Peerless Ashbourne march on
ASHBOURNE RFC booked their place in the Provincial Towns Cup Final for only the second time in their history when they defeated Enniscorthy in a tough and nerve-jangling semi-final at Naas on Sunday.
The last time the south Meath club made the final was in 1999 and so a 15-year wait will end when they take the field against Kilkenny in Tullow RFC on Sunday April 20th.
The game kicked off in reasonable conditions and with a slight wind favouring Enniscorthy. They are reigning All-Ireland Junior Club champions and from a division higher and would have fancied themselves to make the final.
Ashbourne were not helped by the loss of captain Rory Gleeson in the warm-up and were also missing Adam Sherrard. Mark Behan started at loose head for Gleeson, while Kent came into the centre to partner Charles Coyle.
The easiest way to describe this game was tough cup rugby where everybody put their bodies on the line. Ashbourne started well and probed the Enniscorthy defence in every manner. Morris kicked well into the wind and up the hill. Gavin Kennedy was lively, while the pack was comfortable on their own set piece.
Both sides were putting in big tackles, and while Ashbourne had domination of territory they got no reward and after 10 minutes it was Enniscorthy who took the lead.
The ball broke down out on the right wing, and while it should have been cleared to touch, the alert Enniscorthy winger brilliantly picked up the ball, kept himself in play and raced away to score a try against the run of play. The two points were added and Enniscorthy were seven points to the good.
But this Ashbourne team has shown character all year and they quickly got back into their stride. The Rooney brothers popped up all over the place, while Shane Walsh did the grafting as he does always. McCaghy was prominent in his ball-carrying along with Darragh Curran.
It took Ashbourne six minutes to reply when Morris was on hand to tap over a penalty after Enniscorthy were penalised for being offside.
Ashbourne kept applying the pressure and in the 28th minute Morris converted his second penalty for a high tackle. Now trailing 7-6, Ashbourne were very much back in the game.
But Enniscorthy are a talented side and they were not about to surrender their lead. Ashbourne threw everything at them and they defended really well, but the Wexford side were at centre stage five minutes later when after a fiercely contested breakdown the touch judge put his flag out and called the referee's attention to an incident.
This resulted in a red card being given to the Enniscorthy loose head.This should have been a plus for Ashbourne, but if anything it was Enniscorthy who responded in a positive fashion and lifted their game. On the stroke of half-time they probed deep into Ashbourne territory and won a penalty which they slotted to lead 10-6 at the break.
However, Ashbourne started the second half brightly and within eight minutes took the lead. Two Morris penalties were converted and Ashbourne might have been fancied to kick on, but instead they had to go into survival mode as Enniscorthy pushed for what would have been a match-winning score.
In fairness to Ashbourne, though, their discipline was excellent and they worked hard for one another.
Casey Dunne had a great interception in his own half, only to be caught just short of the line and was unable to offload to the supporting Morris.
With five minutes of injury time being played Enniscorthy threw everything at Ashbourne and as they probed they were just looking for a penalty shot, but Ashbourne held firm and kept their discipline to get home by a narrow margin. The large travelling support really helped, but their nerves must have been frazzled by the end.
Kilkenny now stand between Ashbourne and a first-ever Towns Cup triumph and that should be an epic game. Ashbourne have beaten Kilkenny twice this season, but that will count for nothing on Easter Sunday.
ASHBOURNE: Dermot Colreavy; Casey Dunne, Charles Coyle, Mark Rooney, Anthony McCreery; Paul Morris, Gavin Kennedy; Mark Behan, Cathal O'Connor, Ciaran Roche; Darragh Curran, Jeff Mahon; Shane Walsh, James Rooney, James McCaghy. Subs: Alan Wall, Shane Eoin Kennedy, Keith Kennedy, Dan Cahill, Sean Kent, Alan Wall.