Ards select 14 v Canada U19s 7
There are very few amateur players who have the honour to play against a full international side, but thanks to Ards RFC's Director Of Rugby, Stevie Nutt, that opportunity was presented to an Ards Select side on Saturday against the touring Canada U19 squad.
Ards 1st XV team manager Alan McHugh put together an Ards side drawn from the core of their hugely successful U18 squad that are now in their second season of senior rugby, Regent House former pupils of the same age group that are now senior players and club members from both of these pathways home from university for the holidays.
Although injury, work and seasonal bugs prevented a good number being part of the team, there was still a strong body of players to take up the challenge. It is a reflection of the age profile of the club that the majority of the team have already played 1st XV rugby at Ards.
The management team took the time to watch the tourists play their opening match against Campbell College 1st XV the day before and they were not lacking in size, physicality or handling skills.
Following Ards 1st XV's convincing win against U.U.C. RFC in their 2.30pm league encounter, these teams took to the field under lights. A large crowd had stayed on and were added to by club members, players and touring supporters, providing an excellent atmosphere. Although the earlier wind and rain had abated, the pitch was very soft from recent weather and well worked over in the earlier game.
The first quarter was spent by both teams trying to wrestle dominance and testing for weaknesses. From the very start, the benchmark at the breakdown and collision was set high by both sides and each of their 1st phases were strong, with scrums at parity and line outs secured. When given the opportunity, both backlines moved the ball well and defences were equally organised, committed and effective.
On balance, Ards had the slight advantage for the period and as the game began to open up, their midfield of Alex Gaw, Joel DePledge and Lewis English were finding gaps and moving the ball wide with pace as the physicality of the entire pack was providing quality ball. However, as the quarter was closing it was left to the superb Canadian scrum half, Sam Kahn of Castaway Wanderers RFC, to find a gap on half way and outdo 4 defenders on a mazy run to score under the posts which was duly converted, Canada took a 0-7 lead.
Invigorated by conceding the score, Ards upped their game and started to string good phases together. One such move brought some excellent ball through the midfield and almost led to a scoring opportunity for wing Matthew Neill. Earning a penalty, Ards pressed again in the visitors end zone and released their No8 to crash over for a try on the half hour mark, the conversion from DePledge was good and the scores tied at 7-7.
The rest of the half played out in a similar vein, both packs continued to carry hard and defend stoutly and there was no room for the faint hearted. Sub Danny Patton was introduced for 2nd row Ethan Dodge, who had starred in the line out and we closed with the score tied at 7-7.
Some good words were exchanged in the half time huddle and the Ards team committed to continue to press and go for the lead. Canada emerged with similar intent and there was no let up in pace or quality as both packs tore into each other with Matthew Patton, Benji Stewart and Aidan McSwiggan prominent in the carry for Ards and both props and the No8 for Canada. Each backline defied the conditions, moving the ball wide as the breakdown point was in constant and extensive motion.
A good series of phases from Ards released flanker Matthew Bell and with 3 defenders to beat, his power and hard running from 30 metres saw them off for an excellent try. The difficult conversion from DePledge was good and Ards took the lead for the first time at 14-7.
With 25 minutes still to play, it was now Canada's turn to take the upper hand. Their large bench was unloaded at regular intervals and they started to gain significant territorial advantage. Ards hooker Paddy Bond left the field with a rib injury and was replaced by flanker Josh McFarland. The busy Robert Hull moved from back row to hooker to accommodate.
Ards now found themselves defending for long periods in their 22 with only a few periods of respite in the middle of the pitch. With a limited bench and no experienced thrower for the line out, they were soon backtracking against a determined and physical Canadian effort.
The visitors made many opportunities and gained overlaps, but a determined and monumental Ards defence with bodies put on the line without personal regard continued to frustrate their efforts. The close heavy hitting of the Ards pack was handed out in equal measure across the backline with fly half Gaw, centre English and wing Matthew Warnock prominent. Eventually, Canada created a clear scoring chance out wide, but the final pass was dropped and Ards, once again, cleared their lines.
Finding a second wind and a final effort across the team, Ards started to make some territorial progress and the final whistle sounded for a famous 14-7 win.
The match was followed by a reception meal, speeches and presentations in a packed clubhouse to round off a superb day at Ards RFC in the truest traditions of the sport.
The National Team plaque presented by Des Lynch to Ards President Rick Sadler on behalf of Rugby Canada will take pride of place above the clubhouse bar.
Many thanks are extended to the referee Kevin Bartlett for his usually excellent officiating. Further thanks are due to former Ards U20 coach and now Head Coach of Canada U19s Dean Murten for bringing his squad to Hamilton Park Director, Ards Head Coach John West and S&C Coach Paddy McGrattan for preparing the squad on the day and the Rugby Canada U19 squad, management team and supporters.
Updated 10:51 - 2 Jan 2018 by STEPHEN NUTT