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City of Armagh into All-Ireland League play-off with victory over Wanderers

City of Armagh team captain Ali Birch led from the front

City of Armagh RFC 20 Wanderers 15

City of Armagh hosted Wanderers RFC in a tense, nail-biting encounter on Saturday in the All Ireland Division 2A/2B Playoff semi-final.

Although the Dublin side had finished in a distant third place in the final league table, the visitors proved formidable opponents and could have won the game in injury time but their conversion attempt sailed just wide of the Armagh posts.

Tied at 15 points all, the game moved into extra time where Armagh prevailed with a match-winning try to progress to the promotion playoff final.

Wanderers kicked off with light drizzle and not the dry conditions both teams would have preferred.

The early exchanges were cagey with the southern team starting brightly and on 12 minutes a Wanderers centre made a break into the home 22 but a knock-on allowed Armagh to clear their line.

Armagh came more into the game in the second quarter with James Morton and Andrew Willis making breaks. Winger Ryan Purvis fly-hacked a loose ball down the pitch and forced a Wanderers line-out five metres from their line. Pressure from the home team forced an Armagh scrum and a score looked imminent as the scrum edged toward the wanders line. Unfortunately a knock on allowed the visitors to clear the pressure and a clear chance was lost.

On 26 minutes, due to the wet conditions, a loose ball in the Armagh half was fly-hacked down the pitch and the alert Tim McNeice prevented a score for the visitors.

Armagh then put a good attack together with John and Neill Faloon both prominent but a charged down kick put Armagh back under pressure in their own 22.

Wanderers then enjoyed a period of sustained pressure under the Armagh posts as their forwards tried to drive over from close quarters. A knock on and a scrum penalty eventually saw the pressure relieved.

Five minutes before the break, Armagh looked again to get the opening score with Purvis breaking through and support on his outside. A poor pass saw the opportunity lost and it was Wanderers who had the next opportunity with a kickable penalty on 35 metres in the final minute of the half.

The opportunity was not taken and the half time whistle went with the scoreline 0-0, reflecting the tense and evenly balanced previous 40 minutes.

Replacement out-half Cormac Fox got play restarted and immediately Andrew Willis threatened on the right wing but a penalty to Wanderers cleared the danger. A kick ahead from hooker Smyth resulted in a 22 dropout as Armagh continued to build pressure on the visitors.

On 50 minutes the first score of the match arrived and it was the visitors who stunned the large home support. Good off-loading by the Wanderers backs brought play into the Armagh 22 and their pack carried through several phases before crossing the Armagh line. The successful conversion gave Wanderers a 7 nil lead.

Armagh looked to make an immediate response and two minutes later the home support cheered an Armagh try when Andrew Willis beat two defenders from 40 metres out and touched down behind the posts. Fox converted to tie the match at 7-7.

Conditions had now deteriorated with heavy rain affecting handling. As the game entered the final quarter Armagh were still looking for their second try and good work from Daryl Morton, David Swann and Ollie Miller had Wanderers on the back foot. On 65 minutes, a penalty to Armagh in a kickable position was seized upon and Fox finally put Armagh ahead in the game, 10-7.

A try by prop Philip Fletcher on 77 minutes after a series of pick and drives now had Armagh with some breathing space at 15-7 ahead. From the restart however, Armagh gifted Wanderers three points after straying offside and the margin closed to 15-10. Wanderers sensed there was another twist in the game and a horror line-out from Armagh in their own half, gifted possession to the visitors with 2 minutes left on the clock.

Wanderers used the possession effectively and struck the killer blow with a try on 80 minutes. The entire Palace Grounds held their breath as the Wanderers winger attempted the difficult touchline conversion. The ball sailed narrowly wide of the posts, to the relief of the home supporters.

The tied score at 15-15 meant extra time was needed to separate the two teams.

Armagh took the initiative as extra time commenced but the solid Wanderers defence held firm as it largely had throughout the game. Midway through the first period of extra time, fullback McNeice cleverly chipped ahead and the slippy conditions saw the ball go loose from the defender. Winger Kyle Faloon seized the opportunity to hack the ball ahead and he recovered it to dive over for a crucial score. The conversion was unsuccessful and Armagh turned around for the final 10 minutes leading 20-15.

Wanderers tried to run the ball at every opportunity but were knocked back now by a resolute Armagh defence. Daryl Morton and Ali Birch were prominent in Armagh attacks after a penalty had brought play into the Wanderers 22.

Into the final two minutes and the visitors were pinned back in their 22 with the Armagh forwards playing out of their skins. The referee eventually brought the match to a close after 100 minutes and Armagh were victorious by a scoreline of 20-15.

Armagh were delighted to have come through such a tough semi-final and Wanderers deserved great credit for their determined performance.

In the other semi-final, there was a surprise when Old Crescent comfortably beat Cork side Sunday’s Well and this means the League Playoff Final will now be at the Palace Grounds in Armagh this Saturday.

City of Armagh team captain Ali Birch led from the front

City of Armagh team captain Ali Birch led from the front

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