Malahide rocked by big Bangor bonus
Bangor’s preparations for the All Ireland League finally came together as they shocked a highly regarded Malahide side with a bonus point 19-44 win.
With some AIL pundits suggesting Malahide as strong title contenders this season, while at the same time raising an eyebrow at the run of defeats for Bangor in their Ulster Senior League fixtures, there was great interest in how each side would approach this opening round of AIL Division 2C. Building on the solid ground work put in by Jason Morgan, who after many successful years as head coach has taken on a new challenge as the Head of Rugby at RBAI, Bangor’s new coach head coach Mike Ferguson was keen to develop this further. Although still missing a few key players in the pack, Bangor’s forwards had already proved to be a force to contend with and now, with the introduction of some new and exciting talent in the back division, the balance between power and running rugby was beginning to come through. Of particular note, Bangor were delighted to have four 18 year old AIL debutantes in Oscar Yandall (out half), Liam Preston (scrum half), Declan Maguire (full back) and Stephen Moore (wing forward). Having lost heavily to Malahide in this fixture last season, Bangor knew that they would need to be at their best to overturn that result.
Playing conditions were excellent at Estuary Road, with clear bright skies and a firm pitch underfoot. The gusting wind favoured Bangor as they got the game underway in the first half. As expected, the opening exchanges were somewhat nervous as each side tried to make their mark. Early scrums and lineouts were evenly matched, but the big Malahide forwards soon showed what they were capable of when they marched a rolling maul deep into Bangor’s territory before the visitors were able to finally stop it. Both sides were also guilty of some unforced handling mistakes, resulting in few serious scoring opportunities in the opening quarter. Bangor seemed to be asking most of the questions in this period, but were denied by the solid Malahide defence.
Eventually, after 24 minutes of play, the deadlock was broken when Declan Maguire converted a penalty from in front of the Malahide posts – a kick that was made somewhat easier when the referee marched the Malahide players back another 10 metres for dissent. Bangor’s 0-3 lead was short-lived though when, just 2 minutes later, a combination of a Malahide turn-over and some poor Bangor tackling allowed the Malahide flanker Richie Leydan to power through for the opening try of the game. The kick into the stiff wind was missed by Shane O’Brien, but the home side were now in the lead by 5-3.
From the restart, Bangor moved quickly to keep play inside the Malahide half, before patiently pushing further forward into their twenty two. Good work by Mike Weir, Lewis Stevenson, James Henly and Stephen Moore ensured Bangor remained camped in Malahide’s red zone before a characteristically barn-storming charge by Andrew Shaw saw him power through the tackles and stretch over to score under the posts. With the addition of Maguire’s successful conversion, Bangor had now moved back into the lead by 5-10.
With just 6 minutes of the first half remaining, there was some concern on the touchline that this slender lead may not be enough to carry into the second half, when Malahide would have the benefit of the wind at their backs. Perhaps that was also in the minds of the players as they fought for every ball, eventually forcing an error in the Malahide lineout while still inside their own twenty two. From the resulting confusion, Lewis Stevenson gathered the ball which then came to Mark Widdowson, playing at scrum half. Good vision by Widdowson was evident as he popped the ball quickly to James Henly whose running line left the Malahide defence wrong-footed. A despairing last-ditch tackle was not enough to stop him as he dived over between the posts for another converted Bangor try. As Maguire’s kick went over, the referee blew for half time, with Bangor now with a slightly more comfortable 5-17 lead.
Of the various changes made from the replacements’ bench, one that particularly caught the eye was the debut of Liam Preston at scrum half, having just arrived earlier in the week from New Zealand. Having been born in Bangor, and with strong family connections to Bangor RFC, it was with a strong sense of anticipation that he now took to the field of play. It didn’t take long for him to make an impact. Once settled, and the almost obligatory knock-on quickly got out of the way, he produced a cheeky yet confident off-load to Phil Broderick who took the ball at pace and left the Malahide defence trailing in his wake before touching down for the score close to the right hand touchline. The difficult kick was missed, but Bangor had now moved into a 5-22 lead after just 9 minutes of the second half.
Malahide, though obviously shaken by these quick scores either side of half time, came back strongly and brought play into Bangor’s twenty two. However, having regained possession, Bangor flicked the ball quickly across their backs until it reached captain Desi Fusco on the left wing. Setting off from within his own twenty two, Fusco made great ground before passing inside to Maguire. More strong running cut through the Malahide line before the ball came to Henly who finished off a great team try, touching down to the left of the Malahide posts. Again the wind caused Maguire problems with the subsequent conversion, but with the score now stretched to 5-29, and with the bonus point secured, Bangor were in a much more comfortable position. This became even more convincing when, just 6 minutes later, Maguire started another run which set Broderick clear on the left wing. This time he wasn’t able to clear the defence, but managed to get the ball back inside before being bundled into touch. As the ball bounced loose, up came Nathan Graham who kicked it forward through the confusion and followed up to score, and put Bangor further ahead by 5-34.
Clearly wondering what was happening, the Malahide players seemed powerless to contain Bangor’s attacking back-line, but it was not just the backs who were causing the problems. Once again, Bangor started their attack from deep within their own half. Henly was continuing to show his strength and pace as he drew the tackles then broke through them before setting Moore clear to make more ground through the centre. As he got caught, the ball was passed inside to Maguire who then found Broderick on his shoulder who finished off the flowing move with his second try of the day. Maguire continued to have problems with the wind, but it didn’t really matter now as Bangor were now home and dry at 5-39, with 14 minutes of the game remaining.
If the Bangor players and their sizeable contingent of travelling support thought it was all over, Malahide had other ideas. A good back-line move that, for once, didn’t suffer from mishandling, saw the home side get a converted try back through Shane McDonald, before getting another 2 minutes later through Dan Hayes, narrowing Bangor’s lead to 19-39. Clearly smarting from these lapses in their play, Bangor once again responded in the most effective way. From a Malahide scrum close to their own twenty two, the Bangor pack produced a surge that pushed their opponents off the ball. Preston was on hand to pick up and then pass inside to Widdowson, now playing as a centre, who used his power and pace to force through the tackles and touch down for Bangor’s seventh try. Malahide had no answer and, with the final few minutes being contained to the centre of the pitch, Bangor greeted the referee’s final whistle with jubilation – the sense of relief to record such an important win after such a lengthy spell without success was palpable.
Although the AIL campaign has just started, it’s hard not to get excited about what this Bangor side is capable of. The mixture of youth and experience has come together well, and there are still senior players waiting in wings to return after lengthy periods of injury. Bangor now face Thomond at home next Saturday – a fixture that went Bangor’s way last season. Club members and friends are encouraged to come along to Upritchard Park and both support and be entertained by the players as they strive to continue their winning ways, and stay at the top end of the league table.