Instonians leave it late to see off Clogher Valley
Instonians 19 - Clogher Valley 17
Two late tries from scrum-half Matthew Keane ensured a perfect week for Instonians as the Junior Cup holders moved nine points clear at the top of Kukri Qualifying One thanks to a 19-17 comeback win over second-place Clogher Valley on Saturday.
It had appeared that last season's champions, Clogher, were set to breathe new life into a title race that had looked to have only one winner, given the relentless way Instonians have managed their fixtures since relegation from All-Ireland 2B last season.
But, despite leading 17-3 at half-time, they could not hold on for a win that would have moved them within three points of the summit at the half-way stage of the season.
Scores from Jack Stott and the hugely influential David Sharkey, as well as two conversions and a penalty from Phillip Holme had placed the visitors in a commanding position but, despite the contest representing their third game in eight days, it was Instonians who finished stronger and Keane's second, coming on the last play of the game, sealed the dramatic finish.
The south Belfast side made only one change to the starting XV that beat Omagh in the Junior Cup final at the Kingspan Stadium earlier in the week, Paddy Marks replacing Rory McCurry at the base of the scrum.
Clogher had a more unsettled look to their side after injury deprived them of captain Aaron Best, prop Phillip Moore, centre David Dunlop and back rower Alistair Trenier from the team who were beaten by Bangor in the semi-finals of the All-Ireland Junior Cup a week prior.
Despite Valley's traditional area of supremacy being the scrum, Instonians earned a penalty from the set-piece after just eight minutes that Fraser Wright was confidently able to knock over.
That was to be as good as it got for some time, however, as David Black's men came storming back to take control of the contest.
In the absence of Best, it was former captain David Sharkey who led Clogher and the openside was in superb form throughout and gave his side the lead with just over a quarter of an hour played.
Sharkey, with some added thrust from fellow flanker B.J Wilson, drove his way over the line. The sideline conversion was impressively added to leave the score at 7-3.
Holmes displayed further kicking prowess with a penalty shortly after and 15 minutes before half-time, matters improved even further when wing Clive Donaldson delayed his pass to devastating effect and the pace of Jack Stott ensured that the move ended up underneath the posts.
Holme had no problem with the straightforward conversion and the score now stood at 17-3.
Little did Valley know, however, that they would not score again during what was almost an hour of remaining play.
After the turn, Instonians, crucially, added the first points of the half when Wright knocked over a penalty from the 10-metre line.
Clogher's No 8 Ryan Wilson was forced from the field after a big collision with Robbie Kirk while, after Wright contributed another three points, David Scott was also injured.
On the hour mark, Wright missed a penalty that would have made it a one-score game but by now the pressure was increasing with the game all played in Clogher's half.
With less than five minutes remaining, the Fermanagh side eventually allowed their line to be crossed, Keane cleverly picked up at the base of the ruck and slid his way across the whitewash.
A yellow card for Rodney Bennett for infringing on the deck left Clogher defending with just 14 men. Keane then dummied right but attacked the blindside to cleverly score in the corner.
The conversion was missed but the celebrations had already began in earnest on the home touchline.