Ballymena Second XV reached the semi-finals of the Powerade Towns’ Cup after a 39-23 victory over Portadown on Saturday.
Their reward is a match-up against current holders Clogher Valley in the semi-final on March 14.
The Eaton Park men had enjoyed a relatively easy passage in the first two rounds of the competition with victories over Dungannon and Larne.
This week’s opponents were always going to be a tougher proposition, and that’s exactly how it turned out, with the result always in the balance up until the last ten minutes.
Ballymena got off to the perfect start when Tim Small converted a penalty chance in the first couple of minutes, but that lead was cancelled out by Portadown out half Cousins, and when McCrudden was yellow carded for what seemed an innocuous tackle, he put his side three points into the lead with a second penalty.
Ballymena enjoyed dominance in the scrum throughout the game and when they were awarded a penalty after the Portadown front row buckled under the pressure.
Tim Small took a quick tap, made ground and found Callum Patterson, who scythed through the defence to score between the posts. Small converted to set up a 10-6 lead.
Cousins was again successful with the boot to reduce the gap to one point, and when Ballymena lost possession close to the opposition line, Portadown counter-attacked and ran in an eighty metre try, converted by Cousins.
It looked as if Ballymena would go in at the break with a 10-16 deficit, but in the fourth minute of injury time after a period of sustained pressure by the pack, the ball was moved left and Darrell Montgomery finished off the movement in style, beating three defenders on his way to the line.
Patterson converted to make the score at half time 17-16 in Ballymena’s favour.
Portadown started the second half trying to move the ball, but they got no change out of a determined Ballymena defence, and instead conceded the first score of the second half, probably the best score of the game.
Paul Campbell fielded a kick ahead about fifteen metres from his own line and instead of finding touch, chose to put Jonny McMullan into space on the left.
He took the play well into the opposition half, and the support carried the movement on. The ball was moved far out on the right, stretching the Portadown cover. The ball was won far out on the right and a couple of long passes created the space for Campbell to deliver an inside pass to Montgomery to score his second try, converted by Patterson.
He scored and converted Ballymena’s next try to open an eighteen point lead with twelve minutes left on the clock. Any thought of coasting home for the win were dispelled when Portadown mauled over the line for a converted try, cutting the lead back to eleven points.
But it was Ballymena who looked the fitter team and finished the stronger, with second row Chris Smyth making a forty metre break, which appeared to lead to a try, but the referee thought otherwise.
But Ballymena still managed to create a position for James Beattie who sidestepped the tiring Portadown defence to score an unconverted try and leave Ballymena comfortable winners at 39-23.
Meanwhile, Ballymena’s promotion hopes will face their biggest test yet as the Ulster Bank All-Ireland League campaign resumes this Saturday. Andy Graham’s men take on leaders Galwegians at Eaton Park, knowing they can leap-frog their opponents with a win.