New Shield for The Black Knights of Hamilton Park
By STEPHEN NUTT
Ards 3rds victor over Banbridge at the 'Battle of Ballynahinch'
At Ards Rugby club’s recent 90th anniversary club dinner there was an appropriate focus on the club’s storied history. This spectacular review of achievements past was a wonderful evening of reflection and may well have been the inspiration for the 2018 3rd XV playing squad who ‘turned the page’ in recent days to start writing the next chapter for the old town team.
The Black Knights squad for the Butler Shield final contained their fair share of young tyros, exciting young prospects such as Robert Hull, Aaron May and Taylor Nutt. These fresh faced lads were joined by men entering their prime years as rugby players Mark McLean, Michael Taylor and Jonny Fletcher and in the true tradition of the Black Knights the old guard were pulling on the boots again to defy the march of time. Club legends Gary Dempsey, Gary Presho and Bryan McFarland would rally behind the team Captain David Thompson and his sidekick the imperical Andy Matchett.
The other members of this band of brothers included local heroes like Sam McVeigh, Ewan Adair and Jonny Dawson, the mecurial talents of Alex Gaw and Gareth Wilson alongside great all round club men like Minis coach Davy Reid and next seasons Club President Ashley Paden. Collectively these lads and their fellow squad members have embraced their sport this season, playing an attractive style and forging a great team bond that has served them so well.
Their season has built to a climax this week with the first major test being the Butler shield final against the premier league leading Banbridge team who went into the final as hot favourites. The Ards squad however are built of strong stuff and they needed all that inner character to compete in a great match that saw several lead changes and built to an exciting crescendo at the finish.
Ards got off to a fast start with strong carries from the back row of Hull, Thompson and McVeigh getting them on the front foot while Matchett and Nutt used a clever kicking game to turn the Banbridge defence. The Ards midfield sensed a chance and Aaron May cut loose with a nice arcing run into the Banbridge 22. When May was hauled down, Presho and McFarland powered through the ruck to create fast ball for the men in black. Matchett was on it like a flash and the Portadown prowler feined a pass to Wilson before stepping through the gap to dot down in the right hand corner. Ards were good value for this lead and went straight back on the attack. Fletcher and Taylor were leading the kick chase to great effect and having regathered the ball deep in Banbridge territory the country side were forced to impede, giving Ards a straight forward penalty from a central position. Nutt stroked it over to give the Ards men a well deserved 8 point lead which was a fair return for an opening 30 minutes where Ards played impressive rugby.
Ards were in great shape for another score when an unfortunate turnover at scrum time led to an overlap for Banbridge who ran in a try from their own 22 line. This unlucky turn of events acted as a boost for the previously subdued Banbridge team who sparked into life and had their best spell of the match. As the game closed to half time a succession of penalties took Banbridge to the Ards 22 for the first time in the game and from a quick free kick they managed to squeeze over with the last play of the half and take a 10-8 lead into the break. The management team of Gareth Paden and Stuart Stevenson felt the score was not a fair reflection of the match and reitterated the importance of maintaining the Ards tactical gameplan and as the second half commenced Ards went back on the attack once more.
Thompson was at his barnstorming best getting Ards on the front foot and a break in midfield from McLean drew a penalty from the ref. It was a long range kick but Taylor Nutt got a great contact to regain the lead for Ards. Following a tidy restart from Robert Hull, a Matchett box kick created mayhem in the Banbridge backfield, Gareth Wilson was swarming around his opposite number who made a hurried clearance on the full giving Ards great field position. After a sustained period of attack including a glorious sidestep from Ewan Adair, Ards drew another penalty. Taylor Nutt had found his groove and he punished Banbridge with another spectacular effort giving Ards a 14-10 lead.
The men in black were looking good as the game swung into the final quarter but disaster struck on half way as a chip kick was charged down and bounced up into the arms of the Banbridge player who was able to link with his teammate and finish of the score regaining the lead for Banbridge at 15-14.
The large support on both sides knew this match was ebbing and flowing like a heavyweight title fight and no one dare leave before the fat lady had hit the final note. The hearts were beating a little faster for Wes Campbell, Billy Dickson, Terry Acheson, Mike Spence, Robin Johnston et al. These lads and all the other Ards legends in attendance were delighted to see that the 2018 Black Knights were cut from the same cloth as so many of the really great Ards sides throughout the history of our wee club.
Most sportsmen only prove their true character in times of adversity and the Ards lads showed the spirit and determination that has epitimised the famous black shirt throughout the last nine decades. The type of team containing men like David Thompson and Gary Presho were not giving up that easy and as they led the charge the others followed. Ards grafted their way down the field, McVeagh was everywhere, Dawson made a huge impact with big carries, Taylor was winning the aerial battle and suddenly Ards had a penalty just inside the half. The huge crowd were suddenly hushed but Nutt was nerveless with a towering strike splitting the posts to edge the Black Knights back in front.
The lineouts had been scrappy all afternoon but Ards suddenly cleaned a few off the top allowing Matchett and Wilson to play for territory. From one of these lineouts the black pack got a maul moving and when Banbridge collapsed the ref awarded Ards a penalty. On the sidelines some speculated that the smart move was for Ards to kick to the corner, but by this stage Taylor Nutt was in the zone. When Thompson asked him to take the shot the metronomic young flyhalf was the calmest person in the ground and struck again from wide on the touchline to take Ards to the 20 point mark.
Facing a five point deficit in the last few minutes meant that Banbridge needed a try and they attacked relentlessly. The Ards defence was typically stubborn and uncompromising with McVeigh and Hull leading the efforts in the pack and the restored McLean patrolling the midfield with great authority.
The goaline stand was as impressive as any of Ards’ attacking play and the mark of a really great side as the Knights pressed and closed the space, forcing errors from the Banbridge attack. From a critical knock on the ref called a scrum as the last play. The scrums had been challenging all afternoon as Banbridge rang the changes but the Ards front row of Dempsey, Reid and Paden were unmoved even after 80 minutes of hard graft. As the ball made its way to the back row Thompson gathered, pirouetted and kicked left footed towards the touchline. This was not as asthetically pleasing as a tight spiral from Matchett's cultured left peg but it mattered not and as it cleared the touchline the travelling black and white army roared their delight and flooded onto the field to embrace the winning side.
In recent weeks and months rugby union has had its dark days and it is worth noting the magnanimous reaction from Banbridge rugby club following the final whistle, if ever an example of the true spirit of our great game is needed it was displayed by the men in blue in joining in the celebrations and taking pride in the part they played in an excellent match - a credit to their club and town.
And so the Butler Shield goes home to Hamilton Park for the first time, a page is turned and we start the next 90 years for Ards Rugby club with a trophy in the cabinet and smiles on the faces of all who were there.
'That'll do us Ards.'
Final score:- Ards 20 – Banbridge 15.
Ards squad:- A Peden; D Reid; G Dempsey; G Presho; B McFarland; S McVeigh; D Thompson; R Hull; A Matchett; T Nutt; J Fletcher; A May; M McLean; G Wilson; M Taylor; A Rigby; J Dawson; P Shields; A Gaw; E Adair.