Ballymena First XV continued their impressive start to their return to Ulster Bank All-Ireland League Division 1A with a fourth successive victory on Saturday.
Andy Graham’s side clinched a bonus point victory with a 30-23 success at UL Bohemian.
Ballymena made the long journey to Limerick with a team shorn of the players involved with Ulster at any level, and missing Callum Patterson, out of action with a broken arm sustained in the Dublin University game.
But, as it turned out, Andy Graham’s faith in the overall strength of his squad was more than justified, as his team turned in a really gutsy performance to beat UL Bohemians on their own ground, and bring home a try bonus point.
So, after the first round of four Division 1B games Ballymena sit second in the table, one point behind Galwegians, also newly promoted.
There is now a short break until the first Saturday in September, when they travel to Galway, for what should be a very interesting contest.
Ballymena opened the scoring against UL Bohs with a text book try, when a line out ball won by Mark Foster off the top was quickly moved to the backs. Sean Taylor and Marty Irwin ran great lines and created space for Paddy James who made the running to put James Beattie clear, and he outpaced the defence to go in at the corner for an unconverted try.
UL Bohs responded with a try of their own, which they converted to make the score 7-5, and an exchange of penalties, two by McMaster, saw the teams go into the break with Ballymena leading 11-10.
The second half opened with a penalty to Bohs, which put them back into the lead, but that was cancelled out after some smart work by the Ballymena backs. A Sean Taylor grubber kick didn’t quite come off, and Bohs managed to regain possession of the ball.
Their attempted clearance was charged down by Marty Irwin, who was the first to react, beating the defence to the touchdown and putting his team back into the lead at 16-11, soon turned into an 18-11 lead with McMaster’s conversion.
Ballymena’s third try was instigated by a series of forward drives, carried on by centre Paddy James, who switched the direction of play and sent Jordan Foster clean through the middle to score between the posts, leaving McMaster with the easiest of conversions, and giving the visitors a 23-10 lead.
That lead was whittled away by two Bohs’ penalties, reducing the Ballymena lead to a slender seven points.
Things became even more difficult when two Ballymena players were on the wrong end of yellow card decisions, so that they played for a large part of the second half with fourteen players on the pitch.
Even at that, they managed to score another try, when McMaster put a lovely floated kick, which Irwin claimed in the air, coming down on the other side of the two contesting Bohs players. He accelerated away for a try, which McMaster converted, creating a fourteen point gap at 30-16.
But Bohs weren’t finished and scored a converted try to reduce the Ballymena lead once again to seven points, and set up what Coach Andy Graham described as a “nervy finish”. At that stage McMaster narrowly missed with a penalty attempt, which would have created a ten point gap and given a bit of breathing space.
The game seemed poised for a draw when Bohs won a penalty and kicked to the corner for a lineout catch and drive, but Connor Smyth, who had played superbly throughout, ripped the ball from the arms of the Bohs jumper, and the resultant clearance kick by McMaster brought the game to an end.
Andy Graham was full of praise for what he described as a complete team performance; he felt that Ballymena were the better team throughout and again showed that determination and defensive quality which has seen them through on many occasions.
Stressing that it was a team performance, he singled out Willie McKay and Connor Smyth for two tremendous performances and was delighted to see what the backs had practised in training come through under match conditions.