Sligo 29 – Ballinasloe 31
There was blood, sweat and many tears in Hamilton Park last Saturday, as an epic battle took place between two incredible teams in the Connacht U18.5 Cup semi-final. After their comprehensive 28-14 win over Corinthians, deemed to be one of the hot favourites, Adrian Mc Hale and his team were under no illusion about what lay ahead for them playing a Ballinasloe team, who were still on a high after the Garbally senior Cup win.
The weather certainly played its part, with little or no wind and expectations were high among the large crowd. Sligo started at a furious pace and it was captain Donnacha Byrne who opened the scoring for the home side, with Hubert Gilvarry adding the extras. Ballinasloe replied by piling on the pressure from the restart and opening their scoring with an easy penalty in front of the posts. This was quickly followed by another penalty to put a mere point between the sides. Sligo upped the tempo of the game and dominated for another 10 minutes. A Hubert Gilvarry try was disallowed for an adjudged knock-on, but the strong Sligo maul, set up Will Whelan to spin off and speed through to score Sligo’s second try. Gilvarry added the 2 points from a difficult angle and Sligo went 5 points up, with 10 minutes left in the first half. The home side had their tails up and they continued to play with a new-found intensity, securing ruck ball and going through the phases. Out half Hubert Gilvarry was alert to every half chance and when the Ballinasloe defence stepped off the side of a ruck, pre-empting the attack from the pack, Gilvarry deftly nipped through the gap and dived over the line to add to his side’s tally. He converted his own try from in front of the posts to bring the score to 21-9 at the half way mark, which is 35 minutes in U18.5 rugby.
The second half was a bruising affair, with big tackles going in on both sides. The fluid rugby played by the two teams, was a testament to the clubs and their coaching staff and a glimpse of the future of Connacht rugby. Ballinasloe continued to battle, and possession changed hands several times. Sligo chose to run the ball out of defence each time and they eventually broke through for their 4th try, when Thomas Fox showed his pace to race down the touchline and score in the corner. Gilvarry’s conversion curled to the right of the posts to put the score at 26-9, with only 15 minutes left on the clock.
The hectic pace of the game continued, and Ballinasloe turned the screws on the Sligo defence. The visitors kept their heads, pressing the home side, and eventually broke through the Sligo defence to score their opening try. The conversion was good and there was now only 10 points between the teams, with 60 minutes gone on the clock. Two yellow cards were issued in quick succession against the home side and the numerical advantage paid off for the visitors, clocking up another converted try to put a mere 3 points between the teams with only 5 minutes plus injury time left to play.
Sligo’s restarts had been textbook throughout the game, with Gilvarry adjudging his kicks to perfection and Luke Hogge timing his chase with inch precision, to leap highest and secure the ball in the air for his side. However, the visitors had grown wise to this tactic and Hogge’s chase was brutally stopped by a cynical block in front of the Ballinasloe dugout. The referee awarded a penalty, but again the visitors escaped being issued a yellow card. Gilvarry added another 3points to his side’s tally to stretch the lead to 6 points.
The 13 man Sligo, continued to play their hearts out, laying their bodies on the line. Ballinasloe piled on the pressure searching for the winning score but, the game was now over 5 minutes into injury time. Sligo were penalised again, and the visitors closed the gap to 3 points. The clock continued to run, and it did not seem possible that there could be another twist in this game, however, a sweeping move through the pacey Ballinasloe backs brought the ball out on the wing and the visitors dived over in the corner to put them 2 points up. Sligo were returned to full strength and the final whistle still had not been sounded. One last attack by the home side was on the cards, but the ball was slowed down by the opposition and Sligo were unable to win the penalty, which could have sent them into the final. With an unbelievable 12 minutes injury time on the clock, the referee eventually sounded the final whistle, breaking the hearts of the Sligo team.
This was an incredible match, played at pace throughout, with the Sligo lads showing great strength, tenacity and teamwork. They displayed an epic work rate for all 82 minutes of the game, with a high level of fitness very apparent, due to all their hard work and training up and down Knocknarea. Great credit must go to Head Coach Adrian McHale, Manager Roger Burrows and Specialist Advisors Ross Mannion, James Wilson and Gavin Foley for their dedication throughout the season. A special thanks to the U18.5s’ parents for all their help and support.