Posted: 3 months ago

Dungannon v Belfast Harlequins in Ulster Shield rugby final… match preview

Dungannon women's rugby captain Colleen McCance (left) with her predecessor Stacey Pogue


CAPTAIN Colleen McCance will be exceptionally proud when she leads Dungannon onto the Stevenson Park pitch for women’s rugby’s Ulster Shield final against Belfast Harlequins this Sunday, April 28 (2.00pm).

History will be made the same afternoon as the women’s All Ireland League final is played in the Aviva Stadium for the first time as a double-header with the men’s match, while the Ulster Cup showpiece was at Ravenhill on Saturday following Ireland against Scotland.

Playing in those revered venues will be a highlight for the sides involved but McCance is instead savouring Dungannon getting the opportunity to claim a trophy at their home ground on the day that the club host their first ever pre-match lunch before a women’s game.

Dungannon go into Sunday’s decider as firm favourites on paper, having done the double over Belfast Harlequins in emphatic fashion this season on their way to finishing fourth in the Ulster Premiership.

Taliswoman McCance scored a fantastic four tries herself as the visitors romped to a comprehensive 55-5 victory at Deramore Park at the start of December and bagged another brace in the 29-0 home win against the same opposition two months later.

However, the charismatic Moy woman insists there will be no complacency in the Dungannon ranks as they seek to finish a long season on a winning note and finally lift the silverware which the pandemic denied them the chance of four years ago.

Back in the spring of 2020, Dungannon needed extra-time to see off Lisburn 30-20 in an epic semi, but the final against North Down – an amalgamated team representing Ards, Bangor and Donaghadee – never took place due to the original coronavirus shutdown.

Having survived that Lisburn scare thanks to four tries from McCance and one each from the halfbacks, captain Cheryl Wilson and Ulster star Leah McGoldrick, Dungannon would undoubtedly have fancied their chances in the decider.

But the business end of that campaign was suspended and then abandoned altogether, with the next season completely wiped out by the ongoing restrictions in place, meaning club rugby didn’t resume until the autumn of 2021.

By that stage, former Orchard camogie captain McGoldrick was studying in England but Dungannon got a new weapon in the shape of Armagh gaelic footballer Niamh Marley, who made a sensational impact in her new sport as a strike-running three-quarter.

Having Marley’s explosive pace and cutting edge helped Dungannon notch up a few wins in the Premiership and earned the Hamiltonsbawn sportswoman Ulster selection but she hasn’t donned the blue and white jersey this season.

After impressing in the interpros for Ulster at the start of the season, Marley lined out for Belfast-based Cooke in the AIL and then featured for title winners Wolfhounds in the expanded Celtic Challenge before suffering a serious knee injury training with them.

Despite being badly depleted by injuries – including to another recent convert, Team NI’s Commonwealth Games netballer Jenna Bowman – and unavailability for other reasons, Dungannon have had a very respectable season.

They began their Premiership campaign with a draw at Ballynahinch back in early September and took a couple of bad beatings in Belfast from Queen’s and Malone, but recorded home and away wins against Omagh, City of Derry and Harlequins.

Beating Ballynahinch at Stevenson Park helped ensure Conor McElmeel’s side would finish in the top half of the table and the silver lining of being drawn away to hot favourites Malone in the Cup was the golden opportunity to win the subsidiary Shield competition.

The tries were shared out among five different players as Dungannon booked their place in Sunday’s Shield decider with a comprehensive 35-0 victory at Omagh on St Patrick’s Day, when McCance was one of five players to touch down in the semi.

The others to cross the whitewash were lock Kirsty Hawkes, just back in action following a cruciate rupture, young back five forward Gemma Gillanders, teenager wing Rebecca Kirkland and evergreen veteran Wilson in her first match since turning 45!

That makes McCance comparatively young at 38, though Colleen admits some regrets about being a relative latecomer to rugby given the prowess she has shown and how much she enjoys everything about the sport.

A sufficiently good gaelic footballer for Moy to be picked for Tyrone, McCance’s county career was put on hold by impending motherhood – son Ryan is now 18 and a strapping lad of 6’2” – but playing representative rugby came as an unexpected bonus many years later.

McCance was called up to the Ulster rugby squad in the spring of 2022 and enjoyed a try-scoring cameo off the bench as the northern province came back from the dead to snatch victory in a May friendly against Connacht in Enniskillen.

It was a privilege being present to witness first-hand McCance’s heart-warming joy as she came off the pitch and embraced her proud parents, who she reveals are considering changing pre-arranged travel plans to be there for this weekend’s final.

That provincial call-up didn’t eventually lead to a competitive outing in the white jersey, with McCance’s age and self-confessed ‘imposter syndrome’ perhaps counting against her, though she reveals Ulster head coach Neill Alcorn did float the idea of a positional switch.

She had turned up at Ulster as ostensibly a ball-carrying No 8 in the CJ Stander mould, whose mix of stampeding power and nifty footwork prompted this writer to coin the memorable ‘balletic buffalo’ phrase for McCance, who can also kick well out of hand.

Her destructive carrying has also been utilised at inside centre by Dungannon on occasions, but Alcorn’s suggestion that McCance’s sturdy build might lend itself to playing prop hasn’t been taken up properly until the current club campaign.

Despite packing down in an unfamiliar front row role in some matches, McCance has kept plundering tries – including FOUR hat-tricks – and, along with outings at inside centre and No 8, she even came on at openside in one game last autumn.

That was just after the men’s World Cup at which winners South Africa famously stacked their bench with forwards who were sprung as the ‘bomb squad’, and Dungannon did likewise to good effect in one of their league games!

Armagh businessman McElmeel is now is his fifth season as head coach, having originally landed the job ‘by accident’ and his commitment is reflected in the fact his company McElmeel Mobility Services has become the team’s main sponsor this season.

The affable frontman is able assisted by coaching guru Gerry Saunders, whose daughter Laura partners the club’s former rugby chairperson Wilson at halfback while McCance also acknowledges the contributions of team manager Ruth Gallagher and Chris Williamson.

Clonmore’s Armagh Junior Championship-winning gaelic footballer Aoife Forker, who has previously played camogie for Armagh, has been a very useful convert to the oval ball code over the winter and has recently partnered the versatile Stephanie Lynch in the centre.

Grange gaelic footballer Julie-Anne Garvey is teaching in Dubai but the tiny Naomi Dunwoody has proved her worth since returning from working overseas while Kirkland and Robyn Moore are emerging as lively wingers.

Telisha Hutton is a cornerstone of the front row while Armagh girl Georgia Roper has been Dungannon’s regular tighthead in recent years and experienced campaigner Joanna Ha’unga is a serious operator to bring off the bench, but sister Lizzie Ballentine is injured.

A cruciate rupture for McCance’s predecessor as skipper, Stacey Pogue from Benburb, has created an opening at hooker for Lydia Kelly while the current captain or Gillanders are often flanked by Kim Johnston and Donna Redmond in a formidable back row.

Former vice-captain Rebecca Todd and Hawkes are strong second row options along with the latter’s namesake and fellow place-kicker, Kirsty Miskimmin, while Lauren Handley-Marjoram is another interesting newcomer who has really taken to rugby.

Club stalwart Amy McKeown, one of relatively few players remaining from that thwarted team of four years ago, has been out of action for most of the current campaign but it is hoped that she will tog out for the final along with Beccie McCauley and Jodie Gilmore.

For the record, the other try-scorers in that 50-point pasting of Harlequins in their own Belfast backyard earlier in the season were Hawkes, Redmond, Wilson, Todd and Lynch, with Miskimmin kicking five conversions, but McCance is wary of facing a wounded animal.

“We started pre-season way back at the end of June last year so it has been a long haul but we’re very excited about being in this final with the chance to win a trophy and hosting it is the icing on the cake,” declares Colleen.

“Although we’ve beaten Harlequins twice this season, I think they were closer contests than the scorelines suggest.  I’m sure they’ll be desperate to turn the tables on us, so there’s no room for complacency or thinking we just have to turn up to claim the trophy.

“But that shouldn’t be an issue, for everyone’s really looking forward to the big game and hosting the game means the opportunity to play in front of family, friends and our club members so we’ll want to put our best foot forward.

“The pandemic meant we never got to play our final four years ago, so there’s a sense of unfinished business for those of us who are still around, including our very committed head coach Conor, though the squad is much changed since then.

“Our team is a nice mix of experience and a few fresh recruits.  There’s a good atmosphere and I like to think that we’re a big group of friends as well as team-mates.  A positive environment helps people enjoy their rugby and play their best.”

As someone who started playing gaelic football aged eight but just took up rugby as a woman in her 30s, it’s inevitable that McCance sometimes wonders what might have been if she’d stumbled across the oval ball earlier.

She loved the brief experience with Ulster and that afternoon in Enniskillen was memorable, but Dungannon has a special place in her heart and lifting a trophy as club captain at Stevenson Park on Sunday would be a wonderful feeling for this bubbly character.

Dungannon’s try-scorers in last month’s semi-final victory over Omagh (from left) Kirsty Hawkes, captain Colleen McCance, Gemma Gillanders, Rebecca Kirkland and Cheryl Wilson

head coach Conor McElmeel and try-scorers Colleen McCance, Leah McGoldrick and Cheryl Wilson celebrate Dungannon’s 2020 semi-final win but the showpiece was called off due to the pandemic

Colleen McCance (centre) passes the ball during her impactful performance for Ulster in the friendly victory over Connacht in May 2022