Ballymena returned to winning ways in the Ulster Bank All-Ireland League with a hard-fought 15-14 success over Buccaneers in Athlone.
In the two games against Buccaneers last season Ballymena scored sixty eight points and conceded only eight, but it soon became clear that Buccs were in no mood to let that happen again, and for the first ten minutes of the game they totally dominated possession.
Ballymena slowly worked their way back into the game, but they found the Buccs defence as stubborn as their own. The closest the visitors came to scoring in this period was when Patterson built on some good work by Marty Irwin, but when he kicked ahead he was narrowly beaten to the touchdown by the covering defence.
McMaster was on the mark with his second of two penalty attempts to give his side a narrow lead after half an hour’s play. Buccs won possession from the kick off, and some forceful running by their pack eventually set up a position for their centre to chip ahead for their right wing who beat the retreating Ballymena cover for the first try of the game. The conversion from the touchline failed, so Buccs now enjoyed a 5-3 lead.
That didn’t last long and another powerful scrum by Ballymena close to the opposition try line forced Buccs to concede a penalty. They opted to scrum again and once again the forwards drove for the line, and Glenn Baillie finished the move off by burrowing over from close quarters. The conversion was missed and Ballymena went into the half time break with an 8-5 lead.
The second half was every bit as tight as the first half and Buccs stepped up the pressure, which was rewarded with a penalty after four minutes, which was converted to bring the score level at 8-8.
Ballymena were now exerting all the pressure and were awarded a penalty which McMaster kicked to the corner. A powerful surge from the pack drove Buccs across the line but possession was lost just as the ball was being grounded. That didn’t matter because from the five metre scrum Ballymena again shunted Buccs back across their line for Matthew Rea to get the try, which Andrew Magrath, replacing McMaster, converted.
To their credit Buccaneers never gave up and their efforts were rewarded with a successful penalty in the 70th minute and when Ballymena conceded a second penalty five metres out it was again down to the defensive work that Buccs were held out. But in the process Ballymena conceded another penalty in front of the posts which was converted, reducing the margin to one point and setting up a nervous finish. But the defence held firm and the game ended with Ballymena on the attack when the final whistle blew.
Ballymena now lie second in the table, one point behind St Mary’s, with two fixtures left in the first half of the AIL programme.
This Saturday Ballymena host Queen’s in the semi-final of the Ulster Senior Cup