Ballymena Rugby Club’s hopes of First Trust Senior Cup glory ended with a 17-13 defeat by Malone in Saturday’s semi-final at Eaton Park.
On a mild November day, the home side made their intentions clear from the outset, running the ball at every opportunity.
This paid early dividends when a period of sustained possession, which included a thirty metre run by prop Bryan Young, resulted in a penalty, which Tim Small easily converted.
Malone had similar attacking intentions, and a lively, hard running back division kept the home defence busy, and only a last ditch tackle by full back Sean Taylor prevented a try in the right corner. Exchanges throughout the 80 minutes, were pretty even and it was Ballymena who were given the chance to increase the lead, but Small’s attempt at a long range penalty fell short, and Malone cleared the danger.
From a lineout Malone moved the ball left, nearly getting in at the corner, but the referee adjudged that Ballymena’s attempts to stop the movement were illegal and awarded a penalty five metres from the home line. Ex Ballymena player, John Burns, took the ball at the back of the line out, and when it was quickly recycled, hooker Darryl Maxwell took the short pass to crash over near the posts, leaving an easy conversion.
Small missed another long range penalty, but it was Malone who got on the score sheet next. Initially the penalty was out of range but a moment of indiscipline saw the referee march ten metres further into Ballymena territory, putting the kick well within range. Out half Burns duly obliged and Ballymena found themselves 10-3 in arrears.
A great run by Stephen Mulholland seemed to have set up a position for Matthew Rea to score but he lost possession going over the line. The referee awarded a penalty to Ballymena on the five metre line, and it looked like the ideal opportunity to set up a catch and drive from the lineout. But possession was lost in the drive towards the line and Malone cleared the danger as the half finished 10-3.
Ballymena continued to attack in the second half, and following a surge forward by Ian Caldwell the ball was moved right to Small, whose pass put Matthew Rea in the clear. He made 40 metres, and when the Malone defence closed in round him, he off loaded beautifully to Martin Irwin, who dotted the ball down between the posts for a superb try, converted by Small. The same player kicked a penalty shortly afterwards and made what looked to be a try scoring break, but he was tackled into touch ten metres short of the try line.
That slender 13-10 lead looked as if it might be enough, but Malone were still willing to attack. A Malone kick ahead was fielded by Sean Taylor who found a good touch. A quick throw put the ball into the hands of the Malone full back who broke through the Ballymena defence at pace, fed the ball back inside for his second row to cross for a try, which Burns converted to put his side 17-13 ahead.
From the restart Ballymena went on the attack and as Malone’s attempts to keep them out grew more desperate, they were reduced to 13 players as the referee issued two yellow cards. Ballymena were awarded a scrum five metres from the Malone line, and with eight forwards against the opposition’s six, the Ballymena support expected a drive and a push over try. But the referee deemed that the home pack had pushed early, and gave Malone a free kick, which allowed them to clear their lines.
On Wednesday evening under lights Ballymena Fifths defeated UUC in the first round of the Forster Cup by 58 points to 12.
On Saturday the 3rd XV in the same competition defeated Belfast Harlequins 3rd XV by 57 points to 0. The 4th XV will play Instonians 3rd XV in the Forster Cup on Wednesday evening at Shaw’s Bridge.