Kilkenny Firsts secured their place in the 2014 Provincial Towns Cup final after seeing off a good, tough and physical Wicklow side on Sunday in Tullow.
Conditions were soft underfoot which prevented both teams from playing an expansive game, and as a result things were kept very tight throughout.
Wicklow started well and it was clear from the outset that they meant business. The KilKenny ball gatherer was hammered by a tidal wave of red and white jerseys.
The winenrs were awarded two opportunities to take the lead in the seventh and ninth minutes. However, a rather nervous Willie Wrights missed both attempts at goal, the ball falling short and going wide in each case. Both teams tightened their defences and it was stalemate during the next 20 minutes of tight action.
The Kilkenny forwards, led by formidable No. 8 David O’Connor kept trying to break down their opponents defensive lines. All credit to Wicklow, they defended superbly and repeatedly drove the opposition back off their lines.
A somewhat nervous but determined Kilkenny pack regrouped and hit back. With the pressure rising it was only a matter of time before a crack appeared in the Wicklow defences. With 32 minutes played, that crack appeared and Kilkenny’s outside centre, Philly Walsh, was on hand to take advantage.
He ran a good line to receive the ball before crashing over the line to open the scoring. Wrights conversion attempt fell just short of the target. The winners defensive strength and strict discipline denied their opponents any scoring chance in this half, leaving the score at the break 5-nil.
Wicklow stood firm after the turn and things remained the same until the closing 15 minutes. Up to that, neither team surrendering an inch. Wicklow’s out-half, Stephen Duffy, missed a chance to reduce the deficit six minutes into the half.
Wright missed a chance to extend Kilkenny’s lead in the 65th minute.
Kilkenny realised that the only way to finish this game was to score tries. They shifted up the gears and increased the tempo. Wright repeatedly kicked Kilkenny deep into the Wicklow half and the Cats set up camp on the five-metre line.
Following repeated attempts at breaking the Wicklow line, scrum-half Robbie Walsh spotted a way through. Using his great strength and agility, he shrugged off the attentions of his opposite number and scored under the posts. A huge cry of relief erupted from the Kilkenny fans as Wright added the conversion. Kilkenny a 12 point lead.
Wicklow were not finished. With approximately 10 minutes left the losers found new reserves of energy and set the game alight. From the restart, Wicklow hit Kilkenny with everything they had.
The winners were out on their feet, but they defended with every ounce of energy could muster up. The pressure was too much and as the ball sailed out along the Wicklow backline. Kilkenny heads dropped as the winger Ben Armstrong used the overlap to full advantage and touched down. Duffy added the conversion.
The losers spirits were up. They fought on to the bitter end, but it was Kilkenny who emerged victorious. Full credit to both teams for the sheer determination and never-give-up attitude displayed. They produced some stunning rugby, and heart-stopping moments.
Kilkenny face Ashbourne in the final, which will be played in Tullow RFC on April 20 (3pm).
The teams are no strangers to each other, having met twice already this season in the Leinster League. Ashbourne, who were recently crowned League champions, beat Enniscorthy 12-10 in the other semi-final.
Ashbourne will be favourites going into the final, but they will have their work cut out to maintain their unbeaten record. Kilkenny are a match for the Meath men. Kilkenny are chasing their sixth Towns Cup success.
Kilkenny Firsts - Joey Manuel (capt), Killian Everard, Sean Moran, Philly Walsh, Podge Mahon, Willie Wright, Robbie Walsh, David O’Connor, John Phelan, Darragh Farragher, Victor Ryan, Wes Carter, Hugh O’Brien, Martin Leahy, Wayne Kavanagh. Subs - Darren Bawle, Tom Massey, Philly Ryan, Conor Phelan, Denis Hogan.
Wicklow - Ben Porter, Ben Armstrong, Fran Cooney, Ken Copeland (C), Ben Mangan, Stephen Duffy, Mark Higgins, Eoin O’Sullivan, Michael Doyle, Liam Gaffney, John Jenkinson, Niall Smullen, Sean O’Brien, Jason Byrne, Paddy Jameson. Subs - Simon Breen, Gareth Fitzsimons, Stephen Roberts, Ronan Monahan, Karl Townsend.