ASHBOURNE PORTARLINGTON 15 18: ASHBOURNE's prospects of avoiding a relegation play-off, possibly against neighbours Malahide, took a severe hit when they lost at home to the club immediately above them in the table on Sunday afternoon.
The south Meath outfit came away with a losing bonus point but had little else to show for the good performance they produced for long spells of the 80 minutes and has often been the case some loose play and poor tackling was their undoing.
Ashbourne started very brightly and were moving the ball well through the backs, but then a wayward pass in the Portarlington 22 saw their winger latch on to the ball and sprint the length of the field to score a converted try. There were two minutes gone, Ashbourne trailed 70 and already they had a hill to climb. In all fairness the hosts went on to dominate for most of the half, but the breakthrough never materialised due to resolute defence from the visitors and a lack of real penetration from Ashbourne.
Casey Dunne had a shot at goal in the eighth minute which was just wide, but he did get on the scoresheet in the 15th minute when he converted a kick, before missing another attempt. As has been the way all season, the set piece held up really well and was dominant.
Portarlington were under pressure and going backwards in the scrum, while they struggled to win their own lineout, with James Rooney and Darragh Curran causing them problems. Jeff Mahon continued to show well and made some trademark runs at the opposition, while James McCaghy, Rory Gleeson and the Rooneys worked really hard, but still the visitors did not roll over.
Leo Quinn and Eddie Conaty were working well at half back, while Dunne made some strong runs from the wing, but the game was not going the way that Ashbourne wanted. The referee was busy with the whistle, and with Portarlington stopping play developing by whatever means possible and conceding a lot of penalties the home supporters were wondering about a yellow card, but it did not come.
In the 33rd minute on a rare foray into the Ashbourne half, the visitors were awarded what looked like a straightforward penalty, but surprisingly their kicker missed and another attempt in injury time from half-way dropped short, leaving the hosts trailing only 7-3 at the break. On the restart Portarlington quickly moved into top gear and grabbed a vital second try inside three minutes. A combination of good work and a missed tackle saw them breach the home defence in the left corner for an unconverted try - 12-3.
This did spark life into Ashbourne and three minutes later they got the first of their two touchdowns. Pressure at the breakdown saw Portarlington kick out of defence, and Marcus Speck collected the ball and broke upfield, starting a move across the back line. A high tackle did not stop the move and while playing advantage Ashbourne moved the ball right, with Pauric Boyle, Alan Wall, Dave Stewart, McCaghy, Mark Rooney and Gleeson prominent. At the breakdown Conaty moved the ball left, a long pass from McCaghy cut out the defence and James Rooney took it forward. He found Speck again and the ball ended up in Boyle's hands for the score. The outside centre was starting his first league game and this was a great reward for a good performance.
It was also a great team try and showed what Ashbourne are capable of doing. Dunne converted to leave Ashbourne trailing by just two points - 12-10 - but Portarlington bounced back quickly and slotted a penalty. Wall was then sin-binned, leaving Ashbourne down to 14 men for 10 minutes, but they played well and conceded no further scores during that period.
In the 69th minute Portarlington also lost a man to a yellow card, but a minute later they secured a penalty and stretched their lead to eight points. At that stage, Ashbourne needed to score twice to snatch victory, but there were no further change until deep into injury time when they secured a losing bonus point with a Mark Rooney try. From a lineout in the Portarlington 22, McCaghy found Curran and the maul was set up and drove the ball forward. Rooney was at the back and he found his way to the line to touch down.
Dunne failed with the difficult conversion and the final whistle sounded shortly after. Ashbourne's next test is away to Longford on Sunday, with the 2nds kicking off at 1pm and the 1st XV at 2.30. Realistically they have to win to have any chance of avoiding the play-off, while County Carlow's first win at the weekend means that the Meath club need to keep a weary eye on developments below them as well.