Ballymena’s bid for back-to-back All-Ireland League promotions was boosted by a 17-13 win over Belfast Harlequins on Saturday.
At the start of the day seven league places separated these two teams, with Harlequins occupying bottom spot in the Division 1B table, and Ballymena lying second.
However, before Saturday’s game Coach Andy Graham warned against complacency about playing Harlequins, who came into the match with a side bolstered by their Ulster players, as was Ballymena.
His words turned out to be true, as Harlequins enjoyed much the better of the opening exchanges, almost monopolising the ball and testing the Ballymena defence to its limits. That defence has served the team well in the League campaign and again it stood firm, with Marty Irwin and Paddy James sealing up midfield and great work by every member of a hard working pack to halt a succession of Quins attacks.
It was one of the Quins’ Ulster contingent, scrum-half Michael Heaney, who broke the deadlock with a penalty in the 14th minute and that lead was increased by another Ulster development player, full back Rory Scholes. Following a lineout drive by the Quins pack, the ball was released to the backs and after some good interpassing Scholes came in at pace to take an off load from centre Mark Wylie and end up between the Ballymena posts for a try, easily converted by Heaney.
Richie McMaster, who had had bad luck with a couple of long distance efforts, finally found his range and kicked a penalty, but not long after Heaney restored the ten point lead with his second penalty as the half ended with Quins holding a 13-3 lead.
The second half began in much the same way, with Quins attacking but failing to make any real inroads on the Ballymena defence, and slowly but surely the home pack was beginning to assert itself.
But it was a moment of individual brilliance by winger Jordan Foster which put his side on the winning trail. A Quins lineout just inside their own half was routinely won, and the ball put back to scrum half Heaney. His box kick was fielded by Foster who evaded the onrushing chasers and then set off on a forty metre sprint down the right touchline.
He found Matthew Rea in support, and with John Andrew and Dave Shanahan also backing up superbly, the ball was eventually moved left to McMaster who put Stephen Mulholland into a gap for him to race in the last 20 metres to score between the posts. A straightforward conversion by McMaster, and Ballymena were very much back in the game at 13-10.
The rest of the game belonged pretty much to Ballymena, and following a 30 metre line out drive, which took them well into the Quins’ half, the ball was moved left, with Foster coming in behind the centres to find a huge gap and get to within ten metres of the try line. The final pass went astray and the chance appeared to have been lost, but the ball was regathered and Ballymena continued the attack.
Following some good phase play, Shanhan found McMaster who passed to Ricky Andrew. He slipped the ball inside to Sean Taylor, and when he was tackled, Shanahan was on hand to carry on the movement. When Jordan Foster got the ball there was still a lot to do but he weaved his way through the Quins defence to score the winning try in the 76th minute.
McMaster’s successful conversion meant that a penalty was no longer any good for Quins, but the Ballymena pack took over completely, and the rest of the game was played almost on the Quins’ try line.
This win, coupled with a defeat for Galwegians, means that Ballymena are now only one point behind the leaders in the League table.
This week’s opponents are Dublin University, who are on something of a roll, winning their last seven games.
Ballymena Seconds found their Dungannon counterparts much stronger than their 11-try success of earlier in the season, but still ran out 32-17 winners in the Towns’ Cup.
After falling behind, Ballymena went in front from a Matthew Harkness try, converted by Johnny McMullan.
Richard McCrudden stretched the lead with a quick tap-and-go for an uncoverted try before a McMullan penalty and a Dungannon try left the score 15-10 at half-time.
Further tries in the second half from Jonny Rosborough and David Whann sealed Ballymena’s passage.