AS winners of Section 2, Lurgan U19s travelled to Carrick on Friday night to play Section 1 winners Larne in the Ulster U19 League Cup Final. After an enthralling game of rugby were unfortunate to be on the wrong side of a 20-18 score line.
It was evident from the initial exchanges it was going to be a very physical challenge for the Lurgan players, as the much heavier Larne players dominated the contact areas. Early pressure by Larne resulted in a series of penalties against Lurgan and after only five minutes Lurgan conceded a converted try to leave them trailing 7-0.
Despite this early setback Lurgan were soon on the scoreboard. A great catch and drive by the Lurgan pack at a line-out brought play within the Larne half and allowed Dylan Gill to release the Lurgan backline. Mark McIlwaine hit the ball at pace, bursting through the Larne defence to touch down under the posts. With Ben McIlwaine adding the conversion the scores were now level.
For the remainder of the first half Larne dominated both possession and territory. Being under constant pressure Lurgan continued to give away a series of penalties for infringements at the breakdown, and it was through one of these penalties Larne regained the lead. With Larne now in the ascendancy further scores looked inevitable but great defensive work by Lurgan limited Larne to only one more score before half time, especially Daniel Cairns who made a number of bone crunching try-saving tackles.
Trailing by 17-7 Lurgan started the second half in more determined mood, playing with an intensity and ferocity which was lacking in the first half. Andrew Gray and Josh Greer rose to the challenge of their much heavier opposite numbers at scrum time, Andrew White and Josh Lyness continued to dominate the line-out, and Robbie Hannigan, Neil Adamson and Dean Wilson started to compete more ferociously at the breakdown. Lurgan started to dominate the contact areas and in open play played an expansive, high intensity style of rugby that the larger Larne players struggled to cope with. They were rewarded with two penalties in quick succession, the first agonisingly clipping the underside of the crossbar and the second which was converted by Ben McIlwaine to take the score to 17-10.
Lurgan were playing with great continuity between backs and forwards. Dylan Gill constantly asked questions of the Larne defence with his sniping breaks around the fringes and Ben McIlwaine unleashed the dangerous Lurgan backline at every opportunity.
With 15 minutes remaining Lurgan struck again. Andrew White secured good line-out ball and when the consequent drive brought play to within five metres of the Larne line, Dean Wilson was on hand to crash over in the corner. With the difficult conversion missed Lurgan were now within two points. Lurgan’s pressure was relentless and with only four minutes remaining their remarkable comeback seemed complete when Ben McIlwaine converted a penalty to give them a slender 18-17 lead.
Lurgan’s euphoria was soon to turn to dismay as a lack of discipline led to a Larne penalty in a kickable position. With the Larne out-half calmly slotting the penalty to leave the final score 20-18 in Larne’s favour, Lurgan’s dream of being crowned Ulster U19 champions was over.
Despite losing the game in such cruel circumstances all Lurgan players must be commended for their performance. Both the team spirit and the quality of play within the squad were exceptional, and with two cup competitions remaining the Lurgan U19 team still have a lot to play for this season.