Header2014 IRFC

1st XV win 63-22 at home to Belfast Harlequins


On Saturday 16 December 2023 Instonians welcomed Belfast Harlequins to Shaws Bridge for a local South Belfast Derby.

There was a warm welcome to a packed pre match lunch to Belfast Harlequins President Marty Malseed and his party. Instonian President Keith O’Donnell raised a toast to the recently departed Syd Millar CBE, the most important and influential rugby personality ever to come from Ulster.

The rivalry between the sides went right back to the days of Collegians and North of Ireland (the two clubs that merged to form Belfast Harlequins) with the visitors today having several ex. Methody and Campbell players in their side while Instonians had 11 ex. RBAI players in their starting 15. This schoolboy rivalry would only add to the tension no doubt building in both changing rooms.

This was the last match before the break with Instonians looking for another win to maintain their slender lead over Galway Corinthians and Wanderers at the top of the table and Belfast Harlequins looking for inspiration from their Senior Cup win at the same venue the previous season and hoping that the form book would go out the window in a local derby.

14:30 Instonians 0 – Belfast Harlequins 0

Quins kicked off with the wind advantage. It was not a strong wind but enough to expect that you wanted to be ahead at half-time.

14:36 Instonians 7 – Belfast Harlequins 0

Instonians received the kick and immediately looked to keep the ball in hand and move through the phases. The visitors defended well and were clearly up for the contest.

Then from a ruck just inside the Quins half, scrum half Rhys O’Donnell had his trademark show and go and was immediately in open space. He found Mark Mairs in support who in turn had David Whitten on his shoulder to sail in under the post giving an easy conversion for out half Ruari O’Farrell to add the extras.

14:40 Instonians 7 – Belfast Harlequins 5

Quins response was immediate and when they won a penalty at the breakdown the 10 used the wind advantage to find a superb touch 5 metres from the Instonian line. Instonians held the driving maul off the line out but smart play from the visitors saw them switch to the blind side and get over near the corner. The conversion was missed but Quins were on the board.

More worrying for Instonians was the sight of their captain Robert Whitten sitting on the turf with his leg outstretched. Robert has been in tremendous form this season and an inspirational captain on and off the pitch so the news that he had ruptured his Achilles and was out for the entire season was a bitter blow. We wish him well in his long recovery and he will no doubt still have a role to play this season. His 3 brothers on the starting 15 with him today were the first over to check on Robert.

14:50 Instonians 7 – Belfast Harlequins 8

Eoghan Murphy replaced Robert in the engine room against a Quins side with their tails up. Following another penalty at the breakdown Quins kicked for a line out 15 metres out on their left and following good, controlled phases they were given a penalty in front of the posts to give them the lead. To the surprise of the crowd however they instead took a tap penalty but were not able to get over the line. They attacked again and won another penalty from the same position but this time took the easy 3 points on offer to take the lead.

14:52 Instonians 7 – Belfast Harlequins 15

Instonians came straight back at Quins going through the phases but then a wild long pass on halfway bounced on the ground and was picked up by a simply flying winger from Quins who scorched in under the posts. The simple conversion followed, and the visitors were now 2 scores ahead. Game on.

14:57 Instonians 14 – Belfast Harlequins 15

When Ruari O’Farrell put the restart straight out, Quins took the line out option and attacked again, no doubt sensing that this was a real opportunity for them in the game. Mark Mairs had other ideas though and a great jackal at the breakdown from him just inside his own half gave Matthew Keane the chance to find touch inside the Quins 10 metre line on Instonians right.

After a good period of continuity between forwards and backs it was scrum half Rhys O’Donnell again with a show and go and this time it was David Whitten in support taking play right up to the Quins line and open side flanker Max Preston went over under the posts giving Ruari O’Farrell the easy conversion.

15:00 Instonians 21 – Belfast Harlequins 15

Instonians tails were up now and another excellent passage of controlled possession between forwards and backs resulted in hooker Oli Clarke going over for a try just to the right of the posts with Ruari O’Farrell adding the extras.

Instonians were now in the ascendancy and dominating at scrum time. After one particular scrum, where they had marched Quins back and got the penalty inside their half, the penalty was reversed for something that was said by Instonians. The referee called over fullback Bradley McNamara and no doubt this very talented young player will learn from this as he had just undone the great work from his pack. Sometimes it is better to say nothing.

15:08 Instonians 21 – Belfast Harlequins 22

Quins continued to be under pressure in the scrums regardless of whose put in it was but they were managing to get the ball away and were a real threat with ball in hand. Instonians defended well but when Quins won another penalty at the breakdown a very good touch find gave them a line out 10 metres from the Instonians line on Quins left.

Quins took good care of the ball with willing runners off the 9 but Instonians defence was good. Then smart thinking from Quins as they switched the ball right towards the post and a lovely miss pass from the 10 gave the centre the space to glide in near to the posts. The easy extras put Quins back in the lead in this topsy turvy match.

15:13 Instonians 28 – Belfast Harlequins 22

Instonians ran the ball back from deep and started putting pressure on the Quins defence and the penalty count was now firmly in Instonians favour. From a penalty at the breakdown Matthew Keane found a good touch 10 metres out from the Quins line on Instonians left with time running out at the end of the half. Once the line out was caught there was an air of inevitability as a great driving maul gave hooker Ollie Clarke another score and more importantly a bonus point. Ruari O’Farrell knocked over the conversion from 15 metres in from touch and the referee blew the half-time whistle to end a very exciting half for the large crowd in attendance.

HALF TIME –Instonians 28 – Belfast Harlequins 22

What another great advert for club rugby that first half was. Quins will have been very pleased with how they had taken the game to the league leaders but disappointed to have conceded right on half time and knew they had to play into the wind 2nd half.

Instonians will have been gutted to lose their captain Robert Whitten but pleased to get the bonus point try to nudge ahead and turn round with the wind at their backs.

The 1st score of the 2nd half felt like it could be important.

15:20 Instonians 35 – Belfast Harlequins 22

Instonians kicked off playing towards the far car park and Quins ran the ball back into the wind. When they were penalised on the halfway line it was great to see the referee let Instonians take a quick tap penalty and scrum half Rhys O’Donnell needed no 2nd invitation as he tapped the ball to himself and took off jinking and weaving his way through the Quins defence up to the try line where he unselfishly popped the ball to the supporting David Whitten to score under the posts. Ruari O’Farrell added the extras and Instonians had a real grip on the game now.

15:26 Instonians 42 – Belfast Harlequins 22

Quins to their credit continued to try to run the ball back at Instonians and with the home side playing the same open game it was providing a great spectacle for the crowd.

When Quins attempted to clear their lines just inside their 22 Ruari O’Farrell charged the ball down and then did superbly to regather the ball and pop the ball to prop Schalk Van Der Merwe to crash over under the posts with Ruari adding the extras.

At this stage the flexibility in the Instonian backline came into play again with Rhys O’Donnell coming off after playing an hour on his comeback from injury and his half-back partner Ruari O’Farrell moved from 10 to 9 and on came the accomplished Richie McMaster to take the 10 jersey.

The dynamic for Quins had now have changed completely and their focus will have been on getting a 4th try and securing a losing bonus point.

15:33 Instonians 49 – Belfast Harlequins 22

Quins attacked again but a great jackal by Max Preston allowed Richie McMaster to find a great touch giving Instonians a line out 10 metres out from the line on their right. Quins defended the driving maul very well and managed to disrupt it and take it into touch. The line out went to Instonians again though and this time the ball was moved inside to Ian Whitten and he ran a good line to crash over the line. Richie McMaster added the conversion from 15 metres in from the touchline.

Quins continued to give everything to get that crucial try that came with a losing bonus point but the Instonian defence was very good with young Stuart Cameron at blindside flanker on his AIL debut in particular putting in some very good tackles.

Instonians had emptied the bench by now and it was a particularly strong bench too. One of them Daniel Keane made a crunching tackle but there is no margin for error these days and he ended up with 10 minutes in the bin for a high tackle.

Quins kept attacking in search of the 4th try and losing bonus point but great defence by Instonians kept them out.

15:47 Instonians 56 – Belfast Harlequins 22

After soaking up the pressure Instonians then responded and after running through the phases Ruairi O’Farrell saw the space out wide and gave a perfect long pass to the unmarked Richie McMaster in the far-left corner. Richie then nailed the conversion from the touchline from the wrong side of the pitch for a left foot kicker.

15:54 Instonians 63 – Belfast Harlequins 22

Quins could not get hold of the ball now and after more pressure on the Quins line Instonians had a scrum 10 metres out on the left and another dominant scrum had Quins retreating towards their line and conceding a penalty try to finish the game.

FULL TIME – Instonians 63– Belfast Harlequins 22

So Instonians finish the first half of the league campaign at the top of the table and 6 points ahead of Galway Corinthians with Wanderers a further 2 points behind. There is now a real gap between those 3 sides and the rest of the league and 1 of them will surely end up getting the automatic promotion spot with the other 2 very likely to be in the playoffs.

For now, however, Instonians can turn their attention to a trip to Ulster’s no 1 side in Ballynahinch next Saturday 23 December 2023 in the quarter final of the Senior Cup as big underdogs with nothing to lose. The loss of captain Robert Whitten will be felt immediately but no doubt the boys will rally round and try to give a good account of themselves on the day.

For Belfast Harlequins, they will be kicking themselves for not getting a losing bonus point having scored 3 tries in the first half hour of this match. They need to regroup and prepare for the return fixture in this league on 13 January 2024 at Deramore Park.

MOM today looked to be going to Rhys O’Donnell on his return to the side from injury but when he came off after an hour it was a straight shoot out between David Whitten and Ruari O’Farrell and Ruairi gets it this week for his flexibility in the half back positions and his individual flair in attack.