Posted: 2 months ago

Inspirational Colleen McCance plays a captain’s role as Dungannon scorch to Shield victory… report and picture special

Colleen McCance lifts the Ulster Shield for Dungannon

DUNGANNON 38 BELFAST HARLEQUINS 0

Richard Bullick at Stevenson Park

TALISMANIC captain Colleen McCance scored the first and last tries as Dungannon romped to a resounding victory over holders Belfast Harlequins in rugby’s Ulster Shield final at Stevenson Park, where they posted 19 points without reply in each half.

An inspired Stephanie Lynch cut through the opposition defence ferociously for Dungannon’s second try and the hosts went into the interval in fine fettle after a fantastic score from the last play of the half.

From a turnover in their own 22 wide on the left, Dungannon launched a blistering counter-attack through veteran scrumhalf Cheryl Wilson with flanker Donna Redmond then carrying hard and McCance getting over the halfway line.

Now with a penalty advantage, Dungannon kept playing, with outhalf Laura Saunders feeding loosehead prop Telisha Hutton before Clonmore gaelic footballer Aoife Forker raced clear for a great team try to which lock Kirsty Miskimmin added a fine conversion.

Miskimmin had also been successful with her first attempt at goal, tagging on the extras when Dungannon’s pressure was finally rewarded with a 25th minute try by McCance, who showed deft footwork followed by unstoppable power in breaking through to touch down.

That try was no more than Dungannon’s dominance deserved on an afternoon when, buoyed by an excellent crowd, they sought to keep the ball alive and played plenty of enterprising rugby albeit combined with uncompromising physical intent.

Forker’s score in injury-time made it feel like a long way back for Belfast Harlequins and McElmeel made three changes at the break, recent regular locks Rebecca Todd and Kirsty Hawkes joining the fray along with Lauren Handley-Majoram.

Rolling subs are permitted in this competition and that trio replaced Gemma Gillanders, Miskimmin and Armagh girl Georgia Roper respectively, with Jodie Gilmore taking over from Robyn Moore on the wing just four minutes into the second half.

Forker, diminutive fullback Naomi Dunwoody, Lynch and Handley-Majoram made good ground deep into the Harlequins 22, where Dungannon were awarded a penalty and the vastly-experienced 45-year-old Wilson went quickly to score.

Taking over the place-kicking duties from namesake Miskimmin, Hawkes duly converted to put Dungannon 26-0 up after 52 minutes, whereupon club stalwart Amy McKeown replaced Forker and Joanna Ha’unga came on for hooker Lydia Kelly.

McCance and young winger Rebecca Kirkland, who had scored a memorable long-range try against Omagh in the semi-final, both made good runs but Dungannon got penalised on a number of occasions around the opposition 22.

At times it almost felt like the referee was sharp on the whistle with the team in blue and white in the hope that this might help prevent an even more one-sided scoreline developing, but the hosts still finished with a flourish.

Beccie McCauley became the last of the Dungannon bench to be given a taste of the action with 68 minutes gone, when Gillanders and Moore returned to the fray and Forker followed shortly afterwards.

There was a lengthy stoppage while influential flanker Redmond was removed from the field – she was taken to hospital after the match with a leg injury – but Dungannon soon scored their fifth try through her replacement Miskimmin when play resumed.

The referee adjudged Dungannon to have been held up over the line but Miskimmin broke through to touch down moments later with Hawkes converting before breaks by centres Lynch and Forker created the platform for one last score.

As with the first try of an afternoon which had a few short showers but ended in glorious sunshine, the sixth was scored by that woman McCance wide on the right, making it difficult for Hawkes to take the team’s tally to 40, though her conversion attempt wasn’t far away.

Dungannon’s Player of the Match award went jointly to the injured Redmond, who was ferocious in contact on either side of the ball as well as being a go-to lineout option, and the mercurial Lynch, who had one of her outstanding days.

She had left opponents strewn like roadkill on the way to her try, while fellow centre Forker made a couple of savage tackles on a day Dungannon were really up for the battle despite being overwhelming favourites.

It isn’t often you get to play a final on your home pitch or enjoy such superiority in one but it would be hard to begrudge Dungannon making the most of what was a golden opportunity to win a first trophy under head coach Conor McElmeel.

They were on the brink of securing silverware in the Armagh businessman’s first season at the helm having come through an epic encounter with Lisburn in the semi ,but that final in the spring of 2020 never took place due to the first coronavirus shutdown.

When rugby resumed in the autumn of the following year, Dungannon consolidated their place in the Ulster Premiership with Armagh gaelic footballer Niamh Marley making an immediate impact in her new sport.

The silver lining for Dungannon of being drawn against mighty Malone first up in the Ulster Cup was that they would become hot favourites to win the subsidiary Shield following inevitable elimination from the province’s main knockout competition.

Dungannon duly had an emphatic 35-0 away win against Omagh in the semi but were wary of complacency ahead of the final against a side they had defeated 55-5 at Deramore Park in the first league game and 29-0 at home in the return fixture.

It is sometimes said form-guides don’t mean much when it comes to finals but, on the day, Dungannon’s 38-point winning margin was exceptionally close to the average from those previous victories over Harlequins.

This was a competitive enough encounter despite the scoreline but the outcome was never in doubt on a special day when Dungannon held their first ever official lunch before a women’s game and McCance’s strapping 18-year-old son Ryan was the match ball sponsor.

Aoife Forker on the attack for Dungannon

With City of Armagh RFC focused on their thriving underage section and Portadown and Lurgan, along with Clogher Valley, further down the competitive pyramid, Dungannon are representing a big geographical area as the only Ulster Premiership club.

They will hope this silverware win helps keep players on board and also attracts new recruits, including converts to the sport who may be drawn in by a sense of Irish women’s rugby being on the up again and offering the opportunity to play professionally.

The career of Leah McGoldrick, the highest-profile figure in that pandemic-thwarted team of four years ago, has been ruined by injury and more recent Ulster player Marley is currently a long-term absentee but she has shown Dungannon is a springboard to representative rugby.

Another latecomer McCance’s involvement with Ulster a couple of years ago, shining as an impact player in the northern province’s dramatic comeback to beat Connacht in a friendly, was brief but the 38-year-old remains a hugely influential figure in the Dungannon jersey.

The hosts had been on top for much of the first quarter of this showpiece without reward, sometimes lacking composure close to the tryline, but the charismatic captain came up with that nerve-settling score early in the second and McElmeel’s side never looked back.

Along with the club’s trailblazing former rugby chairperson Wilson, who seems set to continue playing, Sunday was also a proud day for two of Dungannon’s original age group girls team, forceful flanker Kim Johnston and lively vice-captain Saunders.

Laura and her dad Gerry Saunders, the hugely knowledgeable assistant coach to natural frontman McElmeel, are currently running an eight-week Give It A Try programme for girls aged 8-14, with the second session taking place on Tuesday evening (April 30) at the club.

DUNGANNON: N Dunwoody; R Kirkland, S Lynch, A Forker, R Moore; L Saunders, C Wilson; T Hutton, L Kelly, G Roper, K Miskimmin, G Gillanders, K Johnston, D Redmond, C McCance (capt).  Replacements (all used): K Hawkes, R Todd, L Handley-Majoram, J Gilmore, A McKeown, J Ha’unga, R McCauley.

The Dungannon team ahead of the Ulster Shield final

Donna Redmond wins a lineout for Dungannon

Dungannon vice-captain Laura Saunders puts in a tackle

Dungannon’s teenage winger Rebecca Kirkland is tackled

A contest at the lineout during the Ulster Shield final

Lock Kirsty Miskimmin scores Dungannon’s fifth try

Replacement Kirsty Hawkes kicks a conversion

Captain Colleen McCance (left) and vice-captain Laura Saunders at the trophy presentation

The victorious Dungannon squad and management 

Dungannon’s try-scorers (from left) Cheryl Wilson, Aoife Forker, Colleen McCance, Kirsty Miskimmin and Stephanie Lynch

Dungannon captain Colleen McCance with teenage son Ryan

Dungannon head coach Conor McElmeel with grand-daughter Ada