Inst face an uphill task as their promotion bid falters
Instonians 11 - 15 Dundalk
Instonians have a gargantuan task on their hands to regain their senior status for next season after suffering a heartbreaking reverse to Dundalk in their opening All-Ireland League round robin fixture.
With two home games in the series, the south Belfast side started in an advantageous position but the All-Ireland Junior Cup winners are now in pole position with a pair of fixtures remaining.
The Ulster champions matched their Leinster counterparts for long stretches but, in a tense final passage, Wilbur Leacock's side could not force their way over the line.
Their cause would certainly have been aided had Dundalk been shown a yellow card after twice halting a maul illegally, while the visitors' winning try from Ene Fa'atau came after a marginal offside call, and Leacock believes that the important decisions went against his side.
"We would have expected a yellow card," mused the head coach. "It's a professional foul. There were two key decisions and they went the other way.
"The penalty for offside on our kick which produced their score and then at the end we've had a maul pulled down twice with no sanction.
"That's rugby though, sometimes it's luck and all credit to Dundalk."
The game was played with a strong wind gusting upfield and, only trailing 8-5 at the turn, Inst were well in it.
They could not, however, use the conditions to their advantage during the second half, but Leacock was thrilled with their efforts.
"We had a strong first half against the wind and I thought the boys were unbelievable," he said.
"Dundalk are a very good side and we've a changing room that's massively disappointed. We're a young side, a bit younger than those guys, but I can't fault us."
After their demolition of Bangor in January's All-Ireland Junior Cup final, Dundalk entered the contest as slight favourites but it was the hosts who opened the scoring.
With 10 minutes gone, scrum-half Matthew Keane showed great awareness when he chipped over the top of full-back Stephen McGee, gathered the ball and went over in the left corner, although David Scott couldn't add the testing conversion.
Just under 10 minutes later Dundalk achieved parity when, off the back of a scrum, Mike Bentley carried strongly and offloaded to Jonathan Williams, who spun out of the tackle and finished well.
The score remained tied until Williams drilled a drop goal between the posts five minutes later.
After the turn, Dundalk's efforts were undermined by handling errors and, when they were caught offside, Scott took the opportunity to once again level the scores.
As the penalty count mounted, Inst lost Patrick Marks to the sin bin and Dundalk took the opportunity to strike the crucial blow.
Instonians hadn't been able to pin Dundalk back but when Keane sent a beautiful kick into the corner, the chasers were whistled for being in front of their scrum-half.
From there, Dundalk moved through the phases and Fa'atau was allowed to dive underneath the posts.
A lengthy penalty attempt from Scott reduced the deficit to four points with a quarter remaining but, despite the late drive which came so close to snatching victory, there would be no further scores.
Both teams will now play Connemara and Clonmel next month, with Instonians needing one of those two to get a result against Dundalk, but Leacock refuses to give up hope of making it to the promotion play-off game.
"It's not over," he stressed. "Dundalk are now the big favourites but we've got a bonus point. We'll regroup and Connemara away next up is a huge game now."