Kilkenny 20 Tullow 24

Tullow just about held on to beat Kilkenny in a terrific Bank of Ireland Provincial Towns Cup final at Athy RFC on Sunday.

Man of the Match Garrett Fitzgerald made all the difference with two tries that gave them the lead they needed to repel a valiant late charge by Kilkenny.

The nerves were a factor in the opening skirmishes as Tullow’s superiority in the scrum was countered by Wesley Carter’s command at the lineout.

The pressure applied from a splintering maul caused a penalty which Kilkenny put to touch only to promptly lose the ball to an overthrow at the lineout, allowing Tullow to move downfield.

The Carlow club turned on the power at the scrum through the front row of Scott Caldbeck, Jordan Leybourne and Tom Cashen to earn a certain three points.

Instead, captain Caldbeck decided on the risk of another scrum, finding reward when Fitzgerald sniped for the line, Adam Johnson converting in the 18th minute.

Kilkenny were quick to respond, the pack chasing the restart to force a penalty which Hugh Corkery nailed from distance for 7-3 in the 21st minute.

Straight away, Tullow rectified that setback when full-back Johnson slotted from in front in the 24th minute.

The ‘you score, we score’ trend continued when Kilkenny narrowed the gap to 10-6 from Corkery’s second penalty.

However, there was a sharper edge to Tullow’s work on the fringes to get into the right area. Johnson was able to breach the defence and add the conversion just past the half hour.

When Kilkenny had a clear chance to clip over a penalty, the decision was taken to go to the corner where Tullow managed to sack the lineout and force a knock-on.

Still, they had to fend off one last attack from Kilkenny when Lyndon Brannigan spilt the ball to maintain the 17-6 lead at the interval.

The 2017 champions got back down to business quickly, pressing the action to eke out a penalty which was used to target a lineout inside the 22.

This is where their Achilles heel came back to bite them, losing a fourth lineout to ignite a Kilkenny breakout, Liam Caddy and Brannigan coming into the game.

The problem was these ‘Cats’ were making ground wider out without making it count the only place it matters – on the scoreboard.

The importance of the next score was playing out in the scrappy nature of the game, with neither side able to dominate, which suited Tullow.

Out of nowhere, the electric scrum-half Fitzgerald flashed onto a pass by Scott Sullivan-Magne from an exquisite support line to outpace the cover, Johnson adding the conversion for 24-6 in the third quarter.

It was a long way back from there for Kilkenny and out-half Jamie Cooper’s kicking kept them pinned back.

It took a long ball forward from Ioan Lewis to turn the tables, centre Podge Mahon availing of a gap to go for broke, Corkery nailing the conversion for 24-13 on the hour.

The Kilkenny’s tails were well and truly up, Jake McDonald rifling a penalty inside the 22 to launch from their lineout.

Their ability to stitch phases together was compromised by Tullow’s discipline in defence, Cooper relieving his lines with aplomb.

The holders refused to accept the inevitable, feeding on the tiring limbs of Tullow when Joe Manuel tore up the middle for Corkery’s conversion to make it 24-20 in the 73rd minute.

Hard-charging centre Christian Vainerere’s direct carry earned a penalty which Cooper used to secure territory.

There were panic stations when Kilkenny came flooding through from a McDonald kick, the ball beating the chasers to the end line.

Kilkenny had the momentum behind them and were hot on attack going into injury-time, centre Manuel taking play up to five metres out.

Their continuity was good enough to apply pressure from one last Wesley Carter lineout take, the ball moved wide where it just didn’t go to hand to the ecstasy of Tullow’s players and supporters.

Scorers: Tullow – A Johnson try, pen, 3 cons; G Fitzgerald 2 tries. Kilkenny – J Manuel, P Mahon try each; H Corkery 2 pens, 2 cons.

Tullow: Adam Johnson; Scott Sullivan-Magne, Christian Vainerere, Fionn Murphy, Jack Hanlon; Jamie Cooper, Garrett Fitzgerald; Scott Caldbeck (Capt), Jordan Leybourne, Tom Cashen; Colm Gorry, Martin Cole; Conor Duffy, Cillian Murphy, Stephen Smith.

Replacements – Aaron O Byrne, Fiach Kavanagh, Joe Waters, Jack McDonald, Ryan O Neill.

Kilkenny: Liam Caddy; Hugh Corkery, Podge Mahon, Joe Manuel, Lyndon Brannigan; Jake McDonald (Capt), Rory McInerney; Brian Howe, Ben Devlin, Abel Viana, Jake Caldbeck, Damian Leahy, Wes Carter, Garry Dunne, David O’Connor.

Replacements – Martin Leahy, Joe Moynihan, Andrew Warner, Ioan Lewis, Willie Seale.

Referee: D Williams, Leinster Branch.