The importance of the occasion in the promotion stakes was clearly not lost on both sides as they both struggled to put together any kind of coherent passages of play in an error strewn first half. The conditions, steady rain and a greasy surface, didn’t lend themselves to any kind of expansive rugby, and that was reflected in the first half scoring, with Ballymena going into the break leading by two David O’Hara penalties to one by UCC full back Sean Murphy. If anything, Ballymena had the better of the early exchanges and enjoyed territorial advantage, but they were unable to turn this into tries. In the first half neither side really threatened their opponent’s line, and the 6-3 half time lead that Ballymena had built up was a fair enough reflection of the balance of play.
However, UCC came into the second period of the game a changed team and began to dominate a strangely lethargic Ballymena side. The absence of Andrew Warwick and Bryan Young in the front row was beginning to tell, and the UCC scrum dominated the second half. The result was that neither scrum half David Shanahan nor No. 8 Adrian Hamilton had anything to work with, and the backs continually found themselves on the back foot. Even the lineouts, which had been a feature of Ballymena’s game throughout the season, began to fall apart, so primary possession virtually dried up in the second half.
Four minutes into the second half UCC equalised with another Murphy penalty, and ten minutes later Willie McKay, trying to stem the constant pressure, was yellow carded, and Murphy again kicked the penalty for a 9-6 lead. Ballymena responded when O’Hara levelled the score with another penalty straight from the kick off to bring the scores level, but that was more or less the end of any serious resistance from them. A misdirected kick ahead allowed UCC to counter attack and set up a series of driving mauls at the Ballymena line, which were bravely defended by the Ballymena pack, but when the ball was moved wide winger Conor Barry was put clear and went over for try, to put his side 14-9 ahead. Murphy missed the conversion, so at that stage Ballymena were still in bonus point territory, but when he kicked his fourth penalty of the day to put his side 17-9 ahead, even that small consolation was snatched from Ballymena’s grasp.
There is still the mathematical possibility of promotion, but for that happen Derry have to beat UCC down in Cork – not an easy task- and Ballymena have to win well against Barnhall on 12th April at Eaton Park.