Report from Eaton Park
All Ireland League Division 1B
Ballymena 1st XV 24 Ballynahinch 1st XV 43
Ballynahinch remained top of Division 1B of the All Ireland League and Ballymena rooted to the bottom as the Ulster sides fought out a relatively entertaining derby game in Co Antrim. Hinch remain top of the table with Dublin University, both sides remaining unbeaten from six outings.
The Braidsiders, in spite of being at home, were the underdogs against a Hinch side which has strength in depth this season and also like to play a good brand of football. It was an intriguing affair, with Ballynahinch racing into a 36-3 interval lead before Ballymena began a resurgence in the second half, but the closest they came was to close the gap to 12 points in winning the second half 21-7. That was as much to do with the strong breeze and a total change in attitude from the two sides in the second half.
Interestingly, Ballymena won the toss and elected to play against the wind and into the low winter sun. Their defensive efforts were certainly solid against Belfast Harlequins the previous week, in spite of eventually losing 16-11.
But the defence in the opening quarter by the home side was simply porous and before the half hour mark, Ballynahinch has their try scoring bonus point secure and there were fears Ballymena were heading for another huge defeat as they had done against Malone earlier in the season.
It was the substitutions, plus the elements, which had an impact in the second half. John Burns, Simon Shaw and Darrell O’Kane did bring something extra to the table, while Ballynahinch’s decision to put a plethora of subs at one time rather than use the rolling replacements, seemed to disrupt the side – although leading 36-3 at the interval may have played on the minds.
In the second half Ballymena rallied well, played some good rugby and deservedly scored three tries – but they were just unable to push on and salvage a couple of bonus points with a fourth try and reducing the losing margin to seven or less.
Outstanding player on the day, Hinch winger, Chris Quinn, opened the scoring in the first minute with a penalty and then Ballymena’s defence were completely found wanting four minutes later when an overthrown lineout was gathered by scrumhalf Aaron Cairns, and he breezed in through a wide open gap for a try which Quinn converted.
Ballymena scrumhalf, Scott Gibson reduced the arrears with a penalty on eight minutes, but a minute later, from turnover ball, Hinch flashed ball right and Quinn tore away, took the defence on the outside and raced in for a score at the corner flag. He steadied himself and drilled over a superb conversion. It was 17-3 and the clock was not even showing double figures.
It was to get worse for Ballymena when referee Simon McDowell put openside loose, Stephen Mulholland, in the sinbin on 14 minutes.
Hinch obviously saw their opportunity, scrumhalf Cairns made a nice break forcing home outhalf Martin Irwin put in a great tackle. But the visitors were on the front foot, and fullback, Adam Craig was to scamper in and Quinn converted.
Although back to full numbers again Ballymena could not halt the Hinch onslaught and the bonus point securing fourth try arrived on 27 minutes.
Things really livened up in the closing minutes. Ballymena launched their first meaningful attack with winger Nicolas Stirling almost wriggling free on the right, but Hinch soaked it up, turned ball over and launched their own counter attack.
Ballymena winger, Darrell Montgomery then found himself in the bin and a try from former Ballymena start, Paul Pritchard,, converted by Quinn, saw the visitors go in at the break leading 36-3.
Ballymena lost key player, Scott Gibson early in the second half, injured almost scoring a try in the 43rd minute, but the Braidsiders, once they had returned to full strength again, began to use the elements well and they also had replacement hooker, John Burns and Simon Shaw now on the pitch which boosted their scrum.
It was Burns who intercepted a visiting attack on his own ‘22’ and made a galloping break and eventually the home side were pressing the Hinch line again.
However, a quick tap penalty from Hinch fullback, Craig, saw him take off and make an amazing weaving run, going through tackles at ease. It looked as if he would score the try of season only for a last asp tap tackle from his opposite number, Tim Small to deny him a certain try.
Ballymena began to gain the upper hand, particularly up front, winning the breakdowns and there seemed to be a new found belief in the side.
Burns was again prominent and from a penalty off a scrum, a quick tap penalty saw O’Kane lead the initial charge, he reverse offloaded to Burns and the pack drove for the line. It was replacement Conor Smyth who got the vital touchdown and Small’s conversion sneaked over on the hour mark.
Hinch were obviously rattled and three minutes later Small was to score the try of the match when he broke clear straightened and skinned three players on the left before going in for a try – again adding the extras to make it 17-36.
Ballymena were in a purple patch, their pack completely on top and they scored again with seven minutes to go, Muholland going over for a third try, Small adding the extras to leave just 12 points in it.
But with time running out and Hinch lifting themselves for one last push, Ballymena were going to be hard pressed to find another score which would have given them a deserved losing point at least – even two points if that score had been a try.
It was Hinch who picked themselves up they pressed the home side. Their scrum was now pushing forwards and from one, the backline was released and replacement Michael Lawton had the final say of the afternoon when he went over for a sixth try, then added the extras. Another mission completed for the Co Down men.
Ballymena, still to register a win, fell further behind at the bottom, as fellow strugglers, Blackrock College won their second successive away game, this time at Dungannon.
Bruff also picked up ground as they defeated Belfast Harlequins 21-17.
Ballymena: Tim Small; Nicolas Stirling, Alan Smyth, Peter Budina, Darrell Montgomery; Martin Irwin, Scott Gibson; Andrew Warwick, John Andrew, Mark Irving, Ian Cadlwell, David Whann, Matthew Rea, Stephen Hulholland, Adrian Hamilton.
Replacements (rolling): Simon Shaw, John Burns, Darrell O’Kane, Conor Smyth, Ian Vance.
Ballynahinch: Adam Craig, Chris Quinn, Stuart Morrow, Robin Harte, Aaron Ferris; James Thompson, Aaron Cairns; Kyle McCall, Gavin Armstrong, Conor Carey, Robert Greer, Chris Napier, Jonny Madden, Paul Pritchard, Neil Faloon.
Repalcements (rolling): Rodger McBurney, Michael Lawton, Michael Graham, Jonney Simpson, Chris Stevenson