Ballymena 13 Malone 17
Ballymena had not fared well against Malone in recent encounters, but hopes were high that this cup semi-final would see a reversal of that losing streak. On a mild November day with not a breath of wind, 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 at this stage, and throughout the eighty 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.
With both sides attacking at pace and defending strongly, penalties were inevitable, and when Malone were awarded one on the halfway line out-half Neil Burns found a good touch on the right. From the lineout they 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 and easy conversion.
Twenty four minutes into the first half 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 leaving the score still 10-3 in their favour at the break.
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 forty 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.
With the home side playing mostly in Malone territory, that slender 13-10 lead looked as if it might be enough, but Malone were still willing to attack when the opportunity arose. A Malone kick ahead was fielded by Sean Taylor who found a good touch in the opposition half. 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 in the lead by 17-13.
From the restart Ballymena went on the attack and as Malone’s attempts to keep them out grew more desperate, they were reduced to thirteen players as the referee issued two yellow cards. In the closing minutes 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, whose refereeing of the scrum had been interesting throughout, deemed that the home pack had pushed early, and gave Malone a free kick, which allowed them to clear their lines. That was effectively that – Ballymena tried their utmost for the few remaining minutes, but couldn’t break their opponents down.
Final score: Ballymena 13 Malone 17
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