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  J1: Towns' Cup Round 1, Sunday 27/1/13

Kilkenny                 32
Portlaoise              15           

by Padraic Treacy

Kilkenny Firsts pulverised Portlaoise for a second week running in Foulkstown on Sunday however this time it was a chance at the Leinster Provincial Towns Cup that was at stake. Kilkenny who beat Portlaoise 51-15 in their Leinster League tie last week have amassed an enormous 83 points against these opponents in seven days. This must surely be a sore point for the midlands squad as well as losing a chance to win the oldest and most coveted trophy in Irish rugby.

With ground conditions very soft underfoot and a gale force wind blowing straight down the pitch from left to right, Kilkenny had all the work to do in the opening quarter of this vital cup clash in spite of playing with the wind advantage. Despite the heavy loss suffered at the same venue last week, a new look Portlaoise squad battered Kilkenny from the opening whistle. Kilkenny’s tackling let them down on occasion and caused many a finger nail to be severed from its roots but this of course added to the spectacle that is Towns Cup rugby.

Despite the shaky start, Kilkenny led proceedings after four minutes when they were awarded a penalty just inside their own half. Outhalf, Willie Wright very cleverly opted to kick for touch using the strong wind in his back to his favour and landed the ball deep in the opponents 22. Hooker Martin Leahy threw the ball with pinpoint accuracy to Victor Ryan at the front of the lineout and Leahy was there again to gather the ball from his jumper on return to terra-firma. With the maul set up and Leahy firmly in control he charged over the line to give Kilkenny the opening score and deserved lead.

Despite the very difficult angle, Wright judged the wind perfectly and the ball sailed between the posts and off into the distance, giving some poor unfortunate spectator the unenviable task of retrieving the ball from some distant location outside the boundaries of the club!

With the first quarter now elapsed, Kilkenny began to settle into the task at hand and were rightly awarded a penalty on 20 minutes, again just inside their own half. This time Wright looked at the posts and he split the sticks with a beautiful kick bringing back memories for many older fans of the kicking exploits of the great and former Towns Cup winner Billy Ayres in his heyday.

Seven minutes later inside centre, Joey Manuel, crossed the line for what has to be the “try of the season” for Kilkenny. Following a Portlaoise ruck, their scrum half chipped the ball over the heads of the defending team. Manuel was perfectly placed to gather the ball in his own half and he set off on one of his trademark jinking runs. However, instead of looking for a gap in the defence he directed his attention straight at the former ruck and caught his opponents off guard. He burst through and rounded a number of defenders. With only the fullback to defeat he chipped the ball over the defender’s head and gathered the ball mid-air to sprint for the line and get the touchdown under the posts. Wright added the easy conversion giving the home-side a comfortable 17-0 lead.

Kilkenny allowed a touch of complacency to creep into their game and they paid the price for this on 35 minutes when Portlaoise charged over for a try, however missing the conversion. Kilkenny dusted themselves off and hit back like a thunderbolt. They drove their opponents back into their own half and were awarded a penalty on the stroke of half-time, 5 metres from the Portlaoise line. The famous “Lar’s Ball” was called into action and it worked a treat when giant second row, Victor Ryan touched down for a try which Wright converted giving the hosts a well-deserved 24-5 half-time lead.

Kilkenny were the dominant force at the beginning of the second half until flanker, Ray Pembroke was yellow carded for an off-the-ball offence. Portlaoise took advantage of this situation and with Kilkenny now down to 14 men, the visitors piled on the pressure. Their efforts paid off when they crossed for a converted try in the 60th minute and added a further 3 points to their tally four minutes later. Now the game was well and truly on.

Kilkenny made a number of changes bringing on the awesome Willie Duggan who missed last week’s encounter due to an eye injury. Duggan’s efforts and fresh legs made a huge impact to the team and in the 75th minute, Portlaoise were penalised for a high-tackle which saw the offender sit out the rest of the game from the side-line. Wright’s attempt was caught by the wind and drifted wide to the dismay of the home fans. To add to their woes, Kilkenny lost Joey Manuel through injury but he was replaced by the ever confident Ben O’Connor. Coach Ashmore also made a few changes to his tiring pack and brought on Eddie Brennan for Simon O’Shea and Ray Pembroke for Gerry Clarke.

With the game fastly approaching its completion, Kilkenny launched one last effort which saw scrum-half, Clive Kavanagh cross the line to secure the win for the home-side. Wright missed the conversion but it didn’t matter as the final whistle blew. Jubilations were witnessed both on and off the pitch and the Kilkenny fans retired to the bar to revive various parts of the body that had gone numb from the cold and wet conditions.

All in all this was a huge performance from the locals who are getting stronger every week. Despite a fabulous performance from all players, Wayne Kavanagh, Victor Ryan and Clive Kavanagh were without doubt the best on the day with loose-head prop Wayne Kavanagh collecting the Man of the Match award for his solid scrummaging, ball carrying and driving runs throughout the entire 80 minutes.

Kilkenny advance to the next round and will square up to Tullow on the 17th February.  Tullow secured a good win against their opponents Rathdrum who they beat 38-0. This will be without doubt a tough game added to the fact that Tullow have home advantage. However nothing is impossible in the Towns Cup.

All eyes will be on this game as it sees Division 2A league leaders play Division 1B league leaders. In addition, Tullow reached the final of last year’s competition and only narrowly lost to eventual winners Enniscorthy, so they will be out to seek revenge on whoever crosses their path in their quest to collect the silverware this year. Given Kilkenny’s recent form and success rate, the Foulkstowners will prove a hard team to beat and Tullow will have all the work to do.

In the meantime, Kilkenny Seconds begin their Cup campaign at home to Tullamore on Sunday next. Coach Nigel Daly has seen his team improve immensely over the past few weeks and is hoping they will continue this form for this vital knockout game. Kick off in Foulkstown is at 2.30pm. Here’s hoping for a huge home crowd to spur on their efforts.

Kilkenny Firsts: - Mark Coughlan, Alan Pembroke, Philly Walsh, Joey Manuel, Rod Hogan, Willie Wright, Clive Kavanagh, Philly Ryan, Ray Pembroke, Diarmaid Hickey, Gerry Clarke, Victor Ryan, Simon O’Shea, Martin Leahy, Wayne Kavanagh.
Subs: - Eddie Brennan, Emmet Lynch, Willie Duggan, Gerry Callinan, Ben O’Connor