Having narrowly lost their last two games against their closest competitors in the league, NUIG travelled to Heffernan Park yesterday needing no less than a victory to keep their competitive season on track. The game was played in near perfect conditions, and the opening exchanges were intense and physical. Benefitting from sluggish College defence, the home team struck first with a well worked try that saw their winger benefit from a barnstorming break from the Ballina backrow; where the three-quarter was on hand to finish off the move and touch down close to the posts. The Ballina outhalf added the conversion.
Following the restart, College wrested back the initiative and started to assert some territory and possession. Midway through the first half NUIG secured a penalty after a period of sustained pressure. College’s impressive outhalf Kealen O’Flaherty expertly nudged the ball up the touchline to secure a line out five metres from the Ballina line. Ronan Mulloy, one of College’s standout players on the day, combined with the highly impressive Stephen Dwyer to provide the backs with quality possession off the top of the lineout. College’s talisman, scrumhalf Jack O’Callaghan dispatched a perfect flat pass to the onrushing O’Flaherty who twice stepped the cover for a brilliant individual score. Alex Kirwan slotted the conversion and College were back to parity.
However, following the restart, College’s exuberance to run the ball back from their 22, combined with good pressure play from Ballina, afforded the home team a kickable penalty, which the Ballina outhalf dispatched with ease. The teams turned around at the half-time break with the home side sitting on a slender 10-7 lead. Ballina then made the perfect start to the second half by scoring a well worked team try shortly after the restart. With Ballina stretching their lead to ten points, the momentum seemed to be turning in the home team’s favour, but College’s riposte could not have been more definitive.
Led by Captain, Darragh O’Loughlin, Pete Small, Shane Ryan, Max Sale, Eoin Himpers, and man-of-the-match Colin Lawlor, the team raised their intensity and ran in five impressive tries. Of particular note was the performance of Alex Kirwan. In addition to his near-flawless return with the placed ball, the winger was at the heart of College’s attacking renaissance. While threatening in either counter-attack or when coming into the line, Kirwan’s try was a fantastic individual effort, where he broke tackles and fended off his opposing number before rounding the cover to race in behind the posts. College's three-quarters impressed as a unit, with James Kennedy, Shane Galvin and Mattie Kavanagh also to the fore. With the pack laying the platform, and with sterling performances from Conor Gantly, Adam Brady, Eugene Kilkenny and the ever-brilliant Jack O’Callaghan, the penetration and space was created for the College backs to finish in some style. Mattie Kavanagh, Ruairi Kehoe-Clarke, Stephen Butler and O’Callaghan all crossed the white wash, the pick of the tries Kehoe-Clarke’s touchdown after great interplay and teamwork by both forwards and backs.
Ballina did not relent and were rewarded with a further unconverted try late in the game, which left the final score at 38-22 to the visitors.
An important win for NUIG Rugby, one that restores College’s momentum going into the next few weeks and the crucial remaining fixtures before Christmas.