Sligo had the perfect start to the season last week, with a bonus point win over Galwegians, but were under no illusions that this week’s game was going to be a walk in the park. The previous encounter with Greystones saw a comprehensive victory for the Wicklow team in Dr Hickey Park
Hamilton Park looked resplendent in the winter sun and a good crowd was in attendance to play their part and support the Porter Ford sponsored home side in Round 11 of the Energia All-Ireland League division 2B.
Greystones kicked off, with Sligo attacking the Knocknarea end. It was the home side who started the brighter, keeping the visitors pinned in their own half for the first ten minutes of the game. Josh Reeves opened the scoring with a well-struck penalty just outside the 22. The Sligo men appeared hungrier for the ball and set the tone for the game with their quick line speed putting constant pressure on Greystones and setting up good attacking platforms from their solid scrums.
Greystones’ first foray into the Sligo half came after 19 minutes, but the solid Sligo defence forced a knock on and out half Josh Reeves cleared his lines to touch. The visitors finally breached the Sligo line in the 23rd minute and, along with the conversion, went 4 points ahead. A high tackle on the halfway line reduced the visitors to 14 men on the 30-minute mark. Reeves found touch from the ensuing penalty. The Sligo lineout was solid and another penalty was awarded as the Sligo maul was hauled down. Reeves reduced the gap to a single point, with 10 minutes remaining in the first half. The pace of the game was relentless, with both teams playing the width of the pitch. Greystones were next to score, lining up out half and captain Killian Marmion to slot home a drop goal from inside the Sligo 22 and bing the score to 6-10 in favour of the visitors.
Now it was the turn of Sligo to bring the play into the Greystones 22. Quick thinking from scrum half Brendan Cunningham, playing advantage after a knock on, delivered a fast ball out to the back line, resulting in a sweeping play across the width of the pitch and Cal Goddard crashed over the whitewash but was held up. Greystones cleared their lines and the referee signalled the end of a pulsating first half of rugby.
Sligo started the second half with an even greater level of intensity and were quickly rewarded with a penalty just outside the Greystones’ 22. Reeves’ kicking was certainly on point, again narrowing the gap to a single point between the sides. It was the home side who continued to pile on the pressure forcing the knock ons from their rapid line speed. A patient build-up on the 50-minute mark, again resulted in Sligo using their speed and the width of the pitch to get the ball to their pacey winger. There was no stopping Goddard this time as he dived low over the line to the delight of the very vocal home crowd. Reeves continued his 100% kicking record to add the extras and put the home side six points up.
The Sligo defence held resolute with the next attack against the energy-sapping 15 phases from Greystones, but a penalty for offside gave Marmion the chance to claw 3 points back on the board. As the number of crunching tackles increased from the Sligo men, so too did the volume from the animated crowd. Greystones again showed great patience going through the phases, but they were being closed down at every opportunity and found themselves being driven back 20m by the determined home side. Josh Reeves pounced on an errant pass and Sligo regained possession. The ball was spun from coast to coast through quick hands, and then the even quicker feet of Guilherme Coghetto split the ‘Stones defence to sail through for a magnificent try. The cheers soon turned to groans as the touch judge had spotted an infringement, which led to a yellow card for the despondent Cal Goddard, a penalty for Greystones and no try for Sligo.
Greystones failed to capitalise on their possession and Sligo quickly regained the ball. Out half Josh Reeves gave a masterclass in pitch awareness and positional kicking, putting pressure on the Greystones fullback at every opportunity. A kick deep into the visitors’ 22 isolated the number 15 and Ryan Feehily was quickest to react, forcing the penalty and giving Reeves the opportunity to extend the lead again. Reeves maintained his 100% kicking record and the crowd knew they were in for a nail-biting finish, with a long 12 minutes left on the clock.
Sligo’s line speed continued to put Greystones under pressure, Enda Gavin and Ryan Feehily forcing the handling errors.
The home side regained possession and showed great composure going through the phases not far from the madding crowd. The intensity was ferocious as the game entered the final 5minutes, with a potential defeat of the table toppers on the cards. There was a collective groan as a penalty for holding on was awarded to Greystones. Needing 7 points for the win, Marmion kicked to touch. The expected maul never came and the ball was moved wide, but again the Sligo line speed forced another knock on, much to the delight of the frenzied home support.
The Sligo scrum had stood solid throughout the game, with Eddie Coyle, Matthew Earley and Pedro Bengalo shoring up a determined pack. The first effort went past the ninety and a reset was called. The second scrum went the same way and the Sligo pack found themselves being driven backwards, and the penalty was awarded to the Wicklow men. Marmion quickly found touch with 3 minutes left to play. The Greystones line out was clean and they set up a maul. With Knocknarea and Queen Maeve at their backs, the Sligo men refused to budge an inch and the maul remained motionless. Knowing they were going to drive over the line and spotting a chink in the Sligo defence, Greystones spun off the side of the maul and dived over for a try. The conversion broke the hearts of the home crowd.
With a single minute left on the clock, there was no fairy tale ending for the gallant Sligo side and the referee signalled the end of the game to a deafening silence in Hamilton Park. The losing bonus point was little consolation for a side who had put their heart and soul into every tackle and every carry.
Sligo return to the battlefield next Saturday, when they play Belfast Harlequins in Deramore Park.
Sligo: Guilherme Coghetto, Stefano Giantorno, Ryan Feehily, Enda Gavin, Calum Goddard, Josh Reeves, Brendan Cunningham, Eddie Coyle, Matthew Earley, Pedro Bengalo, Craig Trimble, Robert Holian, James O’Hehir, Donnacha Byrne. Reps, Jake Sexton, Christian Nielsen, Sean Wynne, Andrew Ward, Finn Young,