This was the fourth time that Ballymena and Malone had met this season, with Malone holding a slight advantage, having won two of the three previous encounters. However, having beaten their opponents comprehensively in the Ulster League a couple of weeks previously, Ballymena travelled to Gibson Park confident of the win that was needed to keep them in touch with the league leaders. But conditions on the day, with a strong wind blowing straight down the pitch and driving rain, were always going to make fast, open rugby virtually impossible and that is how it turned out.
Both sides found it difficult to put anything together in the opening stages and the major talking point in the first twenty minutes was the series of scrums on the Malone line which referee Jonny Peake presided over. Despite the fact that Ballymena drove the Malone scrum backwards time after time, he allowed nine scrums to take place, awarding Ballymena four penalties against the Malone pack. The idea of a penalty try never entered his head, and the ten minutes of the game taken up by those nine scrums and four penalties ended with a penalty against Ballymena, which let Malone clear their lines. It took a penalty by out half Ritchie McMaster in the thirty second minute to open Ballymena’s account, and the same player was on hand to convert Ballymena’s only try of the game. That was finished off by Marty Irwin, but it began with a great run out of defence by Dominic Gallagher, and the same player stole the ball from the Malone forwards right on the try line. He moved the ball to the right to Paddy James who in turn put Irwin over for the try. The conversion brought the half time score to 13-0.
Conditions by this stage had worsened, so it became even more difficult to put the phases together, and any periods of pressure that Malone had were easily enough dealt with by a determined Ballymena defence. With fifteen minutes to go Burns kicked a penalty to reduce the arrears, and the converted try that brought Malone level was more a product of the conditions than any constructive ideas from Malone. The Ballymena scrum had been dominant throughout, but with three minutes to go they lost control of the ball and the Malone back row hacked it down field. Full back Sean Taylor, who was covering, slid into the upright at some speed and the ball bounced into the Ballymena in goal area where a Malone player got to it first, leaving Burns an easy conversion and tying the score at 10-10.
To their credit, Ballymena refused to settle for the draw and went back on the attack. After a series of phases they worked a position for Richie McMaster in the seventh minute of injury time, and he struck the ball beautifully to send it between the posts for his first dropped goal of the season to pull off the win and the four points.
That hard fought victory did not improve Ballymena’s league position, as the other three top four teams also won. Garryowen lying second, are the visitors to Eaton Park on Saturday – a vital game for both sides.