The Ulster Champions league has this season been split into two sections of five teams, so that Ballymena have only four games to play, dotted throughout the season. To date three of the four games have been played, and with two wins and a draw they sit at the top of the table. The draw came from Saturday’s game in Belfast against Malone, and coach Andy Graham declared himself reasonably happy with a draw against a determined opposition which, with only fifteen minutes to go, had a ten point advantage.
Ballymena started brightly enough and missed a couple of scoring chances, while the closest Malone came to crossing the line came when their prop intercepted a pass into a crowded midfield and set off at a gallop towards the line, only to be hauled down by Richie McMaster just metres short. Good work by the pack retrieved that situation and the game continued in the same mode towards half time, with neither side able to make any inroads against the opposition defence. If anything, Malone were the more direct as the Ballymena attacks were too lateral and lacked any kind of a cutting edge.
No surprise, then, that the game remained scoreless at half time and it took a poor decision by the Ballymena right wing who decided to run the ball out of defence metres from his own line and was caught in possession by Malone to break the deadlock. It took a couple of phases but they eventually drove across the Ballymena line for a try and a conversion, to open up a seven point lead, which not long afterwards became a ten point lead when an odd decision by the referee saw Connor Smyth yellow carded and Malone kicking the penalty that resulted.
In the second half the introduction of Rodger McBurney into the fray had a tremendous impact on Ballymena’s fortunes, as he time and again ran the ball out of defence and inevitably was on the end of a superb move to finish off with a try which Kieran Joyce converted to make the score 10-7. By this stage the conditions overhead and underfoot had deteriorated and made constructive rugby extremely difficult, but it was Ballymena who made most of the running in the latter stages of the game. Their efforts were rewarded with a penalty which Joyce converted to make the score ten points each. Andy Graham was pleased with the performance of his reshuffled side and of the players drafted in who were making their first start at this level, but will be glad to get back to the serious business of the All Ireland League on Saturday, when Ballymena entertain Buccaneers in the twelfth game of the campaign. In the corresponding away fixture in November they had to work very hard for a one point victory in Athlone, so there is no doubt that they will face a stiff challenge.