As the final day of the regular AIL league competition approached, the situation at the foot of the table was so tight any one of the 4 teams occupying that space were in danger of relegation, either directly or via the dreaded play-offs. A single losing bonus point may have been enough for Bangor, but that depended on Tullamore getting nothing against City of Derry. While Thomond looked the most likely to go down, they had a point to prove against struggling Seapoint and this would also have impacted Bangor’s situation. In the end, the only sensible strategy for Bangor was to end the season as they started it, with a strong win against Malahide. This would be no easy task, with the Leinster men enjoying a good winning streak which had lifted them into the promotion play-offs at the top end of the league table. To make matters all the more testing, Bangor were once again facing selection difficulties as a result of player injuries and unavailability. Nonetheless, with a large crowd of supporters gathered along the touchlines, they would take to the field of play with a strong sense of purpose and determination.
The pre-match lunch had already started on a celebratory note, with club president David Morrow presenting Ulster and Ireland star Stuart McCloskey with a salver to mark his 100 representative appearances. Bangor are certainly fortunate to enjoy the support of both Stuart and his fellow Ulster player Craig Gilroy as they share their wealth of experience and expertise with the club.
As usual, the pitch was in superb condition, and none the worse for having staged Bangor’s successful U14 semi-final just shortly beforehand. However, with a strong breeze blowing down the pitch towards the cricket end, this was sure to be a significant factor in the way the game would be played. With Bangor kicking off with this advantage in the first half, it would be vital to take a good lead into the second if hopes of victory were to be fulfilled.
If the Bangor players were nervous about such a massive game, they didn’t show it. In fact they surprised – in a good way – their supporters after less than 2 minutes of play when Bangor’s captain and master interceptor David Bradford read a loose Malahide pass to perfection, giving him an easy jog to the Malahide line and touching down under the posts. Oscar Yandall added the simple conversion putting Bangor 7-0 ahead, much to the delight of the home supporters and bewilderment of the visitors.
Minutes later, a Malahide knock-on as they tried to break out of defence gave Bangor an attacking scrum. Bangor’s technical superiority in this area of the game has been a stand-out feature throughout the season, and today would be no different. As they pushed their opposite numbers back and up, the referee awarded the Bangor pack the first of many penalties for this action. Yandall’s kick for goal was accurate, putting Bangor further ahead by 10-0. Determined to keep turning the screw, Bangor continued to pressurise the Malahide scrum and were rewarded with another penalty. Although much further out from the Malahide posts, Yandall got his aim right and let the wind carry the ball the extra yards, earning Bangor another 3 points and keeping the scoreboard ticking over to now show a 13-0 lead.
Malahide must have been wondering what was happening, as they uncharacteristically made handling errors which on any other day would probably have been converted into try-scoring opportunities. Meanwhile Bangor wisely played to their forward strength, growing in confidence as they did so. This confidence was also obvious in their approach to goal-kicking. A penalty between the half way and 10 metre lines was immediately seen as another kickable opportunity. Again, Yandall struck the ball well but, although he had the distance, his aim was just off on this occasion. Nonetheless, Bangor would receive the subsequent twenty two drop-kick and keep play in Malahide’s red zone. Having successfully regained possession, Bangor quickly moved the ball to their right finding Bradford who produced a strong run to break through the Malahide defence. A well-timed off-load found Adam Alexander – making a welcome return after several week’s absence – who availed of the free space created by Bradford and ran through to score an excellent try. Yandall put his earlier miss behind him and slotted home the conversion, extending Bangor’s lead to 20-0 with 10 minutes of the first remaining.
Despite this solid position, Bangor knew that facing the wind in the second half would be difficult and, although always looking for more points, realised that a solid defence was also called for to maintain their lead. The delicacy of the situation was not lost on the Malahide players who seemed to rally in both purpose and accuracy, and were soon starting to display the fast handling and running that their backs are renowned for. The danger signs were apparent when a flowing move looked sure to produce a try in the left hand corner, but for a knock-on as they dived for the touchdown. Undeterred, they came right back with another strong attack which finally produced a score for their winger Dan Hayes. The difficult conditions pushed Adam Kennedy’s conversion attempt wide, but importantly Malahide had got points on the board, bringing the half time score to 20-5.
Bangor’s concerns about whether or not their 15 point lead would be enough were soon made all the more worrying when Malahide came bursting out of the blocks at the start of the second half and forced a try through Damien Butler after several drives for the line. This time Kennedy’s kick was successful, narrowing Bangor’s lead to 20-12 after just a couple of minutes of the restart. These two tries just minutes either side of half time appeared to unsettle the Bangor players and, as they struggled to make progress into the Malahide half, it began to look like the game was swinging the direction of the visitors. This was struck home after 11 minutes when Malahide picked up another short range try, this time through Enda McCarthy, with Kennedy adding the conversion to bring the sides within a point of each other at 20-19.
If the Malahide supporters felt that the game was now theirs for the taking, Bangor had different ideas. Bangor were continuing to get penalties but, given the wind in their faces, these were not looking as kickable as they were in the first half, so either taking a ‘tap and go’ or a finding a good kick to touch were the best options. Using Nathan Graham’s solid boot, one such kick to touch took play back into the Malahide twenty two. The lineout, which had again been working well, was cleanly taken and a rolling maul formed. There have been occasions this season when Bangor have been within sniffing distance of their opponents’ line but have failed to successfully cross the whitewash. However, with so much now at stake they were determined not to be denied and, after a concerted drive, the move was finally completed by Dave Caughey who managed to get the ball safely down. Although Yandall’s conversion attempt was pushed wide, Bangor were now 25-19 ahead, with just 15 minutes remaining. These final minutes were a particularly tense affair as news from other games started filtering through, and seemed to suggest that Bangor’s hard work may be in vain. However, the most pressing matter was to hold onto this lead to the final whistle and then let the other games be taken into consideration. The Bangor players produced some magnificent defensive displays, turning over Malahide’s possession on numerous occasions and covering their dangerous back line attacks. When the referee blew for the end of the match, there was an overwhelming sense of relief and joy for finishing the season on such a good note. It was now just a waiting game to see if their hard work had done enough to remove any relegation worries….
With Tullamore being confirmed as picking up a bonus point win, they had moved out of the danger zone, leaving Thomond, Seapoint and Bangor to fight it out as to who would lose out. With the Seapoint game having been delayed by 10 minutes as a result of a bad first half injury, the Bangor clubhouse was filled with supporters anxiously checking the running state of affairs via Twitter. With about 5 minutes remaining, Thomond were narrowly ahead which would have kept Bangor safe. But Bangor hearts sank on the news that Seapoint had kicked a penalty to nudge ahead with just a couple of minutes remaining. As many pocketed their phones and resigned themselves to the disappointment of facing Clonmel in a relegation play-off, a shout went up that Thomond had somehow managed to score a try under the Seapoint posts with the last play of the game, and with that had secured the win that forced Seapoint into the play-off position and moved Bangor into safety. For Thomond’s part, their late run of good results was not enough to save them from automatic relegation and it was somewhat ironic that it should be their actions that saved Bangor especially given the controversial circumstances of their win against Bangor the previous weekend.
It has been quite a while since Upritchard Park has seen such drama and celebration. The coaching staff and players have shown great resilience and belief to put the disappointments behind them and produce the goods when it really mattered. The remarkable number of losing bonus points picked up throughout the season has undoubtedly been vital in the final count, but also shows how many times the team came so close to winning as opposed to narrowly losing. Hopefully the players will learn from this, and previous years’ experience to enable them to appreciate what is necessary to mount a serious challenge for league honours. For the loyal band of supporters, it’s a welcome rest before hitting the road once again in September.