Ardee Rugby Club avenged their Jenkinson Cup defeat of 12 months ago on Saturday evening as they beat familiar foes Balbriggan RFC 16-15 in a pulsating and tight final in Drogheda.
In the fifth meeting between the sides this season, Ardee emerged victorious by the narrowest of margins courtesy of a Shane Lennon try and the ever reliable right boot of Ben O’Brien. He converted Lennon’s try and scored three penalties en route to a big win for the team from Townparks.
This year’s final had more than a sense of déjà vu about it and Saturday’s showpiece took on extra significance on the back of last year’s final clash. Then, Ardee and Balbriggan were again the two teams left to compete for the Jenkinson Cup, again at Shamrock Lode in Drogheda, but the men from Fingal ran out narrow victors 19-15.
The try scorers from last year’s narrow defeat to Balbriggan – James McSwiney and Kevin McKeever – were absent from the starting XV in Drogheda. But Ardee and Balbriggan are familiar foes at this stage – Saturday’s final was their fifth meeting this season alone.
Without that duo, the Townparks men almost held out for a Provincial Towns Seconds Cup last four win against the Bees three weeks ago. Barry Finnegan, Cathal Bradley and Conor Hennessey were the try scorers that day and the latter two were in again from the start. Ben O’Brien’s kicking as ever would also have a big say on the where the cup would reside come 8pm.
That was evident just five minutes in when the number nine kicked the game’s first score. It looked as if the Ardee men might lose Conor Reilly early on after he went down looking in considerable discomfort. Ardee were boosted when he continued but O’Brien missed a chance to double the lead when his next penalty effort fell short. It was wide of the posts regardless.
A Balbriggan lineout lead to their first foray forward but Ardee soon ended that. It was a rare Balbriggan attack in an opening period in which Ardee dominated. Ronan O’Brien Jnr’s side started to make hay through Cathal Bradley, Conor Hennessey and Keith McKeever.
Just after the half way point of the opening period, Lennon was released and the crowd at Shamrock Lodge saw him in full flow for the first time. He darted past the Bees’ second row and headed for the corner. His attempted pass infield to Hennessey didn’t quite make it and no Ardee man could pick up the loose ball.
As Ardee probed down the opposite flank, Reilly tried to pick out a runner with a kick into space but it was intercepted. After a quiet opening period, Lennon was coming into the game. A darting run from left to right allowed Ardee to progress down the wing through Bradley and Jason Monaghan.
Ardee’s try – what turned out to be their only try – came 34 minutes in. Lennon received from hooker Ciaran McCormack and weaved his way through the Balbriggan challenges in the 22 before going over the line. O’Brien converted for 10-0.
Almost as soon as that lead was established, it was wiped out. An instantaneous reply from the Fingal side came about through a breakaway down the left. One man was stopped, but not the player arriving in support. That too, was converted.
Just prior to the break, Keith Halpenny suffered a knee injury, being replaced by Aaron Keely in the reshuffle. Halpenny wanted to return to the fray upon the start of the second half, but referee David Jenkins was having none of it.
Within four minutes of the restart, it was a level game as Balbriggan slotted over a penalty. Five minutes later, O’Brien was at it again, this time from the 22. 13-10. O’Brien would wrap up the scoring as far as Ardee were concerned on 55 minutes, this time from closer range.
But a six point lead is a precarious one – and it felt it for the sizeable Ardee crowd that came in support. O’Brien got them on their feet when after collecting a high ball and electing to kick into Balbriggan territory, he lead the charge and was the first man on hand to tackle the receiver.
Harry Callaghan and James Conlon were winning their fair share of tackles as Balbriggan started to press. Replacement Aaron Keely also announced his introduction to the game with a timely intervention or two.
With eight minutes of normal time remaining, Balbriggan were reduced to 14 men when their number 9 was red carded by Jenkins after clashing with McKeown. A lengthy conflab with the linesmen was needed before a card was brandished.
Some strong running from Bradley and Kevin McKeown got Ardee up the field briefly but when they did concede a second try, it was a cheap concession – that proved a costly error.
Hennessey was unable to take in Lennon’s pass – the winger injured himself in the process and had to be withdrawn – in Ardee territory. What followed was a concerted charge towards the line by the Bees – one they took advantage of.
But not, it should be said, full advantage. Crucially, they failed to convert leaving the score at 16-15 with two minutes of normal time remaining. Balbriggan’s fly-half – an impressive performer, but one who missed that vital conversion attempt – broke through but Ardee got the knock on decision.
With the last moment of the game, Keely made a cup-winning intervention to keep the Balbriggan charge at bay – and earn Ardee Rugby Club a Jenkinson Cup win.
ARDEE RFC: Shane Russell, Ciaran McCormack, Cillian O’Neill, James Daly, Stephen Harmon, Harry Callaghan, James Conlon, Joe Austin (C), Ben O’Brien, Keith Halpenny, Cathal Bradley, Conor Reilly, Jason Monaghan, Conor Hennessey, Shane Lennon.
Replacements: Aaron Keely, Mikey Kelly for James Daly, David Martin, Kevin McKeown, Kevin McKeever, Daithi Bowhan, Ryan Cahill.