By Peter Cowan
The Craigavon Cowboys take on the West Dublin Rhinos on August 12th in Wexford in the IAFL 1 Bowl, but it’s far from the first time these two sides have met.
Over the last eight years, the two clubs have faced each other 10 times, with the Cowboys winning six of those fixtures and the Rhinos four. While they may have been founded 30 years and about 90 miles apart, the two clubs have a lot in common.
Both have earned reputations for fielding hard-hitting and competitive teams that never know when they’re defeated. Each club also recently dropped down to IAFL 1 after years competing at the top level in Ireland, the Rhinos in 2015 and the Cowboys in 2016.
Things are looking up now though, as they each sit four quarters away from silverware. Let’s take a trip down memory lane and see how previous meetings between the two sides played out.
The Rhinos were founded in 2008, but it would be two years before they would meet the Cowboys on the field. The Craigavon side had only reformed in 2005 after a long hiatus, and 2010 was their first season back playing 11-a-side football after winning the 2009 DV8 championship.
The Rhinos took this first meeting in April at home at Castleknock College, securing an 18-6 victory. Quarterback Michael McGregor threw the visitor’s lone touchdown to tight-end Chris Bondi, a position McGregor now occupies for the 2018 Cowboys. The Rhinos’ winning touchdown was scored through a rushing play, after current player and head coach Barry Bolton pounced on a Craigavon fumble.
The Rhinos went on to reach the semi-finals of the Shamrock Bowl playoffs that season, while the Cowboys finished 4-4 and narrowly missed out on a trip to the postseason.
Credit: Barry Bolton
Of all previous Cowboys-Rhinos clashes, this one probably had the most riding on it, at least for Craigavon.
Heading the final game of the season, the Cowboys were 3-4 and sniffing a wildcard playoff spot, while the Rhinos were out of the hunt at 2-5 and playing only for pride. In a close encounter at a sun-drenched Lurgan Park, the Cowboys came away with a 24-14 victory, sealing a playoff spot and ending the Rhinos’ season in disappointment.
The Cowboys went on to cause an upset in the wildcard round, defeating the Belfast Trojans away from home, before falling to the University of Limerick Vikings in the semi-finals, one win away from a Shamrock Bowl appearance.
In a reverse from the previous year’s fixture, this time the Rhinos beat Craigavon to secure playoff football for the Dublin side.
The game in Castleknock College was played under heavy wind and rain, ensuring a low-scoring affair filled with turnovers. The Rhinos dug out a 13-6 victory, with kicker Paul Hosford slotting over two field goals and one extra point. Hosford is likely to be handling kicking duties for the Rhinos on August 12th as well.
The Cowboys finished a year that had begun with such promise 2-6 and out of the playoffs, while the 4-4 Rhinos went on to lose to the Carrickfergus Knights in the wildcard round.
The Rhinos and Cowboys met twice this season, with each side notching a win at home. The first meeting was at Portadown People’s Park in April, with the Cowboys coming out on top with a shutout 23-0 victory, with the Rhinos travelling in small numbers.
One of the scorers on the day was current defensive co-ordinator Mark Beattie, who plunged in from fullback for a short rushing score. Beattie normally played offensive line, but head coach Greg Loughran has always had a thing for giving the big men a carry or two.
The Cowboys would have to do without starting quarterback Peter Loughran in the reverse fixture a few weeks later due to injury. Loughran was replaced by the team’s current signal-caller Christian Cowan, the teenager making only the second start of his career at the position. Defence was the order of the day, with the Rhinos taking a 7-0 victory courtesy of linebacker Brent Tull’s pick six off an errant Cowan pass. The Cowboys moved the ball between the 20s well all day, but were unable to convert in the red zone and had two field goals blocked.
Since their first meeting, this was the first season neither the Cowboys nor the Rhinos made the playoffs, with Craigavon notching a 1-6-1 record and the Rhinos going 2-6.
The two sides met once in 2014, with the Cowboys taking a 26-7 win in Dublin.
The visiting side were now quarterbacked by Conor Fearon, who returned to the Cowboys in the 2018 season and now splits time between linebacker, safety and wide receiver. Fearon hooked up with Peter Loughran for one score, running back John Murray added two on the ground and Tom Neal rounded off the scoring with an interception returned for a touchdown, with current starting guard Jonny Doyle-Martin making a key block (back then though it was just Jonny Martin). Running back Robert Pops scored the Rhinos only touchdown of the day, with the reliable Hosford notching the extra point. Both are set to suit up again for the Dubliners on August 12th.
The Rhinos finished the regular season 3-5, before crashing out of the playoffs at the hands of the University of Limerick Vikings. The Cowboys ended 2-6, but there was optimism after running some of the league’s top teams close.
There was only one meeting between the two sides in 2015, with the Cowboys taking a 28-0 home win at Portadown RFC.
The game was closer than the final score would indicate and the Cowboys only held a 2-0 lead at the half, courtesy of a Lee Mustoe safety. The home side pulled away in the second period though, with quarterback Peter Loughran running for one touchdown and throwing one each to Conrad Smith, Luis Alberto and Andy Herron, all of whom will line up for the Cowboys in Wexford.
The Rhinos finished 1-7 and were relegated to IAFL 1, while the Cowboys notched a 3-5 record to return to the playoffs, where they were dispatched by a strong Dublin Rebels side.
No meetings in 2016 as the teams were in different divisions.
The Rhinos finished the IAFL 1 season 4-4 without a playoff berth, while the Cowboys were relegated from the Shamrock Bowl Conference after going 1-7.
Back in the same division, the Rhinos and Cowboys squared off twice in IAFL 1, with the Craigavon men winning both encounters.
In the first fixture in Portadown People’s Park the Cowboys took a comfortable 26-0 win courtesy of a strong rushing attack. Quarterback Josh Marchbanks scored twice on the ground, while Peter Loughran and rookie Shayne Mone punched the other two touchdowns in.
It was more of the same in Dublin a month later, with the visiting Cowboys taking an 18-7 victory. Loughran scored two rushing touchdowns and caught one from Marchbanks.
The Cowboys ended the regular season 7-1 and went on to lose in the IAFL 1 Bowl to the Louth Mavericks, while the Rhinos missed out on the playoffs with a 3-5 record.
Finally, to this season, where the Rhinos took the spoils 23-21 in May at Castleknock College, in what was probably the most entertaining game yet between the two clubs.
Linebacker, running back and club president (that’s a mouthful) Jo Buchanan opened the scoring for the Cowboys with a rushing touchdown, though the Rhinos’ Ian Fanning took the resulting kick-off 90 yards to the house. Home quarterback Ethan Foster notched a rushing score before Andy Herron levelled things up with a 50-yard run. The Rhinos regained the lead with another Foster score on the ground, but it was to be a short-lived lead as quarterback Christian Cowan then hit receiver Anton Nulty with a 65-yard touchdown bomb.
The Rhinos then ran out most of the remaining four minutes with a long drive, setting up Paul Hosford to nail the game-winning kick.
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