Ballymena’s dreams of back-to-back promotions in the Ulster Bank All-Ireland League finally came to an end at the weekend.
Andy Graham’s side can no longer achieve a play-off place in Division 1B after falling to a 17-5 defeat the hands of one of their promotion rivals Garryowen on Saturday.
It marks the end of a remarkable achievement for Ballymena, who have enjoyed a termendous campaign since coming back up from Division 2A last season, but Saturday’s defeat means any thoughts of a return to Irish club rugby’s ‘top table’ must wat until next season.
Ballymena elected to play with the strong wind that was blowing straight down the pitch, and for the first ten minutes of the game took advantage of it, coming close to crossing the Garryowen line from a line out drive.
That came to nothing, and the bigger Garryowen pack began to assert itself, keeping the ball tight and driving at the Ballymena defence, only rarely attempting to move the ball wide.
Their reward for the pressure came after thirteen minutes when out half Jamie Gavin kicked an easy penalty after Ballymena had infringed at a ruck.
For most of the rest of the first half the pattern of play remained the same, with the Ballymena defence holding out.
Two minutes before half time Garryowen scored their only try of the game when an inside pass from scrum half Glynn put right wing McMahon in the clear.
He cut back infield and linked up with left wing McInerney who crossed in the left corner for a try which Gavin couldn’t convert.
That put Garryowen eight points ahead at half time, with the prospect of playing with the wind behind them in the second half.
Ballymena tried to raise the tempo of their game after the break, but made little impression against a strong, well organised Garryowen defence.
Instead, it was the visitors who put the second half points on the board with three further penalties by Gavin to stretch the lead to 17-0, the last of the three coming with only minutes left on the clock.
That last fifteen minutes was probably Ballymena’s best spell in the game, and they crowned their efforts with a superb try.
Dave Ryan, who had been prominent all afternoon, found Stephen Mulholland who made ground before passing to Dominic Gallagher who made thirty metres before delivering the scoring pass to Callum Patterson.
He showed great pace and determination to get in at the corner for a try which he was unable to convert, leaving the final score 17-5 in favour of the visitors.
With only two games left, against Shannon away and Buccaneers at home, Ballymena’s chances of a play-off spot have gone.
However, a top four position in Division 1B is certain, no mean achievement in itself and a situation which the coaching team and players would happily have settled for at the start of the season.
It’s a break from All-Ireland League action again for Ballymena this weekend when they resume their Ulster Championship League campaign by making the short trip to Magherafelt to face Rainey Old Boys.
For many club members, the big attraction this weekend will be at Eaton Park where the 2nd XV play their semi-final of the Towns Cup against Clogher Valley.
It’s a repeat of last year’s tie which Clogher won narrowly.
Another tight game is in prospect and the team would welcome all support as they try to reach the final.
Prior to last Saturday’s game against Garryowen, special presentations were made to club stalwarts Syd Millar and Willie-John McBride, marking their invaluable contribution to the club over the years.