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Despite being competitive and having control for periods in this match, the Cornish Pirates not only slipped to defeat but also to second place in Pool 5 of the British & Irish Cup.
With the opening weekend in January having been deemed a ‘Reserve Weekend’, this fixture kickstarted the Pirates back to action and into 2018.
The match against the Irishmen, played at Shaw’s Bridge Sports Association, Belfast, was naturally deemed a real challenge, as both teams had arrived at this Round 5 stage each having won three games and lost one in the competition. Yes, the Pirates topped Pool 5 ahead of their opponents, who they narrowly beat 23-14 at the Mennaye Field in October, but only on points difference.
In a side captained by No. 8 Tom Duncan, Tom Lawday and Josh Caulfield were his back-row partners on the flanks. Wing Alex O’Meara, centre Harry Strong and lock Brett Beukeboom returned to action, whilst recent signing Sam Matavesi, who made a debut appearance off the bench against Jersey Reds on New Year’s Eve, was named at hooker.
Conditions for the 5pm teatime kick-off were very good indeed for January, it dry and with little wind, and the Pirates opening the scoring in the 12th minute. Ulster’s Jonny Stewart was penalised for a deliberate knock-on, thus enabling fly-half Laurence May the chance to deliver three points off the tee.
Under the glow of floodlights at Shaw’s Bridge the Pirates were cheered on by a healthy contingent of travelling supporters, however midway through the first half the home side worked possession for wing Rob Lyttle to score wide out on the right. Fly-half Peter Nelson’s well struck conversion turned 5 into 7.
Unfortunately, for the Pirates, Ulster A also showed potency from the restart, telling breaks leading to the ball finding the hands of their Ballymena-born skipper, hooker John Andrew, who crossed by the posts for a surprisingly unconverted score.
After two quick set backs the visitors needed to respond, and they did, with prayers answered in the build up to half-time when May was on target with a second successful penalty attempt.
The Pirates might well have narrowed the deficit a little further, but it wasn’t to be, whilst then under pressure at the end of the half they were grateful to full-back Kyle Moyle for his defensive effort to foil the hosts.
So, 12-6 was the scoreline, with all still to play for. How would the second forty evolve? On an evening when it was getting a little chillier, we would soon see.
For the Pirates faithful, the start to the second period firstly offered real hope, but then a little despair. O’Meara, with a kick ahead and touchdown, scored an excellent try, however the Ulstermen replied right away with their third try of the match, replacement hooker Zack McCall charging down an attempted box kick and taking the ball over the whitewash.
Still closely fought, still entertaining, but with the niggling worry that Ulster’s home advantage would likely see them to victory.
The Pirates, of course, had other ideas, and they kept on the front foot for a good spell midway through the second half. Success was at first denied, until pressure created another penalty kick opportunity which May converted.
Three points in it with a quarter of an hour or so to go made it really interesting, but the hosts were quick to regain a six points lead when the game’s opening try-scorer, Lyttle, took over kicking duties to now land a penalty kick.
The Pirates had played valiantly for much of this match, but with the clock ticking down Ulster A scored their fourth bonus-point-providing try, it that man Lyttle once again the scorer.
A challenge for the Pirates was to still strive for a score that would at least provide what could ultimately prove an important losing bonus point. The chance of catch-and-drives in the corner raised expectation, but it was not to be.
At the end, eyes were quickly cast over Pool positions and standings, with next week’s final Round 6 games likely to decide eventual outcomes. For the immediate present the Pirates slipped to second in Pool 5, it to be noted that the five Pool winners and three best runners-up will progress to the quarter-final stage. In short, next Saturday’s Cornish Pirates versus Hartpury RFC encounter at the Mennaye Field (ko 2pm), appears at the very least ‘a must win’ game, to give any chance.
Speaking after the match against Ulster A, Cornish Pirates’ joint coach Alan Paver said:
We had pretty high hopes going into the match, and after a big set piece focus during the week aimed to get a foothold, but it wasn’t meant to be. Having said that, for much of the game we did have control and it was only when it got a little bit loose and a couple of balls squirted out that they took their opportunity.
Our retention in attack was disappointing and defensively we got out-flanked on a couple of occasions, which was pretty disappointing. However, reflecting on the game generally, we did enough to put ourselves in position to win it, but the bottom line is that we didn’t.