The rain had now started and the wind was picking up again having had a slight lull. The combination of winning penalties at the breakdown, using the wind to get good field position, a good functioning line out and driving maul for Sligo was putting great pressure on the Instonian line and it was no real surprise when the Sligo pack drove over in the corner. At this stage the conditions were really bad with heavy persistent rain and a very strong swirling wind in Sligo’s favour. It did not help them with the conversion however, but they had increased their lead to 6 points.

15:18 Sligo 13 – Instonians 14

Again Instonians ran the ball so well from deep from left to right and back again across the pitch with Ruari at 9 mixing it upwell by challenging the blindside well. The breakdown continued to go Sligo’s way however, allowing them to regain territory.

With the match heading towards half time Instonians had one last attack with great continuity between forwards and backs and this time David Whitten broke free into open space just on halfway and made great ground and this time it was Instonians who got the penalty at the breakdown. They kicked for a line out on the Sligo 22 and had a good driving maul which Sligo pulled down. Another penalty followed and this time the resulting line out was only 5 metres from the Sligo line. A great driving maul from Instonians saw David Whitten touch down 15 metres to the left of the posts. A very good conversion by Richie McMaster put Instonians ahead as the referee blew for half time.

HALF TIME –Sligo 13 – Instonians 14

Instonians will have been delighted with their 1st half performance into such a strong wind and looking forward to using these conditions in the 2nd half. The one area of concern would have been the amount of penalties they were conceding at the breakdown.

Conversely Sligo would have been very pleased with their performance at the breakdown but much more importantly very worried to be turning behind on the scoreboard with the elements now massively against them.

15:24 Sligo 13 – Instonians 14

Instonians kicked off with the strong wind at their back and in awful conditions now with the rain pelting it down and Richie McMaster put in a good kick deep into the Sligo 22.

15:40 Sligo 13 – Instonians 19

It was now Instonians who were using the conditions to establish territory in Sligo’s half and Ruari O’Farrell used the elements to put in a long kick that forced Sligo to touch down and drop out from under their own posts.

The 3rd quarter of the match was played out in Sligo’s 22 or just outside it and now the penalty count was heavily in Instonians favour forcing the referee to speak to the Sligo captain about persistent offending.

It was role reversal of the 1st half with Instonians winning penalties , using the wind for territory and then a good functioning line out and driving maul that hammered away at the Sligo line. Sligo’s defence was outstanding but eventually the pressure told and hooker Neil Saulters (who had come in for young Oli Clarke) was on the end of a driving maul out wide. The driving rain and swirling wind made the touchline very difficult for Richie McMaster as the ball sailed wide. Instonians were back to 6 points ahead but lost 2nd row Mark Mairs and no 7 player coach Paul Pritchard to injury. Mark injured his ankle but Paul’s injury looked the really bad one on his knee which will require a scan no doubt. We wish them both well in their recovery.

Instonians will have been pleased to stretch their lead to 6 points but less than happy to see what the weather gods had in store for them next. As so often happens after a heavy period of rain, the sun came out and there was now just a very slight breeze from left to right.

15:45 Sligo 18 – Instonians 19

On the plus side for Instonians was that they even though the weather conditions did not now favour any side, they were still leading and only needed 1 more try for a bonus point too.

Then the unthinkable happened as Sligo were able to kick long into a very slight breeze and the ball was coming down under David Whitten, not what you want if you are Sligo. David had been having his usual stellar performance at no 8 for Instonians but for a split second must have taken his eye off the ball as he looked to see where the best chance to counterattack was against the approaching Sligo defence. He ended up dropping the ball and Sligo had a bonus of a scrum under the posts on the Instonian 22.

Sligo moved it quickly from the base of the scrum and slick hands from their backline took them close to the Instonian line and after using runners off the 9 to hammer away at the Instonian line the Sligo 10 called for the ball as the right wing was completely free. A perfectly executed crossfield kick was right on the money and in normal circumstances the winger would have sauntered in for a try. The state of the ground in that area of the pitch however, meant that he had to manoeuvre his way through what resembled a mud bath and was held on the line by the covering Instonian defence who in normal circumstances would not have wasted their energy in chasing across. To his credit the 14 did not panic and managed to use his height and reach to ground the ball on the line. The conversion was missed but Sligo were only a point behind again.

16:03 Sligo 25 – Instonians 19

The remaining quarter of the match saw both sides attacking looking for the winning score but both sets of defences were superb in sapping conditions. The fitness levels of both teams was very good and the benches were being used to the full.

The next score was crucial and it was Sligo, roared on by their very vocal support in their stand and up the touchlines, who got it. A great break out of defence saw great support play and a searching kick deep into the Instonian 22. The chase was excellent and Instonians had to get the ball into touch giving Sligo a great position with a line out 10 metres out. A great driving maul was going towards the Instonian line in the far left hand corner which would have given a difficult conversion but it got worse for Instonians as the referee was already running round under the post for a penalty try with Gary Dillon (who had come on for Instonians in the backrow) receiving a yellow card.

Instonians were now 6 points behind instead of just 4 points as the conversion would have been difficult from the touchline.

16:07 Sligo 25 – Instonians 24

This Instonian side does not know when it is beaten though and were on the back of 32 consecutive wins in the All Ireland League since their return to it last season. A man down did not hinder them in the slightest as from a long kick off and great chase they won a penalty under the Sligo posts which they kicked for a line out 5 metres out on their left. A great driving maul saw them drive over and they now had a kick to win it with time nearly up.

Up stepped Richie McMaster who has been great off the tee all season including the superb conversion at Wanderers to set up the grandstand finish of his own penalty to win 39-38 before Xmas and his 2 late penalties in the home win over Wanderers 13-8 in the last game out.

The slight breeze was from left to right so Richie aimed it just to the left of the posts but the breeze simply did not play ball and the kick went exactly where Richie aimed it, just to the left of the post.

16:09 Sligo 25 – Instonians 24

There was time for the kick off which sensibly Sligo kicked long and Instonians immediately ran the ball out of defence up to their own 10 metre line but not for the first time in this match it was Sligo who got the jackal and penalty at the breakdown. They chose to kick at goal and it landed just under the crossbar forcing Instonians to run out from under their own posts on the last play. When they were tackled and the ball was lost forward Hamliton Park erupted. Sligo had ended Instonians run and more importantly for them secured their place in the play offs in 4th place in the league.

FULL TIME – Sligo 25 – Instonians 24

What a fantastic game of rugby and a well-deserved win for Sligo. This will give them such a lift going into the playoffs at the end of the season. First of all they have the small matter of the Senior Cup next Saturday at home to Division 1B side Buccaneers where they will be looking to add the cup to the Senior League win and at Strandhill you would not bet against them.

For Instonians their gap at the top of the league was cut to 9 points to Wanderers in 2nd and 10 points to Galway Corinthians in 3rd. Those 2 sides have to play each other in the last match of the season at Merrion Road. Instonains will be concentrating on their own games however, and now need just 7 points from their remaining 3 games to win the league and gain promotion for the 3rd season in a row.

Instonians will no doubt be disappointed to lose this great game or rugby in very trying conditions but you learn more from a defeat and they should be very proud of the record they have achieved. Not only had they won 32 games in a row in the AIL but they won 17 of the 18 league games in their promotion from junior rugby with the 18th game a COVID cancellation. Effectively therefore they had 49 consecutive league wins over the last 3 seasons and without COVID it would no doubt have been a round 50.

The bigger worry in the short term is the injury count suffered today and what side they can put out next Saturday 9 March 2024 away to Division 1A side Armagh in the semi-final of the Senior Cup at the Palace Grounds, Armagh but as their European Champions Cup winning centre Ian Whitten said after the game in the bar “sure we will get 15 players out and give it a lash”.

Ian had a great game today in both attack and defence but I am sure he will not mind sharing the MOM award with his young brother David today as bar 1 blemish was magnificent today at no 8 and not for the 1st time this season.