Malone 2’s 22 Ballynahinch 2’s 27
Chris Parker reports from Gibson Park
Ballynahinch 2’s travelled to Gibson Park on Saturday knowing that nothing less than a win, in their penultimate league fixture, would suffice as they challenge for the 2nd XV League title. Hinch made a bright start to the match and despite the poor conditions tried to play expansive rugby, this led to the 2s threatening the Malone defence but it also led to a few handling errors at key moments.
This start was rewarded with the first points of the game when James McBriar spotted a gap in the Malone defensive line and from just outside the 22 he had the pace to round the full back and score wide on the left, unfortunately the conversion was just wide. Malone responded with pressure in the Hinch 22 but some excellent defence and key turnovers allowed McBriar to clear his lines and push Malone deep back Into their own half.
Hinch began to slip off tackles and this led to a Malone try in the left hand corner which was excellently converted to push the Cregagh Road side into a 7-5 lead. Hinch began to retain the ball better and the back three of Arneill, Nicholson and Heatley always looked dangerous on the counter and from a loose Malone clearance Nicholson made a break before sending Heatley away as he drew the full back to give Nicholson the return pass and a walk in, the ball was deliberately slapped down by the Malone centre which led to a Hinch penalty and 10 minutes in the bin for the offending player.
The 2’s knew they had to make the extra numbers count and for the next 10 minutes remained in the Malone 22 with Hamilton, Donaldson and James carrying strongly. Twice Nicholson was bundled into touch as he tried to score in the corner and on 2 other occasions poor decision making prevented two walk in tries.
Finally Hinch made the break through as McMullan fed McBriar from the base of a ruck, the scrum-half was tackled after the pass, everybody stopped for a penalty which wasn’t awarded and McBriar ghosted through the static Malone defence to score to the right of the posts and making the conversion a formality.
Malone responded and forced a penalty which was converted and on the half time whistle they scored a well taken try which was converted to put the Red Sox 17-12 ahead at half time. The 10 points conceded in a matter of minutes could have led to the 2s dropping their heads but if anything it galvanised the side as they started the second half strongly.
The Hinch back 3’s willingness to keep the ball in play and move the ball from quick line outs resulted in the Malone defence constantly being under pressure and following a good carry by Nelson which was continued on by James, Hinch forced a penalty which McBriar converted to leave only 2 points between the teams.
Hinch had begun to get the upper hand at scrum time with Hamilton, Nelson and Samuels causing their opposite numbers a lot of trouble, this laid the platform for the Hinch back-line to trouble the Malone defence. Once again Nicholson made a break, from a loose kick, before feeding Heatley, the winger showed great awareness to find Nicholson again on a great support line, he took possession on and found Donaldson in support but his inside ball to McKeown couldn’t go to hand and Malone managed to clear their lines.
The expansive game that the 2s try to play finally paid off when great hands and support play between Arneill, Connolly and Jordan McMullan saw the ball fed to Nicholson and the full back showed great foot work and acceleration to sneak in at the corner for a deserved try, McBriar made the touch line conversion look easy to put the 2s 22-17 ahead.
Malone refused to lie down and came back strongly with Shane Kelly always a threat from the base of the ruck and following a good break from the Malone out half they forced a penalty in the Hinch 22. Malone kicked to the corner and attempted to maul the Hinch pack over but excellent maul defence organised by Nelson and Morton saw the Hinch men hold their line. Malone played very narrow but excellent fringe defence from Harris and Jordan McMullan saw the Belfast side pushed back. The pressure finally paid off when the Malone second row forced his way over, the conversion was successful and Malone had a 2 point lead with 7 minutes remaining.
An excellent restart by McBriar allowed McKeown to regain possession, James and Nelson then had two strong carries before Ben McMullan sniped from the side of a ruck on the Malone 10m line, the scrum half showed great pace to take play into the Malone 22. The Hinch support did well to get to the breakdown and excellent work by Donaldson and James created quick ball that allowed McBriar to spot a half gap in the defence, the out half produced a strong hand off to push away his opposite number before crossing for his hat trick. The conversion was unsuccessful but Hinch now led 27-24 with 3 minutes remaining. The restart gave Hinch the ball back and excellent ball retention plus game management allowed them to see out the game and claim the victory.
This game must have been fantastic viewing for the neutral with both sides keen to play good rugby in poor conditions. This wasn’t the most accurate performance from the 2’s but in poor conditions they played some superb rugby with all 15 players making telling contributions. The most pleasing aspect was the character and belief shown by the players to come from behind three times and claim an important victory.
The 2’s remain top of the 2nd XV League and know a win in their final fixture against 2nd placed Ballymena would secure the title. Next Friday the 2s face Randalstown at home with a 7.30 kick off, all support would be appreciated as the side look to keep up their challenge for the conference title.
Team: Nicholson, Arneill, James, Harris, Heatley, McBriar, B. McMullan, Morton, Donaldson, J. McMullan, McKeown, Connolly, Samuels, Nelson, Hamilton.