Sligo Backs Sparkle In Strandhill Sunshine

Sligo 27 – Loughrea 5

On a day of unseasonal sunshine at Hamilton Park, Sligo produced an excellent performance to cruise to victory against a competitive Loughrea side. Sligo came into the game as favourites and were hoping to continue their unbeaten start to the season against a Loughrea side that had narrowly lost their opening two games. Sligo made a couple of changes from the side that had began the season so impressively with coach Joe Walsh rotating his squad, highlighting the strength in-depth of this years squad. Gary Conneely, who had caught the eye in his substitute appearances, was rewarded with a starting berth and he was joined in the front row by Darragh Cox making his seasonal debut. Sligo stalwart Trevor Sweeney celebrated his birthday by forcing his way into the starting line up in the second row. Sligo’s backline was again unchanged as the Sligo fans hoped for the kind of complete performance that their opening league games had hinted they were capable of on a day that promised to suit running rugby.

The game started tentatively with Sligo’s forwards having to come to grips with a hugely physical Loughrea eight. Possession was shared as the packs settled into what was to become a physical, intense war of attrition upfront. Loughrea had the first opportunity to open the scoring after seven minutes when they were awarded a penalty 25m out for a Sligo infringement. They couldn’t convert this chance however as scrum half Gary Glynn screwed his kick wide. Sligo made them pay for this wasted opportunity shortly after, as right winger David Gerrity made an incisive break from broken play inside his own half , before linking up with full back Kakaber Machitidze who was dragged down on the visitors 22m line. Quick ball retention led to out-half Paddy Pearson breaking for the line, but some last gasp defence saw him dragged down just short. From the recycle, Sligo switched wide with centre Gavin Foley delivering a looping skip pass to his Tongan back rower Mataele Fifita, who was loitering with intent outwide, and he had the easiest of finishes to complete a superb team score. Machitidze was unable to add the extras from a difficult angle.

Loughrea responded well with a long period of possession as they drove Sligo back within their own half. However Sligo have shown that their well drilled, aggressive defence is a match for anyone this season, and again the hits went in as the Sligo pack went about negating the weight advantage of the Loughrea forwards. Loughrea threw everything at Sligo with a series of line outs close to the Sligo line, but Sligo defended fiercely forcing Loughrea into a turnover. Sligo were awarded a penalty on halfway following a late tackle, and Pearson kicked Sligo deep into Loughrea territory. The lineout was won by the imperious James Wilson and quick ball off the top went through the backline to the quick hands of Foley, who delivered a beautifully weighted inside ball to winger Nick Reynolds, who had exploded off his wing with a cleverly angled run, beating the Loughrea fullback and going over under the posts for a breath-taking try straight from the training ground. Full back Machitidze added the straightforward conversion as Sligo moved out to a 12-0 lead.

Some ill-discipline from Sligo handed Loughrea an opportunity shortly after, as the referee reversed a Sligo penalty, handing it to the visitors who attacked down the left flank. They kicked another penalty to the corner and from the line-out, their strong pack rumbled towards the Sligo line. On the third phase one of their forwards peeled and crashed towards the line, however he was greeted with a huge hit by out-half Pearson who drove the Loughrea player back, saving a certain score. Handling errors again let Loughrea down from the resulting phase and Sligo’s line again remained intact. It was the superb Pearson who then made his mark in attack, as Sligo’s backline attacked from deep. Machitidze hit the line, before releasing the electric Reynolds who opted to chip through but it narrowly went dead before he could retrieve. Sligo captain Wilson again performed heroics in the line-out to steal Loughrea ball, playing it quickly off the top to Leahy who moved it on to Pearson on the 22m line. Pearson cut the Loughrea defence apart with a cheeky dummy before repeating the trick, eluding the full back to score under the posts in a finish reminiscent of his country man Dan Carter. Machitidze made no mistake with the extras, and Sligo cruised to 19-0. However the visitors are not a side easily rolled over and Loughrea’s possession was finally rewarded as the half drew to a close, as another Sligo infringement allowed the visitors to kick to the corner and again drive at the Sligo line. The pre-planned line out move was thwarted by the defiant Sligo defence, but from the recycle Loughrea went wide, and fullback David O’Loughlin dived over to open Loughrea’s account and leave the half time score reading 19-5 to the more clinical home side.

Sligo coach Joe Walsh freshened up his side at the interval with club captain Ross Mannion coming in for the abrasive Conneely, and Ted Mulvaney making his seasonal bow for Leahy. This led to a re-shuffle in the Sligo backs with the games dominant force Pearson switching to nine, Machitidze moving up to fly-half, Gerrity dropping back to fullback, and Mulvaney taking his place on the wing. However these changes did not affect the movement and pace of the backline as they proved early in the second half, linking for another glorious score in the sunshine to secure a vital four try bonus point. From an attacking scrum 40m out, Sligo moved it wide with Gerrity again involved showing his eye for space, coming off his wing to link with his fellow winger Reynolds who sprinted away to finish from 30m to the cheers of the delirious Sligo support. Machitidze narrowly missed with the difficult conversion. Sligo then introduced Joe Sweeney for the hard-working Peter Mullan on the hour mark, to link up with his brother Trevor in the Sligo pack.

With the game all but over as a contest, it became scrappy at this point as Loughrea’s forwards had a lot of possession but a succession of handling errors and infringements, combined with Sligo’s well-organised, hard-working defence, left them unable to add to their tally. Pearson, who was just as effective at nine as he was at ten, continued to orchestrate any Sligo attacks, as he combined with the ever-creative Foley to try and release the dangerous Sligo back-three. However Pearson was forced to leave the field with 12 minutes remaining when he was sin-binned for a mistimed, high tackle. This gave Loughrea the impetus in the closing stages, and to their credit they continued to press the Sligo line. A charge-down saw a chase to the Sligo try-line, and only some alert defending from the excellent Gerrity saw Sligo survive with their try-line intact. This led to a series of scrums on the Sligo line, as the physical Loughrea pack again tried to drive over the Sligo line. However Sligo were in no mood to concede even a consolation try, and the roar from the Sligo forwards when they turned the ball over, showed their commitment to this work ethic. Loughrea had another chance with only minutes remaining as a cross-field kick saw Mulvaney produce some first class defence to deny his opposite number. From the recycle Loughrea drove again, but a huge hit by substitute Joe Sweeney forced a turnover. With seconds remaining Machitidze was sin-binned after words with the ref, but nothing could force Sligo concede at this point, and the final whistle was greeted with cheers by the Sligo faithful as they acknowledged a fine team performance, maintaining their 100% record by 27-5.

Sligo’s management team can be very pleased with their performance and after the game coach Joe Walsh was quick to point out that a bonus point in a game against a pack of the ability and size of Loughrea’s was always pleasing. In a league where the average winning score is 15 points, bonus points for four tries may prove crucial at the end of the season. Walsh praised the efficiency of his backline, who took their chances superbly, showing the hard work of the players on the training pitch, especially the second try which was a text book move, executed superbly. Walsh also pointed out the efforts of the forwards, who worked tirelessly to overcome their larger opponents, as well as their defence which was again relentless. Walsh was happy to have the opportunity to use his squad and commented about the luxury of having a strong squad to call on. Walsh also praised the opponents Loughrea, and highlighted how they had certainly put it up to Sligo, and only the clinical finishing of the Sligo backs was the difference between the two teams.

Sligo had stars all over the pitch as every player produced a good performance as they had threatened to do in their first two games this season. James Wilson continues to dominate in the lineout, and was able assisted in the tight encounters upfront by Martin Feeney and Darragh Cox. Trevor Sweeney had no problems stepping up to the pace of JL1 on his seasonal debut, and the Sligo back row was again mobile and threatening in the loose. The backline sparkled, at times playing some champagne rugby that club stalwarts exclaimed had not been seen in Hamilton Park for quite a while. Paddy Pearson was the game’s outstanding performer, his tactical kicking, eye for space, and effective distribution allowing him to orchestrate from number ten. He linked up well with his centres who boast the complementing elements of the combatative skills of Andre Taurerewa and the creative ability of Gavin Foley. Sligo’s back three were always dangerous, with the lightening fast Reynolds and the dancing feet of Gerrity continuing their good form with the former picking up two clinically finished scores.

Sligo’s win moves them two points clear at the top of the JL1 league, and maintains their unbeaten 100% record. However this performance was the most pleasing so far with backs and forwards combining in unison to play some exciting rugby while still containing the work ethic and defensive work that was prominent in their opening two encounters. The great American Football supremo Vince Lombardi coined the phrase that “winning is a habit� and Sligo will be hoping to heed his words and continue this habit in the coming weeks.

Teams –

Sligo: D Cox, G Conneely, M Feeney, J Wilson (c), T Sweeney, P Mullan, C Culhane, M Fifita, B Leahy, P Pearson, D Gerrity, G Foley, A Taurerewa, N Reynolds, K Machitidze.

Subs – R Mannion, T Mulvaney, J Sweeney (All Used)

Loughrea: D O’Loughlin, TG Lowry, R Culhane, B Rye, O Wilson, B Moffit, G Glynn, P Mullin, P Lyon, B Murphy, W Cullinane, P Fallon, J Hallis, S Clancy.

Subs – L Morgan, M Mullins, G Hogan.

Referee – Noel Crowley.

[Match Pics]