THEY may have fallen to an agonisingly narrow six point reverse to Limavady Grammar in the semi-finals of the Schools’ Trophy at Liskey Road on Wednesday but Strabane Academy’s rugby first XV have again exceeded all expectations.
Few would have expected them the run a more illustrious school so close after having twice beaten Belfast’s Wellington College in the Schools’ Cup proper and the last-eight, but coach and PE teacher Niall McDonnell wants his charges to hold their heads high after an other enormous effort on the pitch.
“The boys are bloodied and bruised and you just can’t ask any more from them. They put their bodies on the line, boys were going down with cramp and they wouldn’t come off!,” he explained.
“In terms of athleticism and ability, is this the most natural group I’ve had? No, they aren’t but they are the hardest working, they are the most resilient. These guys keep surprising me and for my blood pressure it would make things easier if they would just stop, but I’m so proud of them.
“They don’t see it yet because they are hurt but they’ve raised the bar again. It’s no longer enough to just play in the Schools’ Cup, they want to achieve something.
“No one expected them to get this far, no one expected them to push Limavady this hard, so what more can I say except I’m so proud of them and that they should hold their heads up high for what they have done for themselves and the school.”
And while the bar is now set at the last four stage, it was so nearly the final stage after a series of first half missed chances ultimately proved costly.
Time and again they were held up or fell just short of the Limavady try line during a steady period of first half pressure, which yielded just a Harry McCrossan penalty.
After that, a couple of defensive lapses allowed the Roesiders in for two tries as they engineered a flattering 14-3 lead at the break.
The visitors extended their advantage after the restart, but back came the Academy lads with captain, Jordan Mealiff, leading by example as usual with a try, while Gareth Duncan did likewise before Jamie Brown produced the score of the game after a period of forwards pressure.
McCrossan converted the third of those touchdowns and although they enjoyed more pressure in the closing minutes, they were unable to grab an all important fourth try as Limavady held on to secure a final berth.
“It’s hard for them to take, but the truth of the matter is that in the last five years, we’ve been beaten by Limavady thirds and Limavady seconds and we scared the life out of their firsts and we probably deserved to win that game,” observed McDonnell.
“It was marginal, it was tight, but to be 15-18 points down with 10 minutes to go and to come back shows the attitude of this side.
“It’s a game of momentum and we handed them the momentum. If we had momentum and they had to force it, that’s when space opens up, but that didn’t happen.”
Strabane Academy: Gareth Duncan, Finn Hampton, Jack Sayers, Jason Henderson, Nicky Sayers, Jonathan Gamble, Jack Kee, Reuben Orr, Harry McCrossan, Jamie Brown, Steven Shields, Jordan Mealiff (cpt), Gavin Doherty, Ryan Millar, Tom Harpur. Replacements: Bartek Bialek, Mark Millar, John Cummings, Adam McKitterick, Dylan Hampton.
Referee: Bob Dillon, Strabane