Ballymena opened their Ulster Championship League campaign at Eaton Park with the most demanding game in the fixture list, against Division 1A side, Ballynahinch and emerged deserved winners by 31 points to 26. They soon made their intentions clear moving the ball straight from the Ballynahinch kick off and their enterprise was rewarded early with a penalty, converted by out half Richie McMaster. Ballymena had the better of the early exchanges, but were forced to defend against a quick set of Ballynahinch backs, who were also keen to move the ball. But it was Ballymena who made the first decisive thrust after twenty minutes with a Roger McBurney break in mid field. He carved open the defence and finished off with a beautifully timed pass to Callum Patterson who dotted down for a try, converted by McMaster, opening up a ten point lead.
Three minutes late that lead was reduced by the ‘Hinch right wing, Chris Quinn, who kicked the first of his four penalties and before half time he had kicked two more penalties to leave his side trailing by only a single point at the break, 10-9. On another day they might have been satisfied with that position, but they had played the first half with a fairly strong breeze at their backs, which Ballymena would now be able to take advantage of.
Shortly after the resumption ‘Hinch were awarded a scrum and moved the ball left into mid field. A crunching tackle by scrum half Jonny Creighton, a new signing from Malone, forced the centre to spill the ball and quickest to react was Patterson, who gathered the bouncing ball and raced in for his second try of the day. McMaster again converted to make the score 17-9. Chris Quinn, who had a 100% record with the boot, kicked another penalty to reduce the lead to five points at 17-12. Ballymena scored two further tries, capitalising on poor handling by ‘Hinch. The first of these was again by Patterson after a tackle by Matthew Harkness made Hinch cough up the ball. Patterson hacked through, gathered the ball and scored between the posts, leaving McMaster and easy conversion, which opened up a 24-12 lead, halfway through the second half. David Whann added the fourth try, taking an off load from another new signing Paddy Magowan, and outpacing the defence for another try at the posts and another easy conversion for McMaster, who also a prefect kicking record on the day. With fifteen minutes left in the game the 31-12 score line represented a healthy lead, but Ballynahinch showed they were not finished by running in two tries, both of which were converted by Quinn. However, the second of the two tries was scored in the third minute of injury time, which made the score look tighter than it was.
A tremendous start for Ballymena, who handled well all day, and looked secure in all their set pieces, getting the better of ‘Hinch in the scrums for most of the game and winning all their own lineouts, where David Whann, now fully restored to fitness after an injury blighted season, showed how valuable he is. Coach Andy Graham was delighted with his team’s performance, and now has two week to get his team prepared for the first All Ireland League encounter on 12th September against Harlequins at Eaton Park.