Sligo facing Thomond in epic winner-takes-all league finale
Malahide RFC 32 Sligo RFC 34
The stage is set. Saturday is the day. Hamilton Park is at the ready. Sligo and Thomond, first and second respectively will battle it out to decide who will become winners of the Ulster Bank League.
What a dramatic feast is in store for this winner-takes-all encounter.
Sligo moved back to the top of 2c going into the final game with a five tries to four victory over a powerful Malahide outfit in an enthralling encounter on Saturday. Sligo came out on top in an incredible game in which the lead changed hands seven times and will long be remembered in the minds of the large travelling Sligo support.
With the Malahide home ground at Estuary road declared unplayable, the match was moved to the excellent all weather surface at Belvedere College which was ideally suited for fast running rugby and it certainly didn't disappoint.
Malahide, with former Ireland International Mike Ross in the front row and ex-Guinness pro 12 winner Danny Poolman lining out in the centre, kicked off into the Sligo pack. Sligo gathered and immediately took the fight to their hosts. The early exchanges were intense with both sides testing their defensive opposites before Sligo made the initial breakthrough on the 7th minute.
Mata Fifita superbly stripped the ball on the Malahide 22. Ryan Feehily quickly moved the ball left and Mike Wells stepped inside before being hauled down five metres short. The play was switched back to the right and Mark Butler threaded through a deft grubber kick for the alert Calum Goddard to race onto for the opening touch down in the corner.
Malahide immediately responded and opened their account with a well-struck penalty before racing into the lead with a converted try and a second penalty.
The game continued at a breathless pace as Sligo worked to claw the lead back. With 5 minutes remaining before the interval Ryan Feehily produced a typical moment of magic.
The scrum half picked the ball from the base of a ruck on the 22 before darting inside the cover and heading for the line. The Malahide full back looked to have the move covered but an audacious step saw Feehily wrong foot the defender and race in under the posts. Jack Keegan converted to put Sligo within a point.
Malahide restarted with a long kick and Sligo cleared with a kick to the 10 metre line. The Malahide lineout throw was crooked and from the resulting scrum Sligo were off again.
Feehily moved the ball left and Wells, Mark Butler and Keegan all handled before winger Mark Rooney made a searing break down the left hand side. Rooney was stopped by the cover but Wells picked up in support and finished the move wide on the left to put the half time score at 12-17 in favour of the visitors.
Following the resumption Malahide went through a purple patch and scored converted tries on the 50th and 68th minutes to open out a 10 point lead.
Sligo refused to buckle and stuck to their task gamely. Play was worked into the Malahide 22 and a big Ciaran Cassidy carry put the defence on the back foot allowing Mark Butler the chance to burst through the defence and dot down under the posts.
With Keegan having to retire with a hamstring injury Wells took over the kicking duties and added the extras to put Sligo within three at 27-24.
With 6 minutes remaining Sligo regained the lead. A penalty on the half way was deposited into touch by replacement Niall Gray.
Matthew Cosgrove secured Shane O'Hehir's well-placed throw and the Sligo maul rumbled forward.
Malahide stopped the drive before Kuba Wojtkowicz made a huge drive down the touchline before being held 15 metres out.
The ball was quickly recycled and Wells brilliantly shrugged off three would be tacklers to touch down under the posts. The conversion put Sligo ahead by four with 4 minutes remaining but the drama wasn't finished yet.
Malahide scored in the corner almost immediately from the kick to retake the lead by the slimmest of margins. Sligo didn't panic and quickly restarted. The ball was turned over and Sligo made their way towards the line. Malahide rebuffed the attacks but Wells coolly dropped back into the pocket and popped over a drop goal to send the Sligo fans into a frenzy.
With the clock well into overtime there was yet another twist as Malahide were awarded a penalty on the 22 right in front of the Sligo posts.
The tension was unbearable as the ball left the kicker's foot but the ball travelled wide to the left and the Sligo team and supporters were in ecstasy.
Sligo's bonus point win puts them back on the top of the table going into next Saturday's final day showdown with joint leaders Thomond RFC.
When the teams met in Limerick in the first game of the season Sligo came away with a single point victory so another epic encounter is expected with the winner taking the league title. The match kicks off at 2.30pm at Strandhill and what an epic crescendo is in store.
Sligo and their fans are at the ready.
SLIGO: Jack Keegan, Calum Goddard, Mark Butler, Mata Fifita, Mike Wells, Mark Rooney, Ryan Feehily, Kuba Wojtkowicz, Shane O'Hehir, Conor Mitchell, James Wilson, Ciaran Cassidy, Shane Boyle (Capt), Manu Parkin, Matthew Cosgrove. Reps Mark Keegan, Ross O'Boyle, David Heath, Ross Hickey and Niall Gray.