St Mary's spirit too much for Shannon
TWELVE months ago, Shannon, then as now, the defending champions in the Insurance Corporation All-Ireland League, went to Templeville Road and lost their unbeaten record. It was a case of history repeating itself at the same venue on Saturday when once more St Mary's College revealed the depth of character and resolution to inflict the first defeat on the title-holders in the current campaign.
There was a double bonus for St Mary's as it maintained the club's 100 per cent record in the competition this season as well as taking two points from the favourites. It was a fine win for this young side whose exuberance and spirit countered Shannon's experience
While it was a victory gained in dramatic circumstances, it was, nonetheless, deserved. With the game in the closing stages and Shannon hanging on rather precariously to an 11-6 lead, the match took a dramatic and, as it transpired, decisive turn in the 78th minute. St Mary's won a ruck inside the Shannon 25, their excellent scrum-half Eoin McCormack moved the ball right to left and, as the defence tried to cover, left wing Dave Lyons received a pass from Gareth Gannon and Lyons scored in the left-hand corner. That made it 11-11 and Craig Fitzpatrick, who had come into the game as a replacement in the first half for the injured Fergal Campion, kicked a superb conversion across the fitful and bitterly cold wind to give St Mary's the lead for the first time.
Time was now on their side and though a Shannon attack in injury time almost yielded a win, Eddie Halvey, was forced into touch as he went for the line. That was the final act in a match that was marked by a rather indifferent first half but reached a much higher level in the second period, marked by that compelling finale.
If Fitzpatrick emerged as the hero of the hour - and he also kicked a fine penalty from nearly 40 yards in the 67th minute to bring his side within a score of the champions - this was fundamentally a team victory. In many respects the foundations were laid in the first half when Shannon had the benefit of that biting wind and led only 6-3 at the interval. Curbed very effectively in the line-out, with Steve Jameson, Kevin Potts and Frank Fitzgerald doing especially well, St Mary's deprived Shannon of the quantity and quality possession to use the strength of their forwards in the maul. St Mary's had taken the line-out at a ratio of over two to one in that period.
Yet by the interval St Mary's had been badly disrupted by the loss of hooker Barry Browne (20 minutes), Frank Fitzgerald (38) and Fergal Campion one minute earlier. Bearing in mind the calibre of the opposition, that kind of disruption would have induced a spiritual failing in a side of lesser resolution - instead it inspired that final victory roll.
"I must say when we had lost the three players by the interval, I felt it could be very costly for us," said the St Mary's coach Ciaran Fitzgerald, "especially in the line-out, where we had done so well in the first half. But those we brought in did very well. We came back very well, too, and it is a really big win for us. To beat Shannon is always an achievement and is a great boost to our confidence."
But, in typical pragmatic fashion, the coach was not getting carried away. "Nor should anyone else," he said. "There is a very long and hard road to go. It was two points gained and no more than that at this stage in the league."
Shannon coach Nial O'Donovan was offering no excuses for his side nor seeking recourse to a hard-luck story: "They deserved it at the end." He was quick to stress how well St Mary's had contained his side in the first half. "They did extremely well and we quite honestly gave a poor performance in the first half and a 6-3 half-time lead was a very meagre return with the wind. We just did not use the elements well and they were much more effective in the line-out. Yet when we led 11-3 going into the final quarter I felt we would win, but we just did not put them away. We are now in exactly the same position as we were after three matches last season. We must regroup and we will."
Shannon's next assignment is against the league leaders Lansdowne at Thomond Park - a heady prospect.
Two penalty goals from Andrew Thompson to one by Campion accounted for the first-half scores and St Mary's had reason to be much more satisfied at the interval. The tackling by both sides was admirable, most notably by Gannon, and Shannon could not use the powerful forward drives that have so often proved so very effective.
In the initial stages of the second period, Shannon improved out of touch and looked a more concerted force. In the 47th minute they got a try when Conor McDermott put in a very well placed kick to the St Mary's line and Billy O'Shea got the try. Thompson missed the difficult conversion and in the 58th minute saw a penalty attempt drift just wide. Yet at that stage it seemed as if Shannon would do enough to take the points.
But St Mary's never relented in their efforts, though at times their inexperience showed. They produced some good attacking rugby even if, on occasions, possession and good attacking positions were subsequently surrendered. Denis Hickie, on the right wing, always looked dangerous and it was a run from him which set up the position from which the crucial try was scored.
But as the match entered its final phase Shannon still led 11-3 before Fitpatrick kicked his penalty 13 minutes from time to give St Mary's renewed hope and incentive. When Thompson yet again saw a 38 yards penalty go wide 10 minutes from the end, St Mary's sensed they now had the capacity to win it, And they did just that.