Ballymena made a winning start to their Ulster Bank All-Ireland League campaign with an exciting 27-23 win over Belfast Harlequins.
The rain that had been forecast didn’t arrive, so apart from a moderate breeze blowing down the pitch, playing conditions were excellent, allowing both teams to play fast, open rugby.
Playing against the breeze, Quins took an early lead with a Mark Best penalty, but that only lasted till the twelfth minute when a Ballymena back movement broke down and the referee awarded Quins a penalty inside their 22 metre area for a Ballymena player holding on to the ball.
They took a quick tap and counter attacked, but that movement came to an end when Jordan Foster, running back towards his own line, intercepted and fed the ball infield.
The ball came into the hands of Roger McBurney, who set off at pace, sidestepping a number of defenders.
When the Quins defence finally stopped him, he off loaded to Callum Patterson who made ground and sent Marty Irwin in at the posts for a try which Richie McMaster converted to make the score 7-3.
In the 23rd minute a McMaster penalty increased the lead to 10-3, but the Ballymena pack failed to deal with the restart and gave possession back to Quins.
They moved the ball wide on the left and a missed tackle in midfield left the Quins backs with room to move and score a try, which Best failed to convert, although he did land a penalty shortly afterwards.
A penalty by McMaster extended Ballymena’s lead to 13-8, but another Quins attack, resulting again from Ballymena’s failure to deal with the restart, created space for the backs who put the left wing at the corner.
Best gain failed to convert, so the scores were tied at 13-13 as half time approached.
On the forty minute mark, a great run by Matthew Rea found Harkness in support, who moved the ball on to Patterson.
He made ground, chipped ahead and outpaced the defence to get the touch down.
McMaster, who was having a good day with the boot and his all round game, converted to make the score 20-13 at the break.
The second half began with a period of Quins dominance which was rewarded by a try which Best converted to bring the score level at 20-20.
He then kicked a penalty to put Quins in the lead for the first time in the game, and with them making most of the running, things looked ominous for the home side.
A break by John Creighton, who has had an impressive start to the season, put Patrick McGowan in the clear but a last ditch tackle by the Quins defence save a certain try.
With 22 minutes of the half gone, Ballymena took a quick penalty and moved the ball right across the pitch, where McGowan again featured, and put a good pass into Foster’s hands.
The ball was won quickly and David Whann, who had taken most of his side’s lineout ball, took Creighton’s pass at pace, burst through the defence, sold a brilliant dummy to the full back and raced over for a try which McMaster converted.
That put Ballymena back in the lead at 27-23, and despite a lot of Quins pressure, that’s how it finished up.
Coach Andy Graham was delighted with this win against a very good Harlequins side, while acknowledging that they are things to work on.
But given the number of new faces in the current team, he and Nicky Wells are to be congratulated on producing such a cohesive performance
Next AIL game involves the long journey to Cork to play Dolphin, kick off 1:00 pm.