Having spent Friday night watching Ulster keep their European Cup hopes alive in a wet and windy encounter at Ravenhill it was a pleasant change to watch the Northern Bank Schools Cup 2nd Round match between Larne Grammar and Strabane Grammar kick off in bright sunlight on Saturday morning.
Strabane Grammar had fought their way through the opening round robin competition, beating Antrim Grammar and Wellington College, and with these two wins behind them they travelled to Larne with a degree of confidence. Unfortunately for the North West side they came up against a slick and physical Larne side who ran in five tries in their 29 – 3 victory.
Larne’s captain, and stand out player, Tom Saunderson lead the way with a brace of tries, hard working wingers Blair and Mitchell added one apiece and replacement hooker McAlister bustled over for the final try in the closing minutes. Full back Houston Saunderson added one conversion before having a second disallowed when the touch-judges couldn’t agree and centre Henry made the final conversion from out wide with the last kick of the game. Strabane’s only score came from a penalty from scrum half Stewart.
The opening quarter was a scrappy affair with both sides rusty after their enforced winter break, Larne struggled with their kicking game and Strabane were able to keep them pinned in their own half. However the Larne back row of Agnew, Johnston and Saunderson began to dominate and with wings Blair and Mitchell making regular incursions into the Strabane half it was the East Antrim side who were first to get on the scoreboard with Tom Saunderson forcing his way over after a strong run by Mitchell. Full back Houston Saunderson added the conversion from wide to give Larne a 7- 0 lead.
Strabane responded well and forced their way into the Larne 22, but despite several attempts they were unable to break the Larne defence who soaked up the pressure and worked their way up field. Larne’s McIlwaine found his kicking game and he began to take control and it was no surprise when Larne added a second try through winger Blair. Fullback Saunderson thought he had added the extra two points with a fine kick from out wide but the touch judges failed to agree and the kick was eventually ruled out leaving the score at 12 – 0.
Strabane again pushed their level of performance to respond to a Larne side who were now threatening to break loose and eventually got on the score board with a penalty from scrum half Stewart, taking the half time score to 12 – 3.
Any thoughts of a Strabane comeback were quickly dispelled at the start of the second half with a well deserved try for tricky winger Mitchell giving Larne a 19 – 3 lead and with the result now in no doubt the match went through a scrappy spell with neither side making much headway.
Larne eventually raised their game for a final effort and finished the match in some style with Tom Saunderson scoring an excellent second try after fielding a chip ahead and barging his way over in the corner.
Replacement hooker McAlister added Larne’s fifth forcing his way over from close range and centre Henry completed the scoring by converting from out wide with the last kick of the game to bring the final score to 29 – 3.
Larne GS. (15-9) H Saunderson, J Mitchell, A McBride, J Henry, A Blair, S McIlwaine, R McKinley. (1-8) P Ross, S McAllister, M Robinson, R Williamson, M Alcorn, J Agnew, J Johnston, T Saunderson (C). (16-22) R McAlister, S Swann, M Eastop, B Hamill, A Carter, M Beggs, L Brownlee.
Strabane GS. (15-9) D Armstrong, K Barr, J Mealiff, D Riddles, J Hamilton, D Lynch, A Stewart. (1-8) A Campbell, J Blair, G McCrabbe, A O’Neill, C Spence, M McIlwaine, M Young, K Hetherington (C). (16-22) A Sayers, J Speoule, C Robinson, C Campbell, P Smith, S Wauchope, G Allen.
The game was an excellent advert for the Northern Bank Schools Cup with both sides giving their all. Strabane had their opportunities, particularly in the first half, but the driving runs of Larne’s Tom Saunderson, the controlling play of out half McIlwaine and the mazy runs of Larne’s wingers Mitchell and Blair were the deciding factors.