With just two games left to play in this season’s AIL campaign, and sitting perilously close to the drop zone, Bangor knew that a win at similarly struggling Thomond was vital if they were to move out of danger. For Thomond’s part, nothing less than a win, preferably with a bonus point, was necessary if they were to somehow avoid being automatically relegated. Although still plagued with injury problems, Bangor were fortunate to welcome Lewis Sampson back from university and also have James Henly on the bench after another long spell of absence with knee problems.
Conditions were almost perfect, with a firm pitch and little breeze blowing diagonally across the pitch. Thomond had the kick-off, with the wind at their backs and were soon playing using their big pack to take play into Bangor’s twenty two. Once again Bangor fell behind after just 4 minutes after the forwards trundled over for their opening converted try. From the restart, Bangor looked keen to recoup these points. Although not as physically big as their counterparts, the Bangor scrum again demonstrated its technical superiority by driving the set piece backwards and winning a penalty in the process. The kick to touch gave Bangor an attacking lineout close to the Thomond twenty two. The catch and drive was secure and took play close to the Thomond line. Although stopped short, Bangor organised themselves for another surge. As the forwards got ready to receive the ball and drive again, quick thinking by captain David Bradford saw him pick up and cheekily nip through a gap in the Thomond defence for a simple try. Liam Preston’s conversion was unsuccessful, but Bangor were right back in it at 7-5 after 8 minutes of play.
As expected, the tackles were hard and unforgiving, and it wasn’t long before Lewis Sampson sustained a nasty leg injury, which unfortunately was later confirmed as a broken lower leg. As Lewis is now facing surgery to correct this, everybody at Bangor wishes him a full and speedy recovery. With Adam McCusker coming on as the replacement, and other positional adjustments made as a result, Bangor adapted well to this setback, but all the while Thomond continued their determined attacks. With most of the play now taking place within the Bangor half, Thomond eventually won a penalty which they kicked to touch. The throw-in was sent long to the back of the lineout and, after a well formed driving maul, Thomond pushed over the line for their second try, this time out on the left hand side. Bangor have suffered badly at the hands of match officials at Thomond in the past, as this encounter was to prove no different. As the conversion was taken, the ball was carried by the wind and hit the upright, and bounced away from the posts. To the surprise of players and spectators alike, the touch judges raised their flags and the kick was given, putting the home side now 14-5 ahead.
To lose 2 points like this is annoying, but what followed was disgraceful. Now playing with their tails up, Thomond ran straight back at Bangor from the restart. The Bangor defence looked well placed to cover any threat and, as Thomond passed the ball to their left wing, the Bangor backs safely shepherded the attacking player into touch. Although this happened right under the nose of the touch judge, on this occasion he kept his flag down, allowing play to continue. The now static and exposed Bangor defence could only watch in disbelief as the ball was passed back into play and run through for a simple touch down. With the addition of the easy conversion, this was a costly 7 point lapse by the match officials that gave the home side a now comfortable 21-5 lead, and with it the realistic chance of gaining a hitherto unlikely try-scoring bonus point. The Bangor players and touchline management were incensed, but seeing that their objections were met with a foul-mouthed response by the touch judge, there was little point in pursuing the matter any further.
This undoubtedly unsettled the Bangor players who came close to conceding another try but were let off the hook by a Thomond knock-on. To Bangor’s credit, they dug in and with the last play of the first half were rewarded with a well-taken try from Nathan Graham whose strength carried him through the Thomond tackles to score in the left hand corner. Mark Widdowson attempted the difficult touchline conversion, but it was short of the posts, bringing the half time score to 21-10.
Bangor got the second half underway with the breeze now providing little assistance. Despite this slight advantage, they elected not to kick for position but run their way out of trouble. However, although they did produce some good breaks – particularly through James Henly, Dave Caughey and Mike Weir – these were returned with interest by the Thomond players as they concentrated on maintaining their lead while also looking for any opportunity that would give them their vital fourth try. In the end, the second half turned out to be a stalemate as both sides were unable to make any breakthroughs and, as the final whistle came, there was a muted reaction by players and spectators alike as the result did little for the prospects of either team.
Bangor may feel cheated in not earning a losing bonus point at least. However, it would be fair to say that on the day Thomond played the better rugby and on that alone deserved to come out on top. The loss of a losing bonus point has dropped Bangor to second last place in the league table, and now need to pick up a win next weekend when they host in-form Malahide who are chasing a promotion play-off at the top of the table. On paper this looks like a big ask, but this league continues to throw up many surprises and upsets, so there is certainly everything to play for if the desire to play at senior level in the All Ireland League is still there. With home advantage, Bangor will be hoping for a big turn-out of supporters to try and help them reproduce the type of performance that produced a big win at Malahide in the opening fixture of the season. While that victory seems a very long time ago, a similar result would provide the perfect matching bookend to what has proved to be a difficult and disappointing season.