Ballymena have been involved in a number of close finishes this season, and they have mostly worked out in their favour, but the dramatic conclusion to Saturday’s AIL game against Trinity in Dublin saw them lose out to the last kick of the game and sacrifice their second spot in the Division 1B table. The losing bonus point is scant consolation to a team which had given everything in the course of the eighty plus minutes, only to see what would have been a hard fought win snatched from their grasp a the death.
Trinity served notice of their intentions early on, running the ball from the kick off, but as has been the case this season, they got little change from the Ballymena midfield of Marty Irwin and Paddy James, who in turn found their Trinity counterparts pretty solid in defence. Exchanges for most of the first half were even, and the closest either side came to scoring was when Ballymena drove a lineout almost to the opposition line, only for the referee to decide that the ball had been held up and award a five metre scrum, which ended up with Trinity being awarded a penalty and clearing the danger. However, it was Ballymena who opened the score after fourteen minutes with a Richie McMaster penalty, which was cancelled out by a similar effort from Trinity full back Conor Kearns. McMaster restored the Ballymena lead with another penalty in the twenty fourth minute, but three minutes later Trinity were awarded a penalty in a kickable position, but opted for the lineout to set up a catch and drive. It worked perfectly and Ballymena were unable to stop the surge, conceding a try, which was not converted to open up an 8-3 lead. The highlight of the first half was Ballymena’s riposte in the form of a beautifully worked try, with Sean Taylor taking the final pass from Ricky Andrew and dotting down in the left corner after a period of sustained pressure from the Ballymena pack, led once again by a totally committed Mike McComish. McMaster’s conversion from wide out completed the first half scoring, with Ballymena leading 13-8.
In a very physical game, both sides continued to attack when the opportunities arose, with Ballymena having the better of the things in the third quarter, and their superiority was rewarded with another McMaster penalty to stretch the lead to 16-8. Shortly afterwards a yellow card reduced Ballymena to fourteen men, and Trinity took advantage of this and were awarded a penalty, which Kearns converted to reduce the visitors lead to five points. Despite pressure from Trinity, that slender lead seemed to be enough and dogged resistance stopped a wave of attacks in the final quarter. But with the eighty minutes gone and three minutes into injury time, Trinity pressure finally told and they finally crossed the Ballymena line half way out on the right to tie the scores at 16 – 16. The conversion by full back Cairns was the last kick of the game, and Ballymena lost by 16-18.
Coach Andy Graham was full of praise for his team, who certainly left nothing behind on the Trinity pitch, and was convinced that Ballymena had scored one close range try and possibly a second that the referee disallowed. That loss sees Ballymena drop to fourth place in the table, with the same number of league points as Trinity but with a slightly inferior points difference. With six games of the AIL campaign to go, there is everything still to play for.