By Peter Cowan
Your Craigavon Cowboys have made it to the IAFL 1 Bowl and will face off against the West Dublin Rhinos in Gorey, Wexford on 12th August 2018.
But how did the men in orange get here? The gruelling season began five months ago, all the way back in March, with the Cowboys still smarting from their loss to the Louth Mavericks in last year’s IAFL 1 Bowl. It was an offseason of building on the previous year’s success, with former offensive lineman Mark Beattie taking the reigns as defensive co-ordinator and quarterback Christian Cowan returning from study (and balling) abroad in England and Sweden to coach the offense. Continuity is key though, and the Cowboys were blessed to have Greg Loughran return for an 11th year as head coach.
After a 27-14 preseason win over the Mavericks in February soothed last year’s pain slightly, the Cowboys kicked off their season against the Cill Dara Crusaders at temporary home ground Lurgan RFC on March 25th. The Kildare side had been formed in the offseason as a combination of the North Kildare Reapers and South Kildare Soldiers, so while many of the players on the squad had experience, this was their first time playing competitively together. Growing pains were to be expected, and the Cowboys duly ran out 52-14 winners with Andy Herron running in four touchdowns.
Next up was a trip to the Antrim Jets on April 15th, in a game where unfortunately the biggest talking point was officiating. Three Cowboys and one Jet were ejected. Nonetheless, the Cowboys took a 28-0 win, with the defence shining by pitching a shut-out and even getting on the scoreboard through linebacker and club president Jo Buchanan’s safety, while his cousin Herron continued his blistering start to the season with another three scores on the ground.
Three weeks later, the Cowboys faced one of their toughest tests of the season in the form of an away game to the Wexford Eagles, with key players Peter Loughran and Jonny Doyle-Martin missing through suspension. As usual when these two sides meet, the game was an exciting affair with neither side giving the other an inch. In the end though, the Cowboys fell to a 21-6 defeat and it’s fair to say on the day the Eagles were superior in all three phases of the game.
There was no time for the Armagh men to feel sorry for themselves though, with their first proper home game of the season in Portadown People’s Park against the Westmeath Minotaurs the next week. Two passing touchdowns from Christian Cowan to receivers Luis Alberto and Anton Nulty led the home side to a 13-6 victory, but in truth it was a stuttering performance, and head coach Greg Loughran let his charges know they were capable of better.
In a preview of the IAFL 1 Bowl, the Cowboys travelled to Castleknock College on May 20th to face the West Dublin Rhinos. If the final is anything like this game was spectators are in for a treat on August 12th. The game started with both defences on top until Jo Buchanan opened the scoring from running back, before the Rhinos replied immediately with a kick-off return touchdown. Soon after they ran one in through a quarterback sweep, before a long Andy Herron run levelled the scores at 14-14. The seesaw of a game continued with another Rhinos rushing score, which was followed almost immediately by a 75-yard Cowan to Nulty touchdown bomb to put the Cowboys up 21-20. There had to a winner though, and the home side proceeded to put together a clock-sapping drive down the field, before a short field goal secured a 23-21 victory at the death.
With the Cowboys sitting at 3-2 on the season the next game away to the Donegal/Derry Vipers in Limavady on June 3rd became that much more important. Unfortunately, the Cowboys never got going on the day, falling to a 29-6 defeat.
Now 3-3, it was time for the Cowboys to put up or shut up if they wanted a chance at playoff football. The NI Razorbacks came to Portadown on June 17th and were the recipients of a convincing 47-6 beating as the Cowboys got their mojo back. Six different Cowboys scored on the day, including rookie cornerback David McMichael on a safety.
With the final regular season game a 30-0 forfeit victory over the Meath Bulldogs, the Cowboys ended the regular season 5-3 and secured a home wildcard playoff game against the Galway Warriors. In a game that was delayed an hour due to issues with the Warriors bus, the Cowboys put their experience to good use and outlasted the relatively young club, coming away with a 54-14 win that featured a hat-trick of scores from rookie Jamie Wilson.
Victory over Galway gave the Cowboys a chance to revenge their first loss of the season and to end the Wexford Eagles hopes of IAFL 1 glory in the semi-finals for the second season running. It would be a tough task away in Gorey on July 29th, but the Cowboys were buoyed by the return of Peter Loughran and Jonny Magee from their season playing for the Kouvola Indians of Finland.
The Cowboys made a poor start, allowing a 70-yard touchdown run from the Eagles to give the home side a 7-0 half-time lead. Undeterred, Andy Herron answered with a touchdown run of his own to tie the game in the second half, before the Eagles once again took the lead with another rushing score. The Cowboys never seem to know when they’re beaten and strong blocking from an offensive line that put in their best performance all year led to another Herron score, levelling the game at 14-14.
Both sides traded scoreless possessions until late into the fourth quarter, when the Cowboys drove deep into Wexford territory, with their punishing ground game chewing up yards and the clock. With only seconds left, the away side lined up for a 39-yard field goal. Rookie kicker Marty Dixon faced a long wait before he could attempt the biggest field goal of his fledgling career, with a penalty and a Wexford timeout extending the drama. Somehow, with the season on his shoulders, Dixon remained ice cool and slotted home the kick, giving the Cowboys a 17-14 victory and sending the Craigavon men into ecstatic celebrations.
A season filled with ups and downs and drama in spades comes to an end on August 12th. The Cowboys were here before last year and remember the pain of an IAFL 1 Bowl loss. The only question left to answer is who will leave Wexford victorious and who will be left with regrets. One thing’s for sure though, fireworks are guaranteed.
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